During my intern orientation at Scalabrini, the organization’s director, Miranda, was intentional in avoiding the word “empowerment.” A common theme among the NGO’s I’d come across while searching for a suitable placement held mission statements that read along the lines of “working to empower _____ community by offering _____ services.” Miranda was of a different mindset. She argued that empowerment does not lie in the hands of a select few who have the responsibility to give it away. “Our clients are already empowered,” she said. With or without the resources Scalabrini offered, they are independent and resilient, and I loved that someone of Miranda’s prestige had the humility to acknowledge that her status was an effect of her privilege. She’d grown up with the privileges of education, a healthy and supportive family structure and financial security, all of which played a crucial role in getting her where she was.
This lesson stuck with me. Today, I am volunteering with an organization in Istanbul that facilitates a microfinance program for a group of Syrian refugee women. These women are learning to make and sell purses out of recycled fabric in an effort to bring home some extra cash. Because many of them were raised in families that prioritized a man’s education over a woman’s, their job prospects are limited. However, instead of harnessing resentment, they have chosen to maximize their time and energy by building on skills they already have.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve grown especially close with one of the younger members of the project who we’ll call Noor. Noor came to Turkey four months ago with her husband and two daughters, and I was immediately drawn to her warm and vibrant energy. She makes a point to check up on me regularly, eager to make me feel comfortable and at-home whenever possible. Last week, she invited me over to her place for tea. She brought out her finest china, opened a new packet of cookies and insisted that I help myself. Later in the afternoon, she mentioned in passing that she’d been struggling with anxiety over whether her family would be able to afford rent this month. She mentioned her financial struggles while insisting that I eat more, and later on inviting me to stay for dinner. Noor, who I’d known for two weeks, made a point to treat me like family, exhibiting kindheartedness and care despite facing her own challenges.
I have so much to learn from Noor’s strength and demeanor. She had the courage to part with the familiar in pursuit of safety and opportunity, signing up to start from scratch in a land where roadblocks are plentiful. Now, at a time when things aren’t necessarily going her way, she places others first with incredible compassion. Noor, as I’m sure Miranda would agree, is empowered all on her own.