Fern Holland and Salwa Ali Oumashi I first met Fern in July at Camp Babylon. She had arrived on a military convoy from Al Kut. Her first admires, were the U.S. Marines, all of them. Salwa joined us in August as a Program Manager, moving from Baghdad. Salwa, a single Iraqi woman, would take the job, but wanted an apartment of her own in Al Hillah. We knew we found, someone who was independent and committed. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Bob Zangas. Prior to joining the Coalition Provisional Authority, he was U.S. Marine officer and liberated Al Kut, a city Fern and Salwa would visit often. Fern and Salwa never met a Marine, they didn’t admire.
Fern, Salwa and Bob were employees with CPA in South Central Iraq. They were some of the many selfless individuals working in a post-war Iraq to bring about change, by giving tirelessly of themselves to the Iraqi people.
Fern and Salwa had a vision and determination to support Shiite moderates - women and human rights leaders; to help them organize, learn about democracy, and be prepared for elections. With the arrival of coalition forces, Shiites living in Southern Iraq, would soon be faced with elections, at the national and local level. There were moderate leaders, but few were trained on organizing, democracy, or how to run for office. Considerable capacity and training was needed, to strengthen them to balance the fundamentalist. The support and experience provided by Fern, Salwa and CPA would be critical, to achieving a successful transition.
To that end, Fern and Salwa learned much from the people they were there to help. They observed the current state of Shiite civil society and campaign activities of political parties. They traveled daily throughout the region, meeting with small groups of women and human rights leaders. Many of these meetings took place in looted and burned buildings and with temperatures approaching 130 degrees. The first meetings began with stories of life under Saddam - torture, killings, missing relatives and rape. Each had their own story. Salwa was the conscience of Iraqi women, translating the unspoken, observing the unseen and advocating for a greater sense of urgency.
The Iraqis Fern and Salwa met, told them, they would be taking a considerable risk for being politically active, and having a relationship with CPA. They wanted a commitment. In their first meeting, they got just that, from Fern and Salwa.
Fern and Salwa worked with local coalition commanders, to identify former Baath Party buildings to establish centers for women, human rights and democracy; where educational programs, income generating activities and internet would be available.
Over the next several months, in each provincial capital, centers would open for women, human rights and democracy activities. Eighteen centers in all will be opened across Southern Iraq in the next few months.
Fern and Salwa’s vision for a post-war Iraq was beginning to take shape, as their work, was successfully introducing Iraqis to the principles of democracy, and with the help of many organizations represented here today. Iraqis were responding. It seemed for the first time, there was a growing excitement about Iraq’s future.
Fern and Salwa took risks. As the centers were completed, ribbon cutting ceremonies arranged and dignitaries visited, the visibility and risk increased. With their successes and shifting political timelines, they knew they needed to move quickly. While traveling with them last year, the police checkpoints we daily passed were signs Iraqis were taking responsibility for their security. And this was encouraging.
In October, Fern and Salwa organized a women’s conference, at the University of Babylon for 150 women from 6 provinces. They worked with the Iraq Foundation, The American Islamic Congress, The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Women for Women and USAID, among others. This was no easy task; Al Hillah had no conference center or hotel. Fern and Salwa negotiated with the University President, renovated dorms and conference space, arranged for transportation and food. The conference was a success.
In the fall, they organized a trip, for 30 university professors, women and human rights leaders, to Bahrain for a judicial reform conference. They worked with CPA, to provide an airplane and travel documents, and the conference host, to extend the event two days.
Fern and Salwa also worked with many of you last fall to arrange meetings for Iraqi women, to visit Washington, D.C. They even met the President.
Fern returned for second time, to Iraq in January. While home this winter, she was in constant communication with Salwa, focusing on every detail of the program, and Salwa having the opportunity to exercise the greatest independence.
Fern was particularly proud on March 8th, when the Iraqi Governing Council signed the interim constitution that included a 25 percent goal for women in the Transitional National Assembly. Once again with help from many of you, draft language was prepared, that would include women in negotiating every political decision that would shape Iraq’s future. Women were to be contributing, active players in their country’s future.
There are numerous articles, documenting the success of the Centers. Fern was never quoted or photographed. She preferred the role of producer, encouraging and supporting Iraqis to step forward and make their own voices heard. It was the self-less manner, in which Fern approached her work.
Salwa was outspoken, ensuring reporters understood the complicated reality of Iraqi women. Her friends in Boston said “she wanted to help women in Iraq understand the importance of their civil rights…and wanted to stand next to women who felt powerless after the regime had taken everything from them. It was about how to give power back to the women of Iraq.”
Since March 8th Iraqis mourn…but the centers are still operating:
Women come to the centers, for educational programs: literacy, health and democracy training; for income generating activities: internet café, sewing and catering.
Human rights leaders come to the centers, to collect and organize information on missing Iraqis, support families of the victims and attend organizational training.
Tribal sheiks and students come to the centers, to learn how to run for elected office.
These same Iraqis have suffered under Saddam for years. They have seen worse days, yet they move forward with the centers’ resources, training and encouragement Fern, Salwa, Bob and many of your organizations have provided.
Fern and Salwa’s vision was to:
Support moderate leaders with training on organizing, democracy, and how to run for office.
Establish 18 centers for women, human rights and democracy leaders with educational programs, income activities and access to internet.
And hire talented local staff in each province to support the centers’ operations, to build sustainability and prepare for elections.
It is in their memory that the work of CPA, USAID and all of your organizations must continue.
There are many others, who saw in Fern the commitment and determination to help others. Hugh Parmer, President of the American Refugee Committee hired Fern to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation of refugees in Guinea; and later to develop successful legal clinics for refugee women. ARC intends to replicate Fern’s legal clinics in other refugee settings; the one in Guinea has been renamed in her honor.
Prior to that, Fern served in the Peace Corps in Namibia, where she spent 16 months helping to build schools, among other projects. She received a psychology degree from Oklahoma University and earned her law degree from the University of Tulsa. When Salwa’s sister, a physician living in Nebraska was dying of cancer, Salwa came to the U.S. to care for her. She moved to Boston after her sister’s death and later returned to Baghdad. Her cousin Helmi asked Salwa ‘to spare herself for us.” Salwa wanted to return to her family and Iraq as the war approached. Salwa had already lost a brother, assassinated by the Saddam regime.
To continue working in Iraq with women and human rights leaders, is the greatest service to their memory. It will take continued speed, flexibility and the same level of commitment, the Iraqis received from Fern and Salwa during there first meetings.
A website, www.fernholland.com has been set up. Friends and family members have organized the Fern L. Holland Charitable Foundation to promote human rights in Iraq and around the world. The Foundations seeks your support and looks forward to working with you in the memory of Fern and Salwa.
Chris O’Donnell, Friend and Colleague, Al Hillah Iraq, firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-519-7941