This week I sat down with Sherin Zadah, a current MPA student (‘23) and Founder and Executive Director of the Kurdish Refugee Relief Foundation (KRR). KRR is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to empowering refugee women by sustainably addressing the menstrual health gap in Kurdistan’s refugee camps. Zadah founded KRR in 2020 after conducting a needs assessment in the Bardaash refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq and finding that women’s menstrual health and hygiene needs were not being addressed. Since their launch two years ago, they have reached over 1,400 women, distributing information on menstrual health, as well as products like pain medications, menstrual wipes and menstrual pads. KRR is now working on providing sustainable menstrual health products.
What inspired you to start your own organization?
The first time I visited a refugee camp in Kurdistan, I learned that the women at the camps were using rags for menstruation, and did not have access to menstrual products. This lack of attention to women’s health and hygiene inspired me to start campaigning for this issue. Around the same time, in October of 2019, the Trump Administration decided to withdraw from Syria, which brought national attention to the region. I was interviewed by NPR and published an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal about the Turkish invasion. Through these interviews and national news coverage, I was contacted by major philanthropists in San Diego, California (my hometown), who offered to support my cause and I got my first grant to start my nonprofit.
What’s coming next for your nonprofit?
The next phase of our project will be to distribute reusable menstrual products, including menstrual cups and menstrual period underwear. This shift is key to our sustainability mission, and will allow us to continue expanding our work (since continuing to distribute disposable products will not be feasible over the years). Our distribution of reusable menstrual products will be accompanied with education campaigns.
What has it been like running an organization and attending school?
It is both stressful and exciting. I feel fulfilled! I love this work, and it is something that I envision myself continuing and always being involved in because I believe deeply in the mission. My work with KRR and my studies have kept me very busy, but I’ve found that when you have so many responsibilities, it forces you to be more responsible and time conscious.
How did your prior experiences prepare you for SIPA?
I got my Bachelor’s Degree from Claremont McKenna College which was a well integrated, small community with hands on, discussion-based learning. This prepared me to some extent, as well as running my own non-profit. This experience has given me the opportunity to meet and engage with high-level people and has given me confidence to make the most of my SIPA experience by connecting with my professors, peers, and applying for many different opportunities.
What are you studying and why did you choose SIPA?
I am an MPA candidate concentrating on Energy and Environment (EE) as well as Technology, Media, and Communications (TMAC). I chose SIPA because of the broad orientation of the program, and a wide variety of available courses. When I was choosing graduate programs, I decided that I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself into one sector. In other words, I didn’t want to focus solely on government, bureaucracy, or diplomacy. I was looking for a broadly-oriented program that would allow me to have a wide variety of classes and academic experiences.
On top of all of this, SIPA has a great EE program – it is truly world class! My courses on energy have been incredible. My professors are the top in their field and they teach you very practical skills which make you a competitive job candidate when you graduate.
What are some classes that you’ve taken that have supported your work?
I took a class with Sarah Holloway called Creating a Social Enterprise. In this class, I learned the essentials of starting a social enterprise and how to sustain one in terms of identifying sources of funding. Throughout the semester, we also learned about SIPA graduates who have started their own social enterprises. It was inspiring to see how many SIPA alumni have been successful in starting social enterprises and sustaining them. I loved to see that my peers have made it.
Beyond that, I have really appreciated the practical focus of the curriculum and learning experiences at SIPA. For example, at the end of the program we need to complete a Capstone workshop, which I am really looking forward to. Also, through the SIPA Private Partnership Club, I was recently given the opportunity to work on a project with the World Economic Forum. I am looking forward to starting this project and gaining some more hands-on experience!
What are you looking forward to during your remaining time at SIPA and Columbia?
A LOT – I really can’t wait for next year. I will do a Capstone, Practicum, and I want to start a club! My background is primarily in the nonprofit field, but now I’m transitioning into the Energy space. I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of energy with the nonprofit space so I’d also like to learn more about that and find ways to incorporate my interests and experiences.
I really can’t wait to be more involved with SIPA. I have really loved my experience here. It has given me a community of role models and inspiring people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I can’t wait to further develop those relationships in the future!