Changemakers: How boxing is giving refugee women a fighting chance

The Lotus Flower is a charity supporting women displaced by violence in northern Iraq with a training schedule of sewing, hairdressing, human rights...and boxing

Fighting as a pastime in a region that wrestles with conflict might seem counter-intuitive. But the women involved are throwing punches for their right to lives lived beyond rudimentary refugee camps. From London, Taban Shoresh founded The Lotus Flower, a charity supporting women displaced by violence in northern Iraq. “The ‘why’ was so strong in me that I didn’t even worry about the ‘how’,” she says, reflecting on the 2016 launch.

The charity gives women an education and lessons in sewing, hairdressing, human rights. And boxing. “Some of the women there lost family to the violence; many are victims of rape, sexual slavery and abduction,” says Shoresh, 35. “Their freedom of movement is restricted and they have next to no protection against sexual violence.”

The former digital marketing manager shares a story similar to that of the women she helps: she is a survivor of genocide. Before her family’s escape from Saddam Hussein’s grip in 1980s Kurdistan, the young Shoresh was imprisoned alongside her mother and paternal grandparents. They came chillingly close to a mass live burial when undercover members of the Kurdish resistance said: “Disappear or pretend that you’re dead. If you’re caught again, you will be killed instantly.”

What followed was a year on the move, Shoresh and her mother dodging between different villages and hideouts before they were smuggled into Iran for safety. Her father, a Kurdish freedom fighter, survived a poisoning attempt by Hussein’s spies which led to his seeking refuge with Amnesty International and reuniting with Shoresh and her relatives in the UK in 1988. The family built a “somewhat normal” life for themselves and a relatively uneventful childhood for Shoresh.

She navigated a successful career as a digital project manager at an asset management firm, but couldn’t shake a persistent sense of longing to do more. In 2014 she spoke as a genocide survivor in the House of Lords for Remembrance Day, the first time she had told her story publicly, and the experience triggered something of an existential crisis. That same year, when Isis took hold in Iraq, she felt compelled to drop everything and volunteer her help, working on the front line with the Rwanga Foundation in Iraq, where she built schools and camps for those displaced by the conflict. When Shoresh returned to London 15 months later, she “couldn’t adjust to a normal life again” and decided she had to devote her work to supporting women impacted by conflict in the region.

The project began in Iraqi Kurdistan where 3,000 Yazidi families lived in the Rwanga refugee camp after being forced to flee Isis violence. There, men gathered in cafes and fostered friendships with others in their communities. “What we’d noticed is that there’s nothing for women and girls to do outside of their tents and cabins,” Shoresh says. “There are no places for them to just gather and learn. That makes safe social spaces crucial.”

The Lotus Flower creates community centres for them that provide programmes in education, personal safety and employablility skills. They are taught sewing and hairdressing, practical skills they can use to earn a living in the longer-term. These programmes are coupled with lessons in how to manage money and prepare for financial independence. One of the most popular services on offer by the charity is a human rights programme.

“We teach women that have never been to school,” says Shoresh, detailing The Lotus Flower’s adult literacy courses. “They’re 60 years old and they’re desperate to learn. Back home, they’d never had access to any kind of education.”

Perhaps most revolutionary for the area is Shoresh’s move to introduce boxing to the women in the Rwanga camp. “I wanted to find a constructive way for them to work on their wellbeing,” she said, “and they don’t have access to structured exercise.” That’s when she heard about Cathy Brown, a retired professional boxer and certified cognitive behavioural therapist whose academy Boxology focuses on boxing and wellbeing. The two teamed up to create the programme Boxing Sisters. “They get to channel their emotion and it builds their confidence. Physically and mentally. You see the change in the women so quickly,” Shoresh says. Only 15 women, all at the Rwanga centre, are on the first incarnation of the programme. It’s a deliberate move, largely because women boxing is “very new” to the region and Shoresh is careful to lead the charity with cultural sensitivity.

It’s also, however, because they’re training new recruits. The Lotus Flower centres always look to hire from the communities they serve, and they want these women to go on to qualify as boxing trainers themselves. Like the other support put on by Shoresh and her team, there’s a focus on independence and sustainable livelihood. Shoresh resolutely believes that women and girls are powerful drivers of change who can transform communities. But funding is what turns passion into activism, she says.

Despite donors gradually moving out of the region, the charity is ploughing ahead – there are early plans to set up social enterprise cafes for women in the camps to work and socialise in. Nearly 5,000 women have been supported by The Lotus Flower since its launch less than three years ago. Shoresh tries not to get lost in numbers: she’s busy looking to open a fourth centre in Bangladesh.

Interview: Hannah Westwater