It becomes evident when traveling in war zones and isolated areas that the most vulnerable in such places are women and young children.
In January, on a train bound from Mashhad, Iran, to Tabriz, I met a woman who looked to be in her 30s. Her name was Amir Nedai.
Amir and I were sharing a 4-bed passenger cubicle with another couple from Iran; on a ride that would take 24 hours until our destination. Unlike Amir’s short stature, her husband was quite tall. He must not have liked the idea that his wife would be in the same cubicle with a foreign man (he and Amir were placed in different sections), because when he came inside our room, he did not even greet me.
It felt like Amir’s husband did not even want his wife and me to look at each other. Still, while her husband remained distant, Amir seemed rather comfortable sitting next to a foreigner and after a short while, introduced herself. I discovered that she was an Armenian Iranians and a Muslim.
Many Armenian Iranians live in Northern Iran according to their own political and religious customs. And like the Kurds, most are farmers that work in the mountainous regions.
The train arrived at the stop where Amir and I would get off. Before I left, I gave the couple that were with us a pen with The AsiaN logo. Outside the train was a complete wasteland. There were no trees, only old buildings amidst dusty grounds.
Born and raised in the minority Armenian community, Amir grew up poor in rural Iran. Before she was even an adult, Amir was married off to a wealthy merchant from Mashhad. Upon leaving her family, she had to give up the Armenian religion she had been accustomed to as a child and accept Islam as her new faith. The ride that we had been on was her first train back to the home of her birth in ten years.
After thanking me for The AsiaN pen that I had also given her, Amir left to be with her family.
On many of my visits to war-torn regions, I met with several women like Amir and even now, remember each one; each story. The years that Amir spent in the war zone flash through my mind often.
Three years ago, in Karimabad, Pakistan. Two Ismaili Muslim women looked on at the village festival. Ismaili Muslims are known to be more relaxed about their Islam laws compared to Sunni and Shia Muslims. It seemed strange that these women were like visitors in their own village, only allowed to peek at the ongoing festivities. It pained me.
Last month in Mashhad, Iran. At night, women can only leave the house with their husband or with a male in the family (photo taken January 10th).
Song Hye-jin, known as “The Angel” to Pakistan media, founded the second women’s Muslim university in Gilgit, Pakistan. She continues to aid in the education of Muslim women.
Frequent clashes between the Sunni and Shia occur in Gilgit and have resulted in many casualties. Gilgit is known for being a major war-zone with its history of disputes with India such as the Kashmir war. Moreover, with its conservative religious background, women are not allowed to receive education. It was in this context that Song Hye-jin was able to persuade the local Muslim Imams of the need to create a women’s college.
When I was in Pakistan, I met Song as she was teaching her last course at the college. Her students were crying and I could feel their passion in learning.
Their tears were evidence of how much they desired to be educated. Tears began to well in my own eyes.
The scene I came upon in Cizre, Turkey. A woman was polishing shoes in the middle of the city plaza. The closer I was to her, I could tell this was not her job. The woman had brought her son along with her to the city to earn some money polishing shoes. As the woman’s son brought her the shoes, she caked each shoe with polishing cream.
2015 October, on my visit to Silopi, Turkey. This city is situated in southeastern Turkey, near Mount Judi—the mountain that Muslims know to be the same mountain that Noah’s ark landed on after the flood.
In the Islamic society, the absence of the father in the family indicates the collapse of the family’s financial means. Without a father, the eldest son usually becomes the head of the family and goes out to the streets to make ends meet. Many such boys are treated harshly and in poor working conditions.
They often grow up to be rather rough and violent—strong enough to subdue a person with one hand. I met quite a few of these men on my visit and was always intimidated by their sight.
Members of the terrorist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) often take in children from families too poor to support them and rear them into PKK militants. This issue is one of the main concerns of the Turkish government.
After experiencing the difficulties of life at an early age, these children are drawn into the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (a lower branch of the PKK) and become militants to the organization. On January 2016, the entire regions of Silopi, Cizre, and their vicinity were blockaded by these terrorist groups. What is left of the cities is a wasteland and citizens with no means for survival.
I first came to the Kurdish region to find out about what happened with a Korean (surname, Kim) who recently joined IS. Many know that the Kurds are IS’s main enemies. Likewise, the IS are the Kurds’ worst enemies. Near the end of 2015, around the time Kim became part of IS, Kobani was deep into battle. Due to its location near the Euphrates river basin in Syria, many skirmishes between the Kurds and IS take place in the Kobani.
At first, I thought that if Kim had been held captive by the Kurds here I would be able to receive information about his whereabouts; maybe even show the Kurds that Koreans are not enemies or threats to the Kurdish movement. But, I also hoped that I would be able to negotiate Kim’s release. Unfortunately, I was unable to learn anything about Kim’s current position.
Gonabad, Iran, January 2017. The man I met on the Shia pilgrimage (Mohammed) and his seven year-old daughter. Girls in the Shia branch must begin wearing the hijab at ten years old. Mohammed’s daughter did not wish to take a photo with a foreign man and refused to take her hat off. If I had tried to take her hat off she probably would have burst into tears. Interestingly enough, the fathers I met on the road actually wanted their children to take a photo with a foreigner as a token that we had met. It was the children who were afraid to take pictures. Girls younger than 10 years old were already showing signs of shyness towards men.
And then there was this little girl that I met in another part of the Iran desert. She was a cheerful girl. I taught her how to use chopsticks. After talking with her, I learned that she was a fan of Hallyu (Korean entertainment) and particularly liked actor Lee Min-woo. She smilingly asked me for Lee Min-woo’s email address.
Please understand that due to safety issues, I cannot post images or information about the girls.