Yazidi re­silience


When Samia Sle­man smiles, her face is ra­di­ant. But overt dis­plays of hap­pi­ness are rare for this 15-year-old. What Samia has wit­nessed over the past sev­eral years no teenager should have to experience. She is a Yazidi, a mem­ber of a dis­tinct Mid­dle East mi­nor­ity that has suf­fered re­peated per­se­cu­tions over cen­turies, and es­pe­cially grue­some treat­ment at the hands of Is­lamic State (ISIS) to­day. Some 40 per­cent of the area in north­ern Iraq that Yazidis have long called their home­land is in the grip of ISIS, and at least a third of the Yazidis, 500,000 peo­ple, have be­come refugees.

Samia vis­ited AJC head­quar­ters in New York last month to meet with a small group of us a few days be­fore she was hon­ored at a large lun­cheon with AJC’s Voice of Conscience Award. With the help of a Kur­dish-lan­guage in­ter­preter, Abid Shamdeen of Yazda, a global Yazidi or­ga­ni­za­tion, she shared her heart-wrench­ing story. She spoke calmly and mod­estly about how she has suf­fered, and how she is try­ing to re­store some nor­malcy and carry on her mul­ti­ple, si­mul­ta­ne­ous roles: a young woman, a daugh­ter, a grand­daugh­ter, a sib­ling, a home­less wan­derer, a refugee, a victim – and, mostly, a sur­vivor.

“They called us spoils of war just be­cause of our faith,” Samia said of her ISIS cap­tors.

When ISIS over­ran Yazidi ter­ri­tory in 2014, men and women were forcibly sep­a­rated. The men were given a choice: con­vert to Is­lam or die. Fe­males were di­vided fur­ther. Samia was pulled away from her re­sist­ing mother and grand­mother, who was hit in the head. That was the last time she saw her grand­mother.

“I was 13 years old,” Samia re­calls. “Girls as young as seven or eight were held as sex slaves.” She pulled up a sleeve, re­veal­ing a scar on her wrist. “I tried to com­mit sui­cide, but could not even do that when in cap­tiv­ity.”

Young girls are not just passed around but sold and resold among ISIS fight­ers. The fourth ISIS fighter who pur­chased Samia moved her and his fam­ily to Mo­sul. Con­stantly abused, re­peat­edly raped, Samia re­al­ized that she had ar­rived, as a hostage, in a large city, and was no longer be­ing held in an iso­lated ru­ral area. She fig­ured out a way to es­cape af­ter six months of bru­tal­ity and what had seemed to be a very un­cer­tain future.

One day she dressed as a boy, walked out of the house where she was held and took the risk of stop­ping a taxi and ask­ing the driver for help. She was for­tu­nate. The driver helped her hide, and made con­nec­tions that en­abled her to get out of Iraq and come to Ger­many.

To­day, about 1,100 Yazidi women and girls are liv­ing in Ger­many, far from their home­land. With the as­sis­tance of the Ger­man gov­ern­ment and non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, they are safe and are be­gin­ning to re­build their lives. By a stroke of luck, if not a mir­a­cle, Samia was re­united with her mother in Ger­many. She has no idea what hap­pened to her fa­ther, brother and un­cle, if any or all are even alive.

ISIS has en­slaved an es­ti­mated 5,800 Yazidi women and girls. About 2,800 of them have es­caped, mostly to camps in north­ern Iraq. They are un­sure whether the dys­func­tional Iraqi gov­ern­ment or the Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties will truly pro­tect them. The other 3,000 re­main in cap­tiv­ity, at the mercy of ISIS.

His­tory of­ten re­peats in the cru­elest man­ner. World War II, the de­feat of Fas­cism, to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and a geno­ci­dal Nazi regime were sup­posed to usher in an era of peace. “Never Again,” the ral­ly­ing cry of the Jewish peo­ple, ex­pressed the de­ter­mi­na­tion to en­sure that Jews world­wide would not suf­fer anti-Semitism again. It was hoped that the Jewish experience would in­spire the world to mo­bi­lize to pro­tect mi­nori­ties tar­geted for mass mur­der and abuse in a timely fash­ion.

Alas, as the fre­quency and ex­tent of vi­o­lence reaches new depths of de­prav­ity, the cries of the vic­tims of the Holo­caust, of the Ar­me­nian geno­cide sev­eral decades ear­lier, of Rwanda and Dar­fur, still have not suf­fi­ciently moved in­di­vid­ual gov­ern­ments, not even the re­gional and global pow­ers, to take mean­ing­ful ac­tions. Not un­til March 17, 2016, did the US de­clare that ISIS’ ac­tions against the Yazidis and other mi­nor­ity groups con­sti­tuted geno­cide.

So it falls to brave in­di­vid­u­als, even the youngest among them, to be the ones call­ing out as loudly as they can for ur­gent help. Samia was not shy at all, stand­ing in a large hall in front of more than 400 peo­ple, ac­cept­ing the AJC award. She told her story again, this time with even more pas­sion and out­rage.

“What hap­pened to the Yazidis is geno­cide,” Samia de­clared. “The world should help the Yazidis, pun­ish those who com­mit­ted crimes against us, and res­cue those in cap­tiv­ity, es­pe­cially women and kids.” Samia and the Yazidi peo­ple are wait­ing. The writer is the Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee’s di­rec­tor of me­dia re­la­tions.

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