Syracuse University Magazine

Sahar Alnouri '01

Working with the Women of Iraq

women of basraSahar Alnouri (on right, top photo) facilitates a focus group discussion with women in Basra, Iraq.

sahar alnouri

When Sahar Alnouri sits at her desk to work and catch up on e-mail, she often hears gunfire and explosions. At the end of 12-hour workdays, she retires to a bedroom in the same building. She stays away from the market, avoids restaurants, and never travels anywhere after dark. She has grown accustomed to life in a compound in the Red Zone of Baghdad, Iraq. 

Alnouri works as a gender program manager for Mercy Corps, an international nongovernmental organization based in Portland, Oregon, which aims to aid the most vulnerable members of society in countries with great need. From her home base at the Mercy Corps compound in Baghdad, she oversees literacy courses, lectures on democracy, and other women's empowerment activities that reach more than 15,000 women throughout Iraq. "Gender work in Iraq is about looking at the relationship between men and women in communities, having a conversation with both groups about how things are and how things might be better, and doing it all within the context of Islam," she says. 

Alnouri, who earned a bachelor's degree in newspaper journalism and political science at SU, was disappointed by the media coverage of the Middle East after 9/11. "It really struck me that what was happening was huge in terms of the way the U.S. was interacting with the Middle East, with Arabs, and with the Islamic world," she says. Instead of struggling to report objectively on issues involving the Middle East, she decided to focus her passion on helping people in places of conflict. As an Arab American of Kuwaiti descent, Alnouri identifies with the struggles of Iraqi women. "I could have been any one of these women I'm helping," she says. "A couple of small changes in my family's history, and I could have very easily been an illiterate woman in Basra." 

Since Alnouri arrived in Iraq in February 2009, she has traveled to Basra and Kirkuk to speak with small groups of Iraqi women about their lives and ways to improve Mercy Corps programs. In Basra, she spoke with seven women in the final stage of a Mercy Corps 21-month literacy program. She asked if any of them had noticed changes in how their families treated them since they started learning. "Because I was illiterate, when my daughter asked for help, I couldn't help her," said a 32-year-old woman, speaking in Arabic. "But now I can." Later, Alnouri asked the women if they would like to be able to communicate their biggest needs to community leaders. "Because we are the women, we have many things that we need that the men don't think about," said a 22-year-old in Arabic. "The parks—men don't think about public spaces for children to play. Electricity—that will help us go out of the house after dark."   

In July, Alnouri was invited to a roundtable discussion in Baghdad about reconciliation in Iraq with Vice President Joe Biden L'68, U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill, and General Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. As the only female participating in the discussion, Alnouri offered her thoughts about development and security in Iraq and talked about Mercy Corps' efforts in Iraqi communities. "I highlighted that it is the Iraqi people themselves who do a lot of the work, take ownership of projects and work for peace and stability," she wrote in a blog post about the meeting. 

Alnouri plans to stay in Baghdad until at least July, but she is unsure of what will come next. "It's work," she says. "It's a job and it's hard and tiring and frustrating. But you have those wonderful, great days where you can see the change happening in a person, or you can see that the way you've realigned a program is really going to make a difference. And those days get you through the hard days."Tory Marlin