In a society where being a victim of domestic, violent and/or sexual abuse can bring shame to the victim and their family there is nowhere for girls or young women to turn to. Starting in 2004 with one Center in Tehran with 15, the Omid Foundation is now supporting close to 200 girls in two centers. The educational social enterprise is driven by the vision, energy and passion of its Founder, Marjaneh Halati, a London-based social psychologist and psychotherapist.
Every 6 months the Centre offers places for 30 girls between 15-25. Each girl is interviewed by a psychologist, social worker and psychiatrist and their level of educational attainment is assessed. Those who are offered places are welcomed into a warm, secure, and non-judgemental community in which the women immediately begin to experience what it feels like to have the value of their lives affirmed, and to be treated with respect, dignity, and kindness. Therapeutic intervention ranges from straightforward counseling to more innovative therapeutic approaches which help the girls ‘find their own voice’, discover the their creative talents and develop self-confidence through drama, painting and photography workshops, as well as music, singing and dancing. There is a strong emphasis on personal and creative self-expression and the walls are covered with the artistic expressions of the students.
Education focuses on developing literary and numeracy skills, with a special emphasis on IT, English language, and creative writing. During our visit we sat in on an English class with four Afghan refugees and were able to ask them questions about their experiences at the Centre. What came across was their appreciation for the opportunity they had and the recognition that it had enabled them to rebuild their lives and build confidence in their own abilities to lead an independent life.
Empowerment is achieved through a series of workshops that aim to change attitudes through awareness and knowledge. The workshops focus on fostering personal empowerment; the development of a conceptual understanding of individual/human rights; gender identity; a citizen’s role in society; as well as legal issues that pertain to women, the family and the work environment. They further aim to foster the ability to bring about a stable and equitable marital relationships. Assessments are made to either guide the young women towards a university education or advanced professional vocational training in fields such as IT, accounting, secretarial, architectural drafting, or tourism management. Students who opt for the vocational route are placed either in an appropriate job with an Iranian organization or given assistance and mentored to start her own business enterprise. The development of enterprise skills and attitudes is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the programme.
The Centre also seeks to develop cultural capitol, through visits to places and institutions of cultural merit and 'character' through physical challenges such as climbing significant mountains in the Alborz mountain range north of Tehran.
The Centre is keen to provide internships to high school or university students with an Iranian heritage, from America and Europe to contribute to the educational process. Those who participate are known as Omid Angels and they teach English or IT, or run yoga classes, drama workshops, fashion design or any other talent they can share.
While giving to charities which support poor people is well established in Iran, supporting social educational enterprises like OMID is not part of the culture. It costs around $400 per month to support a student and all funding is raised through donations and private sponsors. I, and my family, feel privileged, humbled and inspired after our visit to the Omid-e-Mehr Centre. To find out more about the work of the Centre or make a donation you can visit the website. You might also like to watch ‘The Glass House’, a documentary film which follows the lives of four Iranian women who were members of the first cohort of students.