"Anyone who lives in Iraq must be under a lot of pressure in terms of their mental health — going through so much stress,” says 33-year-old Maisam, a widowed mother of five. “For me and the community here, we have gone through difficult times and still are.”
In the midst of the chaos caused by the 2003 war, Maisam moved her family from the big, bustling city of Baghdad to the small, conservative town of Hawija, where the stark difference in her day-to-day life would prove a major detriment to her mental health and well-being.
“There is nothing for us to do,” laments Maisam. “There are no parks, no public places for us to be. The children live as though they are in prison, there is nothing new. I know that it’s not like this everywhere,” she continues, “because it’s not like this in Baghdad. Here, I feel like I am in a cemetery for people who are still alive. People are kind, but we cannot be outside. Our children are only in the house or in school, nowhere else.”
The social isolation experienced by many displacement-affected people can be profound and intensely disruptive. “I do not have anything in common with other women in the community. I feel like I am from a different community, a different country, even. I have different principles and a different way of life or personality. More social activities together could bring us closer, of course, but I feel like I am in a tiny space and cannot breathe,” Maisam says of her life in Hawija.
Despite the psychological weight of needing to provide for her family as a single woman in a conservative community with limited economic opportunities, all while feeling deeply alone, Maisam endeavored to open a small grocery store; but struggling to manage both the store and her mental health, she joined activities under IOM Iraq’s integrated mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) and livelihood (MLI) project.
After receiving a small grant to support her business, Maisam also participated in MHPSS awareness and skills-building sessions — a combination aimed at empowering participants to build social, life and other soft skills, as well as coping-mechanisms to manage work-related psychosocial challenges and stressors, thereby strengthening their ability to engage in livelihood activities in a healthy and productive way.
“What helped me was learning about planning and keeping track of my time. This helps me today as I run my business. I also use what I learned when I communicate with my customers,” Maisam explains. “In life, if you have money, you can live; without money, you cannot live easily here. The livelihood project gave me money and the resources to earn money. The MHPSS sessions opened my eyes to having motivation and a sense of value as a person — not everything is dark, there is light as well.”
IOM Iraq’s MLI programming has supported Maisam in turning things around: “Before the sessions, I felt blank. All doors around me were closed. I felt depressed. Now I am different, I am more active, and I engage more with myself, my children and my work,” she says. “I knew I needed more knowledge, so I joined additional sessions with Mustafa [the facilitator], who helped us broaden our minds and think more about who we are. I gained confidence from the sessions, so I wanted to go back.”
Maisam tells us, “Despite the situation I went through, I have peace within myself because I have ambitions. I am okay now; I believe in myself — the sessions changed that for me.”
She has even become more optimistic about connecting with other women in her community. “I also want to come to the center to meet more women and have a space for my children to play,” she expresses. “The sessions motivated me to work more with my community, to know more and be more open. I have peace within myself.”
For more on MLI, please click here.
These activities were made possible thanks to support from the Government New Zealand.