To learn to box, Husna only needs a small, dimly lit room. In the Rwanga refugee camp (a few kilometers from Erbil), where he lives, there is no gym. For an hour a day, she and her friends transform the makeshift refuge into a very personal sports club. The Boxing Sisters project aims to improve the physical and mental health of refugees through boxing. Lotus Flower, a British non-profit organization, launched the project in 2018. The NGO works in camps for displaced people in northern Iraq and is dedicated to restoring strength and confidence to women who have been traumatized by conflict. who have lost their loved ones in war, or who have witnessed or suffered violence, including of a sexual nature. The women of the Rwanga refugee camp have a very similar experience. About 15 thousand people, mostly belonging to the Yazidi religious minority, have populated the structure since 2014. They are families who have had to leave their homes in the face of the inexorable advance of the Islamic Caliphate. When ISIS attacked Sinjar (in northwestern Iraq), Husna, now 23, and her family could not help but flee. “At seven in the morning, my uncle received a message from a relative of ours who lives in another village – says the girl – they told him that the militiamen were headed for our homes and that we had to leave immediately. When I try to remember those days, my heart starts beating so hard that I have a hard time breathing. ”
Memories still haunt her in Rwanga today. In this field, every single woman is haunted by traumatic moments of terrible violence and the disappearance of some loved one. As time goes by, an increasing number of women try to leave creepy nightmares behind. Husna and her other friends have chosen boxing. The fact that the sport is still male-dominated does not prevent Yazidi girls from learning extraordinary personal empowerment skills and, more importantly, enjoying each other’s company in a supportive team. Beyond that, as Yazidi women and girls exposed to the horror of sexual violence, Husna and her teammates know very well the vital benefits of self-defense techniques. It didn’t take long for boxing classes to become their favorite activity. The British Cathy Brown, former world boxing champion, fervently involved in the project, gave them a hand. Cathy promotes boxing as a therapeutic tool that strengthens and restores confidence. He started with some experimental courses in London, then in 2018 he visited Rwanga refugee camp and trained Husna and other Yazidi girls for three weeks. The project has been well received and has grown. Dozens of refugees enrolled in subsequent courses. Cathy and her staff soon recognized Husna’s talent, and after a year of daily practice, the young woman became an instructor herself.
On his TikTok account, he often posts videos of training sessions. In the videos, she and the students train at the bag, attack and stand guard, scream and laugh. “I feel like I have a second family here. We have all experienced similar adversities, and that brings us closer, as if we were sisters,” she says, acknowledging that many girls have improved in physical and mental health thanks to boxing. Exercise keeps them in a good mood and wards off bad thoughts of imprisonment and violence. However, Husna believes that the future prospects are somewhat worrying. His family is thinking of returning to the village of Sinjar and starting a new life from scratch. “There is nothing left – he complains -. There are no schools or universities. It is not a safe place, indeed, in reality it has never been a place to cultivate peace and serenity”.
The location of the Yazidis is located at a strategic crossroads between Syria, Turkey and Iraq and has always been a battlefield. Yazidism is a monotheistic religion, whose origin is disputed for the accentuated esotericism of its doctrines, which allow only initiates to access its most authentic core. Perhaps for these reasons it is used as a pretext to demonize practitioners and make them targets. Although the presence of ISIS has been wiped out from Sinjar for a couple of years, bombs continue to fall on villages and kill civilians. In recent months, Turkish airstrikes have reportedly resulted in the deaths of at least 15 civilians. The self-defense skills Husna has acquired through boxing are unlikely to protect her from bombs falling from the sky.
“My family will not be able to live forever in the refugee camp.” Husna is aware of this, however she does not know how she will make her dreams come true in Sinjar. The recurring violence has prevented a semblance of redevelopment of the area. The war caused severe damage to infrastructure, and ISIS militiamen stole the personal effects and livestock of the villagers, razing all the houses to the ground. With the Turkish bombing and occasional military operations, the prospects for development and stability remain uncertain. Rwanga camp has never been a permanent home for Husna and the Boxing Sisters. Still, the short period of stability that life has provided has been invaluable. Husna finished her education in sports science and became a boxing coach. Other boxing sisters have acquired new skills. Strength and confidence have increased so much that girls can help other women in need. But until the city of Sinjar is safe, Husna’s talents and ambitions will be in mortal danger, in a kind of insidious dance straddling the rubble and ropes of a ring.