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.