From the terrifying darkness of her personal chamber of horrors, the room in Mosul, northern Iraq where she was held as a sex slave, to the glittering lights of the Nobel Prize Awards ceremony on Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Nadia Murad will have travelled a long way.
In October, when the Nobel Committee made the announcement, the world woke up to a day of euphoria and celebration. Applause and accolades from around the world were showered on the girl from Kocho, an obscure community of farmers and shepherds in the shadow of Sinjar Mountain in governorate of Nineveh. The region in northern Iraq is home to several ancient minority ethnocultural religious communities including Yazidis, of which she is a member, and Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Christians.
Murad, 23, has become the media star of the moment, but her path to fame was an agonizing trail of excruciating pain, suffering, and trauma that most of us in Canada cannot imagine in our worst nightmares.
Born into a farming family, and a community that speaks Kurdish and Arabic, she lived a simple life in her native village, spending happy times with her parents and siblings, worshipping in elaborately decorated shrines, celebrating cultural festivals and practicing her 6000-year-old religion that blends Islam, Sufism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism.
Then, on a fateful day, August 3, 2014, her world and her dreams for the future crashed down in a hail of bullets and an explosion of bombs. Violent extremists calling themselves ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) stormed her village, and issued a brutal ultimatum to her people and to all other minorities including Christians to convert to their own ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam or face death by torture and beheading.
The men who refused to convert, including Nadia’s six brothers, were butchered along with women who were too old to be taken into sex slavery. Their bodies were dumped into mass graves,
Murad, then 19, was taken to Mosul, which had already been captured by ISIS. Along with thousands of Yazidi and Christian girls, she was forced into the ISIS-operated sex slave trade. Held captive and passed like a soccer ball from one ISIS militant to another, she was repeatedly gang-raped, tortured and beaten.
Three months later, she managed to escape through an unlocked door in the house where she was held prisoner, running through the narrow streets of Mosul under cover of darkness.
Knocking at the door of a home in the city and pleading for help, she was sheltered by a family of Sunni Muslims, whose eldest son Omar Abdel Jabar risked his own life to protect her, and personally escorted her out of Iraq by taxi, running the gauntlet of ISIS checkpoints.
“I don’t know why he was good and so many others in Mosul were so terrible,” she wrote in a book she published later called The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State.
Eventually reaching Germany, she gained refugee status there thanks to a special program established in that country for Yazidis.
Befriended by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and others, she eventually became the voice and face of her people, advocating for them and bringing their cause to the attention of the entire world, speaking before the UN and other international forums, and winning prestigious prizes including the Vaclav Havel Human Rights prize in 2016.
Aside from the sheer, riveting drama of Murad’s escape, and the glitter and glamour surrounding her Nobel Prize award, her story has many elements for deep reflection for people of faith and conviction everywhere.
For me as a Christian, the graphic details of her suffering and torture under ISIS deepened the reality of Jesus’ suffering under his Roman oppressors in a way that years of Sunday school lessons, Bible readings, and homilies delivered by the most eloquent preachers have never done.
I have never met Nadia Murad, but I came close to hearing of her experience first-hand when I met and interviewed one of her fellow Yazidi survivors, Farida Abbas, in the summer of 2017 in Caux, a small mountain village in Switzerland.
Abbas’ story is nearly identical to that of Murad, so in retrospect it was like sharing a conversation with Murad herself.
Abbas had traveled from Germany where she, too, is a refugee, to Switzerland to address a conference called Towards an Inclusive Peace: Tackling Different Forms of Violent Extremism organized by Initiatives of Change, an international NGO that works to “build bridges across the world’s divides.” I was on the communications team of that conference, and had the opportunity to speak to Abbas privately.
Her shoulders heaving, and with tears rolling down her gaunt cheeks she spoke to me through her friend and German-to-English translator, Saeed Sulaiman. A fellow Yazidi, Sulaiman is also a board member of Yazda, an international NGO established to support Yazidis and other vulnerable groups in the Middle East.
“Our Yazidi religion believes in peace,” Abbas said between sobs. “We only ask to be able to live in peace, but after Isis attacked my home town (Kocho) they took me captive. I was at the mercy of people who had no mercy. They tortured, raped and beat me again and again. I found a piece of glass and cut myself, and fell unconscious. I wanted to die.”
There are other parallels to her story and Murad’s. Like, Murad she escaped, eventually finding her way to a refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She witnessed her father and brother being beheaded. Her father’s last words gave her the strength to survive and kept her alive.
She recalled his last words before he was murdered: “Farida, you have to stay strong and live. You have to continue our family line.”
Abbas and Murad were among several thousand survivors flown into Germany through a program established in 2014 for Yazidi victims of ISIS atrocities. Abbas, like her more famous counterpart, has also gone on to become an advocate and spokeswoman for her people, winning several international awards and publishing a book called The Girls Who Beat ISIS.
Several Good Samaritans played a role in Nadia Murad’s harrowing and deeply disturbing, but ultimately inspiring, story. Apart from Omar Jabar, the Iraqi Sunni Muslim who helped her escape and whose life is still in danger, a few Canadian politicians pleaded her cause and helped to raise awareness of the Yazidi and other women victims of sex slavery.
Rona Ambrose, then leader of the Opposition Conservative Party, was instrumental in bringing Murad to Ottawa in the summer of 2016 when she testified before the Standing Committee on Human Rights and Immigration. Murad thanked Ambrose, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel and “everyone else who stands for the truth.”
Shortly after that, all 313 MPs voted unanimously in favour of a motion put forward by Rempel to recognize ISIS atrocities against Yazidis as genocide, and to provide asylum to surviving Yazidi women within 120 days.
Good Samaritans, people of faith and conscience who look upon the entire world as their neighbours, were very much part of Nadia Murad’s story, and it is important to have these people in the public square as well as in the private realm.
Susan Korah is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. She has a Master of Journalism degree from Carleton University, and writes on Canadian, international politics, human rights and freedom of religion. She is a Suriani, an Orthodox Christian of the Syriac/Aramaic rite.
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