Cathy Free
Samira Harnish, left, founded Utah's "Women of the World Foundation" and now receives volunteer help from Reja Modlam, who immigrated from Iraq.

SALT LAKE CITY – On Mother’s Day, you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of women more deserving of rose-and-carnation bouquets than the mothers Samira Harnish admires.

They’ve survived wars and famine, kidnappings and rape. Almost all know what it is like to lose somebody they love: husbands, fathers, daughters and sons.

“They have given up more than you can imagine,” says Harnish, “and all to give their children a chance at a better life. They’ve given up their homes, their jobs and everything they own to come to a country far from family, where they don’t speak the language and don’t know the customs.”

This is the second Mother’s Day that Harnish, an Iraqi immigrant and former engineer, has honored dozens of refugee moms with a luncheon and flowers to celebrate their courage and thank them for their sacrifices.

Harnish, 46, who immigrated to the United States as a teenager 32 years ago, gave up her own job recently to start Salt Lake City’s Women of the World Foundation, a non-profit charity that helps female refugees from all countries to adapt to new lives full of freedoms but fraught with obstacles.

Many of the women she helps have advanced degrees and made comfortable salaries in their homeland but are unable to pursue similar careers in Utah because of language barriers and different educational requirements.

“So to pay the bills, they have to start from scratch and work as housekeepers,” she says, “and for somebody who is already accomplished, that can be difficult. I tell them, ‘Look at all you survived to bring your children here — you can do this.’ One of the most important things we can do is give these women some confidence.”

Hoping to get the word out about how to help our new neighbors who have fled bad situations in countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Harnish wanted to meet over a Free Lunch of veggie pizza during a break at her office with Reja Modlam, a recent immigrant from Iraq who now helps teach women refugees how to drive and learn the etiquette of a new country.

Modlam, 48, who fled Iraq with her four youngest children after her husband was kidnapped and she was beaten, once owned a hair salon in the heart of Baghdad. When her family escaped to Syria then immigrated to Utah three years ago, one of the first people she met was Harnish, who was volunteering as an interpretor at the time.

“She helped me get on my feet again and showed me how to get around town, get things for my apartment and find a good doctor,” says Modlam, who is a survivor of thyroid cancer. “It was overwhelming, because life is so different here. Now that I’m settled, I want to help make it easier for other women going through the same challenges.”

Women of the World’s mission is broad, “because so are women’s dreams,” says Harnish. She and other volunteers do everything from stocking apartment kitchens with pots and pans to teaching English classes and holding workshops on how to apply for jobs and use public transportation.

Every spring, they encourage new refugees to participate in a fashion show of cultural styles from the Middle East and Africa as a way to hold on to past traditions and meet other women who have given up everything to protect their families.

“Even after running from wars and living for months or years in refugee camps, they still want to be seen as beautiful,” says Harnish. “And they are all beautiful, each in her unique way. So many of these women were pushed down and didn’t have a voice in the countries they came from. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping them to find their own voices.”

Mother’s Day is a new concept to many, especially those from impoverished African nations.

“They are so surprised and happy to find out that we have a day of honor,” she says. But at Women of the World, “of course, every day is Mother’s Day.”

More information can be found at womenofworld.org.

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column for the Deseret News since 1999, believing everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.