Activism and family, a mother story

By Julie Brown

Nonviolent movements and campaigns are made of many moving parts.Some are the faces that we see on the television giving compelling speeches in front of thousands, while others are playing crucial roles making these moments happen.

SAZGAR GHAFOUR SAEED is an activist, teacher and mother married to one of the public faces of the teacher’s campaign in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan. One night, after preparing a large Kurdish meal followed by several rounds of tea and snacks, Sazgar put her children to bed, made a final round of coffee, and sat down to tell CPT her story.

Sazgar and her children marching in the city of Sulaimani. Photo by: CPTers

Sazgar is an 8th grade Arabic teacher, mother of four, and wife of Awat Hassan who was one of the main organizers of the teacher’s demonstrations in Sulaimani.  She has been part of the teacher’s movement since the beginning and has seen it evolve from something that once gave her great hope to something that has ultimately put her family in danger.

From the very beginning of the demonstrations Sazgar had many responsibilities. Along with the hectic schedule of raising four children, she also had a full-time activism role. She was supporting the movement with many logistical tasks. She did a variety of things from charging the loudspeaker system to cooking meals, hosting organizing meetings in her home, and attending demonstrations with her family.

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The demonstrations were very popular.  The teachers were calling for their full salaries to be paid and also for an end to government corruption. The teachers also engaged in a strike that kept the schools closed for months. As the demonstrations grew, Sazgar’s husband became well known.When I asked about her friends and family’s reactions to the demonstrations she said, “Some were very supportive but others were scared for Awat’s life.” “We had a good feeling. In the beginning of the demonstrations things went well but it didn’t take long before they broke our car’s back window.”

Although the teachers’ campaign remained peaceful with a message of nonviolence, the organizers faced violence and intimidation from local security forces and other unnamed actors. “The more known Awat became, the more dangerous it was.” she said.  

Once the threats toward her family started they were persistent and intensified. Sazgar recalled an evening when her husband was driving their ten-year-old daughter home from a local recreational center and Asiesh Security Forces stopped their car on the road. The security forces detained Awat, separated him from his daughter and put him into their vehicle.Then two men got into the family’s vehicle with her young daughter Ala.  Ala plead and cried for her father as the security forces drove around and argued over what to do with her.  In the end, they put her out on the side of the road alone.  Ala ran home and told her family what had happened to her father.  Sazgar said that shortly after Ala returned home Awat also returned home.  When he got there he was weak in the knees over the grief and guilt of what had just happened to his daughter.

Another evening their car was burned in front of their home as her family slept.  They woke to banging on the windows and she saw a flickering light through the curtains and thought it was the police coming to arrest her husband. When they went outside they saw the fire.  It was so large that they were afraid that it would catch the yard on fire.  Sazgar went inside, woke up her sleeping children, and put them outside through a window.  Once outside the children saw that the car was engulfed in flames and began to cry.   The events of this night left the children with lots of anxiety and her four year old son now suffers from severe trauma.

Their car was burnt while Sazgar and her family were sleeping. Photo by: Gabe Soares.

After this, Sazgar continued attending the demonstrations with her children. When asked about it she said, “Even though we had a burden, I want them to learn to be courageous, speak for themselves, and fight for their rights.”

CPT asked Sazgar if she has any advice to someone else in her position. She said, “It’s important to not give up.  It is challenging due to our children.  We don’t pay as much attention to our own lives as we do to the lives of our children.  I think it will take a long time to normalize my children’s lives. They will not be the children that they use to be.  I think the voices that the government is trying to silence, in the future, will make a change. People will rise up and the bubble will burst.

Now the demonstrations in Sulaimani have ended and the teacher’s strike is broken.

When asked about her hope for the future she said, “Hope doesn’t work with these leaders.” “We hope that we will have the knowledge in the future of what is happening to the money and wealth of this region.” She also hopes that her children and husband will be protected. Throughout the campaign many organizers, teachers, and human rights defenders were arrested and detained.  Reflecting on the past, she said,“Next time we will all go out and demonstrate as a family and we will not give up.”