It’s a warm afternoon at a YMCA on the west side. The pool is empty but for a handful of men in Speedos, swiftly and silently gliding through their afternoon laps, in stark contrast to the eight fully clothed women paddling in the shallow lanes. They’ve all donned some version of a “burkini,” the modesty swimsuit, and, with the help of a young, blonde instructor named Kirby, are working on holding their breath.
“We’re going to practice pushing off the wall with your face down,” Kirby announces. The women look skeptical, but Kirby is persistent. “If you need help, I’ll hold your hands,” she adds, urging them to relinquish their tight grips on the foam kickboards tucked beneath their chests. “I’ll catch you.”
For these women—part of Houston’s 70,000-member refugee community—learning to swim is more radical than recreational. They come from Muslim-majority countries with a long list of activities forbidden to women. They’ve fled varying degrees of social, religious, and ethnic persecution, some with little more than the clothes on their backs. Together they’re learning to navigate their forced new realities in a strange country with unfamiliar customs and a complicated language.
Enter Interfaith Ministries. The local all-faiths-based nonprofit, which has helped resettle refugees in Houston for 30 years now, established the volunteer-run Women’s Empowerment Group in 2016. It was Chloe Krane, then a family mentor with IM’s Refugee Services, who founded the program.
Krane is a British expat and former journalist who spent years covering war in the Middle East. She speaks some Arabic. “I felt really moved to serve this community,” she says. Once she began helping a newly arrived Syrian family and meeting other refugees, she says, “I realized really quickly that refugee women especially were at great risk of isolation.”
More than 90 percent of refugees are self-sufficient within three to six months, and services for them, including IM’s, are focused mainly on the basics: food, housing, employment. These are all critical to surviving, of course, but what about thriving? “One of the things you lose when you flee your home country is this big spider-web network of community,” Krane says. “For refugees, that bite of loneliness goes so deep. They’ve lost everything—often, people—that they love.”
So, every week, 40 or so Arabic-speaking refugee women gather, some with young children in tow, to hear 20-minute guest lectures on relevant topics—everything from cottage-food-industry laws to the effects of technology on youth—and, most important, to socialize. Together the women bolster each other to try things, whether through hosting bake sales or learning to line dance. Or to swim.
“I was so scared,” says Sinobar Badeel. As for going underwater? “It was very weird. I thought, oh no, no, no, no. I’m gonna go home. I think I made a mistake. Oh my God.” But she and her friends kept at it. “We got it gradually, step by step, and I think we’re good right now,” she says. “I feel more confident.” Her husband was so incredulous to learn of her newfound hobby, she made a friend take her photo in the pool for proof.
Badeel is more than 7,000 miles away from her home back in Bashika, a small village near Mosul in northern Iraq. When she fled with her husband and their two toddlers in 2014, survival was her only priority. A member of the Yazidi—an ethno-religious minority—Badeel became sadly accustomed to the threat of violence after the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime left the region even more vulnerable to attack and, eventually, ISIS occupation. “At first we just stayed home,” she says. “We didn’t do anything, to avoid facing the terrorists.” Soon even that became impossible. There was no evading the horrors inflicted on Badeel’s friends, family, and neighbors.
She recounts those horrors through tears. There was the day in 2007 when gunmen hijacked a bus full of factory workers traveling home from Mosul—the same bus Badeel, then in college studying education, would have taken had she gone to school that day. Twenty-three Yazidis were lined up, shot, and killed execution-style. There was the time an ISIS soldier called a man who’d escaped the terror group and made him listen to his brother’s murder. There were the desperate families who paid kidnappers ransom fees only to have their children returned in pieces.
In August 2014 the terrorists set about systematically abducting, raping, and killing thousands of Yazidis in a spree known as the Sinjar Massacre. Badeel and her husband—both teachers by then—knew they had to flee. They spent two nightmarish years in a refugee camp until the rigorous vetting process cleared them for travel in 2016. They touched down in Houston on November 8, the day of President Donald Trump’s election.
In the year following the family’s arrival, Texas resettled close to 80 percent fewer refugees than the year before. Now the Trump administration has slashed the national cap for 2019 admissions to 30,000—an all-time low, down from 45,000 in 2018 and 110,000 in 2017. “That sends a really loud message to refugees in America that you’re not wanted here,” Krane says.
Sometimes that message comes from other quarters. Krane recalls convincing one apprehensive refugee—a veiled Muslim woman—to catch the bus to a job interview. She mustered the courage to board, only to be met with vitriol from a fellow passenger who shouted at her to “go home.”
“That’s the fear factor that these women have on a daily basis here in the States,” Krane says. And though famously diverse Houston is a hub for refugees—we welcome more than any other American city, and about 40 percent of those who resettle in Texas—“there’s a real contradiction” here, Krane notes. “There’s so much Southern hospitality and warmth and philanthropy and kindness and desire to help the neighbor, and then you have that sort of darker side.”
Badeel’s response—to the U.S. government, to the man on the bus—is simple: What would you do? “Imagine one of your people getting raped or killed in front of your eyes, your mom or your dad or your brother,” she says. “I wasn’t planning to leave my country. We were satisfied with our life.”
She misses home in the days before terror reigned—her quiet village, the plot of land she bought to build her house, the family and friends she left behind. Today her husband works as a valet parker while she studies for her Texas teacher certification and cares for their 17-month-old daughter. The two older children go to school. “I just want them to be safe—it’s the most important thing,” she says. “To live like other children. I don’t want to be rich. Just a normal life. To have a home and to sleep at night without any nightmares, without feeling that your child is going to school and he’ll never come back.”
Hope, fear, confusion, relief—she shares it all with the group, her newfound community, all navigating some version of the same unfamiliar terrain. For Badeel, the fellowship is a comfort. “It feels normal. I miss my home, so when I came to this group, I talked to them and I felt like I still had friends,” she says. “We can do something together. We can send a message together, to my country: We are still together, even if we are not home.”
Watching refugee women gain confidence has been a source of inspiration for Krane. “For a number of them, it’s a big deal,” she says. “You see women brighten through coming to the group, especially the ones that are really a long way from any other Arabic speakers and the ones that are really isolated. It’s amazing to see how much their mood improves.”
For some, it’s the only time all week they’ll leave their homes. Others have found strength in numbers to pursue the massively daunting task of getting out there in this bewildering city. “That’s sort of what we’re about—just saying, yeah, you can,” Krane says.
When volunteers first approached the women individually to discuss swimming, they showed little interest. But after a conversation at their weekly meeting, all it took was a handful of raised hands before 24 people were vying for 15 spots. “That’s the power of a women’s group,” Krane says. “You see somebody do it, and you know it’s possible.”
Back in the Y pool, Badeel is one of three women to join Kirby in the deep end to practice treading water. Her tiny daughter, barefoot and pigtailed, watches intently from the sidelines. She claps wildly each time she catches sight of her mother, one of the strongest swimmers here, as she translates Kirby’s instructions for her peers.
“When you get in the water, you forget everything,” Badeel says. “I feel like I could do anything here.”
Under Krane’s watchful eye, Badeel’s daughter has edged closer to the pool all afternoon. By the end of the lesson, as if fortified by her mother’s performance, she sidles up to the shallow end, beaming, and sticks one little toe into the blue.