Iraqi, Rwandan Refugees Added Their Voices to Women's March on Washington

Millions of people protested around the world on Saturday in a sisterhood of Women's Marches, supporting the rights of women and minorities that could be threatened under President Donald Trump.

For three marchers, all refugee women who sought safety in the U.S. over the past decade, the decision to walk alongside half a million people in Washington, D.C. on Saturday was not an easy one.

"When I first heard about it, coming from my own background, I said what if this brings violence?" says Norah Bagirinka, 56, a refugee from Rwanda and a survivor of the country's 1994 genocide. "I didn't know it was going to be a peaceful march."

Related: Women's March: Empowering, joyful and bigger than the 1960s

Bagirinka marched with Meathaq Alaunaibi, a refugee from Iraq, and Shaymaa Alsaadoon, a two-time refugee, having fled from her native Iraq to Syria, and then from Syria to the U.S. With help from Church World Service (CWS), one of nine agencies contracted by the federal government to help resettle refugees, the three women shared their stories and made sure the voices of refugees were present at the march in the nation's capital.

"To me, it was a way to voice our issues, and my voice counts," says Bagirinka. "Being at the Women's March, standing with other women, we can bring attention to the president."

The women said some friends and relatives were nervous about them going to the march "because they're coming from cultures where there are real consequences if you do speak out against the government," says Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy for the CWS immigration and refugee program.

Refugee advocates fear what might happen to the U.S. refugee resettlement program under Trump. Historically, the program has garnered bipartisan support, but Trump during his presidential campaign called for banning Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. and blamed refugees for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.

"I have some concerns regarding President Trump's claims and promises about refugees," says Alaunaibi, 45. "However, I do strongly believe that the president is not all-powerful, and that he should abide by the Constitution. If he were to do anything against it, there will be authorities to stop it."

The U.S. in fiscal year 2016 resettled 84,995 refugees, and they are the most heavily vetted group of immigrants entering the U.S. Roughly 10,000 Syrian refugees were resettled in the U.S. last year, out of nearly five million Syrians who have fled their country.

At the Women's March, Bagirinka, Alaunaibi and Alsaadoon held signs declaring "Refugees Welcome" and chanted, "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here." Quartz reports that one in every five U.S. newspapers ignored the Women's March, despite one out of every 100 people in the U.S. marching somewhere in the country on Saturday.

Refugee leaders and CWS staff led a pro-refugee chant at the #womensmarch in DC yesterday. #refugeeswelcome #greateras1 #americawelcomes

— CWS (@CWS_global) January 22, 2017

After marching, all three women took part in a teach-in at two churches in Washington's Columbia Heights neighborhood. The program covered potential threats to refugee resettlement and undocumented migrants under Trump's presidency, and provided a workshop on immigrant rights under U.S. law.

The Women's March was an opportunity for Americans to hear directly from people who have been vilified by some lawmakers and media outlets, says Smyers. The Women's March Unity Principles, released on Saturday, declared: "We believe in immigrant and refugee rights regardless of status or country of origin."

"We've seen so much politicization of refugees without actually hearing from refugees themselves," she says. "When it comes to human rights atrocities, when it comes to displacement crises, it's the women who hold the community together, who hold families together, who help children through that emotionally. It's also women who tend to bear the brunt of persecution, of violence."

"Women are the beacons of strength of refugee communities," says Smyers.

@ #WomensMarch w Meathaq Mohamed from Iraq. We stand w immigrant & refugee women! #RefugeesWelcome #GreaterAs1

— Jen (@jsmyerscws) January 21, 2017

For Alaunaibi, who hopes to someday open a restaurant in America—"I am a good, talented cook," she says—the Women's March "was an amazing opportunity for me and my other friends to display and prove ourselves to the American community, because we have become a part of it."

Alaunaibi, who lives in Knoxville, Tennesse, left Iraq after her home was targeted by a mortar. Her twin 18-year-old daughters, who did not receive visas, are still in Baghdad. "I call them every day and ask how they're doing and if they're safe, and they reply with a yes, but we both know that's not true, not for long at least," she says. "I am devastated over this circumstance. I don't know what to do."

"Fellow Americans are encouraged to get to know [refugees], just as much as we want to get to know them," Alaunaibi adds. "[The Women's March] was a priceless experience for me to meet this many people, and to share my story with millions and millions around the world."

Going to the march was also a way for the women to be politically active in their new home county.

Related: Hundreds of thousands march on Washington in defiance of Trump

"I wanted really badly to vote [in 2016]," says Bagirinka, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, and works as a health care educator providing diabetes classes to seniors. She recently passed her U.S. citizenship test, but tried to time gaining her citizenship with the 2016 election. "I thought by November, I'd be able to vote."

Bagirinka says she would have voted for Hillary Clinton. "She is a woman like me. She's my big role model as the first American woman president. She advocates for refugees and migrants."

For many women and men who marched on Saturday, the focus has now turned to the question of what happens next. All three women are continuing to build their lives and raise their families in the U.S. Bagirinka, who founded a nonprofit, Rwanda Women in Action (RWIA), and was the Ohio delegate for the UNHCR Refugee Congress, is also organizing locally "to engage our communities to know that we are here."

More than anything, Alsaadoon—who now lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she works as an assistant teacher helping immigrant students adapt to their new environment—wants Americans to try to understand the difficulties refugees face when they first arrive.

"All the refugees here, they just need support, they just need someone who can help them to adjust in this country," she says. "We just look for home here. We need you to help us to just live in this country."