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Meet the woman who successfully juggles aiding refugees and being a full-time student

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Zinah Mohammed is a full-time masters student of International Business Law at the University of Coventry, who simultaneously runs a charity for refugees and displaced persons in Iraq.

It all began when, as a 15 year old, she was forced to flee her hometown of Baghdad because of kidnapping threats. When some years later, in 2013, she came across photographs of refugees on her Facebook newsfeed, she found herself relating to their struggles, since she too had been made to leave her life behind to seek safety. However, she found she’d been lucky to never have had to live in a camp, and thus was motivated to aid those who did not have the same privileges she’d had.

She posted a status on her personal account asking her friends to donate blankets and warm clothes to be sent to Syrian refugees. Her family and close friends were, of course, all very supportive of her initiative, and quickly the scope of the campaigns broadened, driven by the rising number of refugees and internally displaced Iraqi persons.

And so the Shine Together Charity team came together, with the help of her best friend Sarah, who is the co-founder and has held a leading role in the charity since Zinah moved to the UK.

It works primarily through social media: Zinah will share a new campaign idea, and will subsequently be approached by volunteers and donors. Primarily through Facebook, she encourages people to help in any possible capacity, whether it be donations of money, goods, or their own time.

One of her objectives is for volunteers from different backgrounds and religions, representative of Iraq’s ethnic and social diversity, to all come together for a humanitarian cause. This is what her charity aims to represent: how unity can help people create positive change in the world, and spread awareness so that others might do the same.

Her team’s primary goal in distributing aid is to fill gaps that can be left behind by some official organisations. Zinah expresses concerns that official organisations may at times provide things that are of little use to individuals, and may be more concerned with advertisement and promotional purposes than with delivering the most effective kind of aid possible. People in camps are in need of everything; however, she advocates that asking people what particularly products they are most in need of, rather than merely assuming, is a more efficient method of resource distribution.

Another issue with such approaches to aid, according to Zinah, is the focus on the documentation of aid distribution, often to the detriment of covering effective aid. The refugees’ dignity isn't being respected, having to answer demeaning questions in front of a camera, such as how they feel about receiving aid. Their photographs are also being taken and published online, often without consent, which is unethical. She hopes to speak to people on the ground to identify their most pressing needs and to take care of their difficult situation in a way that does not degrade them.

Her charity also wants to do better on the donor front. Thanks to her social networking, Zinah obtains funds through her many connections, which means she often knows the donors. She encourages them to accompany herself and her volunteers while buying the aid that will be sent, and sometimes help with the distribution process, as a way of proving the charity’s integrity and reliability.

The charity also provides donors with receipts, so that they are informed as to how their donations are being used. It’s also crucial, she says, for people to face the reality of camps with their own eyes, which also benefits the refugees since it often results in repeated donations.

Shine Together Charity has, over the years, built strong relationships based on mutual trust with camp managements in Erbil and continues to consult them regarding which camps and what areas of these camps are most urgently in need of relief. Because of the charity’s limited capacities, they must unfortunately prioritise, and can only cover the neediest sectors. Since its inception, however, the charity has grown from helping 40 families in its first campaign to now reaching an approximate 1,000 families in each campaign, which bodes well for future expansions.

When asked about some of her charity’s cases that have particularly touched her, Zinah warmly speaks of a Syrian teenager who had had his face and neck burnt in an explosion. This forced him to stop attending school, but her charity has thankfully been able to raise enough money to get him two surgeries. Having not yet met him, she looks forward to meeting him as soon as she is back in Iraq.

She continues, and recounts when she and her team distributed new clothes for Eid, to over 200 orphans in Erbil: “I just saw joy in children’s eyes, and that’s all that matters”.

Due to limited funds, Shine Together must currently focus on satisfying immediate needs for aid, such as clothing and food. Zinah, however, hopes eventually to create an educational platform where young people can develop their potential, which she sees as key to ensuring a brighter future for the country. The Iraqi educational system, according to her, is one that is particularly in need of urgent reform.

Currently she is working on a project in the UK called ‘Let’s be friends’, in cooperation with the Prince’s Trust International, for which she is the delegate for Iraq. This project aims to create a framework in which British children between the ages of eight and 11 can build connections and make friends which children their age currently attending schools at Iraqi camps. She strongly believes that learning about one another, breaking down preconceptions and stereotypes, and overcoming the language barrier through art, will be conducive to a better future.

It focuses on the world’s future leaders and will create bridges of peace and hope, built on the similarities that unite us all as humans. This is undoubtedly the most effective, long-term solution to the situation Iraq faces today.

Following Mosul’s liberation, Zinah feels optimistic that this signals a new path for Iraq. With the efforts of the Iraqi youth, she hopes that new political systems can be established in which all Iraqis can contribute in rebuilding the country: “Now is the time for us to rebuild the city after the trauma it experienced under ISIS control” and ensure the future is built on strong foundations of peace and equality.

As questions turn to her personal life, Zinah reveals she desired to do a masters’ degree abroad to obtain more international exposure and anticipates that her studying International Business Law will give her a wider exposure to the legal field. She aims to continue her studies to include a doctorate level, and specialise in researching the role of the law in protecting children from armed conflict involvement, due to ISIS’s use of child soldiers in their conflicts.

Asked about her future plans, she mentions her wish to be a positive change-maker in the world. One way in which she sees herself doing this would be working for the United Nations, she says, where she could reach a wider audience and broaden the scope and vision of her charity.

Her charity work has greatly changed her outlook on day-to-day life. Prior to founding the charity, she claims she would look at the world around her and see how the war had changed her life and the lives of all Iraqis. She would compare her experiences to those of her peers in countries not torn by violence, and find it difficult to make sense of it all. However, when she began working at camps and giving her time to her initiative, she began to appreciate small things that she’d previously overlooked, and her perspective transformed.

Although being Iraqi came with limited opportunities that were otherwise easily accessible to others, she could now recognise that “I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for that struggle”. Being born during the Gulf war, spending her life in a conflict zone, she can appreciate the struggles her parents went through to teach her and her siblings the powerful ability of an individual to exact positive change in the world.

If anyone would like to support Zinah’s Shine Together Charity team, you can get in touch with them here.

Zinah is currently in Coventry and is working on an aid campaign for a refugee camp in Iraq, and on her previously-mentioned Let’s be Friend project. She will be launching a fundraising page and a Facebook page for this project in September.

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