Category: CCAS Newsmagazine, News

Title: Dispatches: Life Beyond the Borders

Author: by Shano Mohammed
Date Published: August 16, 2023


Shano during her field research conducting interviews with displaced Iraqis as part of an IOM-GU joint study

I was born in March 1991, at the back of a lorry carrying nearly 100 women and children fleeing the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime. My life started amid the Kurdish
uprising in Iraq, during which my family sought refuge in the Kurdish region of neighboring Iran. Being born under these circumstances, in war-torn, conflict-ridden, indeed blood-soaked Kurdistan, shaped my life and colored my personality in ways that I continue to discover every day.

My mother was forced into a marriage at the age of twelve, to an older man, who abused her for sport. My faint memory of home is of the recurring cries, screams, aches, and pains of mother and daughters abused by father and brother, while outside the confines of my so-called home, everyday life teemed with loud explosions and airstrikes. Everyone seemed to proceed with their ordinary lives, but I could not.

As a female in a Muslim Kurdish family from the historically-disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk I became acutely aware of the injustices that constantly surrounded me. I also became critical of the ultranationalism and religious zealotry that was forced down my throat from my early childhood education onwards. The possibility of a different way of life, wherein we all cherish our humanity and accept our differences, became my life pursuit. In that pursuit, I developed a voracious love of reading. I read everything within my reach. Perhaps this was because of the words that my mother often recited, almost like a sacred prayer: “Look at me, you don’t want to be like me, your education is everything, go study and be something, be someone.”

As I was preparing to attend university in 2011, Iraq was undergoing yet another bloody war. I was accepted to the University of Mosul, the epicenter of numerous regional conflicts. Fortunately, I was able to transfer to university in Kirkuk. Had I not, I may have shared the fate of many in Mosul who were murdered or kidnapped. My Mosul-to-Kirkuk education as an engineer was formative. Training as a scientist drove me to seek science-based solutions. However, from my own experiences with conflict, I know that the response to individuals and communities in conflict must go beyond science.

I believe the plagues and uncertainties of war, require highly-educated and skilled women to take responsibility and facilitate a transition to peace and stability. As such, in January 2016, I joined the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Being a part of IOM’s Iraq Mission during and after the crisis inflicted upon the region by ISIL helped me put my personal experiences into context. I learned how to better articulate the needs of conflict victims on the ground, by considering both scientific logic and the humanity of these victims.

I had often pondered what life was like beyond the borders of the war-torn country we called our homeland…what life looked like for those not born into war. Upon arriving in the United States for graduate school, the answers to these pressing questions began to appear before me. When I first walked the streets of Washington D.C., in the front of my mind were all the little girls back home who had been traumatized at the hands of foreign forces in the name of “saving,” or by their own families in the name of “honor.”

I was also trying to process my reality as a Kurdish girl from a non-state nation, destined to remain a foreigner regardless of destination. Then, on a morning walk through Columbia Heights, I happened upon a banner hung across a city wall that read in colorful bold letters, “You don’t know what it’s like to finally find a place where you belong.” In a truly meaningful sense, while I was still a foreigner at that moment, I did feel as though I belonged. For the very first time in my life, walking under a sky clear of airstrikes, I was finally able to listen to Fairouz without the obstructive sound of bombs. No longer was I bleeding from decades of war.

Now, at the Georgetown Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, I continue to cultivate a better understanding of culturally-adequate solutions to gender inequality in the Arab world. In the course of my study at Georgetown, I intend to directly engage stakeholders across genders and ethnicities to craft solutions, thereby expanding the will for growth in my country. Under the M.A.A.S. banner, I hope to contribute to effective capacity-building in Kurdistan, in order to move away from the victim-perpetrator dyad and effectively deal with the aftermath of the many regional wars.


Shano Mohammed is a rising second-year student in the MAAS program.