When 38-year-old Athraa returned home to Hawija after four years in an IDP camp, she found her path forward littered with obstacles. To make ends meet amidst limited economic opportunities, she opened a small shop selling scarves, makeup and children’s clothes out of her home. She soon received start-up support from IOM Iraq’s livelihoods programme.
As a divorced mother of three, Athraa struggled to support her children in Hawija’s conservative social landscape. Cornered by social pressures — indeed, opinions abound on what is acceptable for her to do, how she should raise her children, whether it is appropriate for her to run her own business — Athraa’s mental well-being suffered, creating negative ripple effects impacting virtually every area of her life.
“I was depressed,” says Athraa. “I felt that I could not improve how I was or how I felt. I was not confident in myself.”
She continues, “My child would get ill, and to take her to the hospital, I had to beg for money from immediate family, relatives and others. That affected my mental health in a bad way and made me feel useless — that I couldn’t do anything right.” These effects spilled over into her relationship with her children: “I used to have a short temper; whenever my children would say anything, I would shout.”
When IOM Iraq offered mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) services alongside the livelihood intervention that Athraa was receiving— part of IOM’s MHPSS and Livelihood Integration (MLI) approach, aimed at helping individuals build coping and stress management mechanisms to apply at work and in other settings — Athraa signed up. This joint programming provided her not only with a small grant to support her business, but also with an opportunity to attend a series of MHPSS awareness and peer-support group sessions.
“I had no confidence in myself at first, and I saw that the sessions could boost my confidence, so I was keen to come also to have a better chance to make my business successful,” Athraa explains.
“After the MHPSS sessions, I feel completely new. The money I get from the livelihoods project may not be much, but it is useful, and the sessions have helped me stay more positive and taught me how to push myself to be better. I no longer ask for support from others, I can now support myself and my family,” she says in triumph. “The business [assistance] has helped me support my children to go to school or the hospital, and the sessions made me feel good about myself and [encouraged me] to work hard for a positive benefit and business.”
Participating in the MLI programming has also helped Athraa to mindfully navigate prevalent attitudes toward the role of women in the area. “I learned how to depend on myself, to not feel ashamed. In Hawija, women who work are seen as bad. I learned how to fight that stereotype and fight for my rights,” says Athraa. “People think that women should just be inside, but we cannot.”
Reflecting on times she urgently needed money and had to ask for support, Athraa tells us: “My community used to direct me to work only in sewing or cooking, and I was confused about what would be good for me. In the end, I did the store. I have a younger sister and did not face problems from my family, but the community always put me down, made me feel low. It took my personality away. Through the
[MHPSS] sessions, I learned that it is normal for others to tell you what to do in our community, but that you have to believe in yourself and decide for yourself what is best for you and your family in your situation. That was very good for me. Even when I opened the business, the community immediately started to tell me this was not good. Without the sessions, I would have gotten very angry and sad, but after each session I always remembered what I learned and stayed positive.”
When it comes to MHPSS in her community, Athraa says, “There is a lot of need. The community is putting shame on those who need MHPSS, saying that we should respect our husbands and just take care of our children. Men control women, even boys sometimes control women. We need more awareness. With these sessions, we start to try and change our attitudes towards mental health and ourselves. The more we know about it, the better we can help ourselves.”
In response to this need, “IOM should repeat the sessions for others, especially for women with perceived affiliation or those who have controlling family members, women who are looking after a sick family member and are the main breadwinner in their family,” she suggests. “They need both MHPSS and livelihoods [support] because they are going through difficult times and are mentally tired.”
Asked about how she has changed since participating in IOM Iraq’s MLI programming, Athraa tells us she sees a “Huge difference — I can control myself; I believe in myself; I try not to listen to people’s negative thoughts. I am completely different now.” For more on MLI, please click here.
These activities were made possible thanks to support from the Government of New Zealand.