Women in leadership: Inspiring advocates for refugee rights

Meet five incredible women devoting their daily lives towards helping refugees.

UNHCR Canada
5 min readMar 1, 2021

By Hawa Maiga and Hannah Scott

A group of woman reading books.
© UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

Women and girls face a number of challenges and risks when they are forced to flee their homes. Accessing their human rights should never be one.

At UNHCR Canada, we are inspired by the incredible women who fight for the rights of refugees around the world. Their commitment to those who have been forced to leave everything behind in search of safety is an important contribution in helping change the lives of refugees everywhere. Here are five stories that highlight women who work tirelessly to ensure refugees receive the protection they need.

1) “She was always there when you needed her:” Colombian woman devotes life to help abused children heal

A woman standing on a beach.
© UNHCR/Nicolo Filippo Rosso

Mayerlín sleeps with her phone on her pillow. As the director of a Colombia-based home for children who have survived sexual exploitation, she never knows when she might be called to resolve a crisis. The kids under Mayerlín’s care have gone through unimaginable trauma, and for the past 21 years she has made it her life’s mission to help them through their pain.

Throughout her career, Mayerlín has helped more than 20,000 children, including refugees, by advocating for their rights and providing them with a safe space at the non-profit Fundación Renacer. In recognition of her work on behalf of that highly vulnerable population, Maye was named the laureate of the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award, an annual prize honouring the those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support forcibly displaced and stateless people.

“I feel very honoured to have played a part in their lives,” she said. “They are the real heroes of their own stories. They teach us so much and inspire us to continue doing this work.”

For just $100, you can help provide a refugee woman with a fresh start by gifting her water, soap, hygiene supplies and a medical check-up. Shop UNHCR Canada’s online gift shop now.

2) Clinical psychologist helps refugee women access mental health support

Two women in an office.
© UNHCR/Caroline Gluck

Years of conflict and insecurity can have harrowing effects on the mental health of many refugees and asylum seekers. With the help of UNHCR and its partners in Libya, clinical psychologist Hamida* is providing life-changing psychosocial support to women like Shadia*.

“My character changed; I got strong and I was able to be involved in the community,” explains 38-year-old Shadia, who lives with epilepsy and severe depression.

Yusra* was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after her husband was brutally attacked by militiamen. Yet in the aftermath of the harrowing incident, she, too, is also seeing improvements to her mental health thanks to the support she has received in group sessions. With group counselling, Hamida is empowering asylum seekers and refugees in Libya by helping them release stress and gain confidence.

“For sure, most refugees need our help,” Hamida said. “They have gone through very difficult situations themselves. Even if they haven’t personally experienced violence, they have seen it. It affects their behaviour, their way of thinking.”

*Names changed for protection reasons

3) Stateless woman becomes first in her community to attend university

Two women sitting outside.
© UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

Nosizi has always been a top performer at school. However, her chances of advancing to the next level got slimmer each year. Nosizi was born into the stateless Shona community in Kenya, which means that she did not have the documents required to prove her identity and register for exams. Nosizi’s mother fought for her daughter’s right to an education by persuading the schools to admit her by using Nosizi’s clinic card, rather than a birth certificate.

In 2019, UNHCR and the Kenya Human Rights Commission helped Shona children in Kenya receive birth certificates for the first time. Finally, 20-year-old Nosizi was able to register for her first year of university. “I want all Shona girls to see that they can be anything they want,” says Nosizi.

4) Afghan coach promotes young refugee girls’ education in Iran

“I remember being seven years old and realizing that I wouldn’t be going to school like other children because I needed to make money,” says Rozma who was five years old when the Taliban overran her hometown in Afghanistan. Between household chores and working in a brick factory, Rozma played soccer during her childhood to brighten her days, despite not being allowed to play as part of an organized team because of her gender.

Today in Iran, Rozma is using her passion for soccer to help girls who are forced to work access their right to an education. With her organization, the Youth Initiative Fund, she empowers at-risk children through sports and social activities, enrolment in literacy and numeracy courses and counselling with their families. Her devotion to children’s education is helping change the lives of some 400 students in Iran every year.

“I dream of a world where Afghan girls and boys have the same opportunities to succeed, wherever they are in the world and no matter the obstacles on their path,” she says. “Sports can be a powerful tool in making this happen.”

Education is critical for a child’s development, especially for refugee girls. For $75, you can provide primary education for a refugee girl. Visit UNHCR’s online gift shop now.

5) A former refugee’s journey to becoming a Canadian entrepreneur

A woman in a red dress outdoors.
© UNHCR/Chris Young

Peng was born in Cambodia a few years before the Khmer Rouge seized power and the genocide began. At just five years old, Peng had to flee her home with her family. For years, they suffered through hunger, uncertainty and the loss of a family member. Eventually, the family made it to a refugee camp in Thailand where they could gain refugee status and immigrate to Canada. Peng was 10.

Choosing to belong in her new home in Saskatchewan, Peng learned English and later earned a commerce degree at Queen’s University. In 1995, Peng, along with three engineers, founded Transformix. The company invented CNCAssembly technology, which assembles parts for items like small medical devices. Peng now sits on UNHCR Canada’s Advisory Council where she seeks to raise awareness of UNHCR’s work.

“Being a refugee is heartbreaking,” she says. “I want to help.”

Do you want to support refugee women? Visit UNHCR Canada’s Shop page and, for just $50, you can help provide essential supplements to a mother and baby to help maintain their health. Shop now.



UNHCR Canada

The UN Refugee Agency in Canada is dedicated to providing life-saving support to refugees, displaced and stateless people.