A woman named Nadia Murad won the Noble Peace Prize in 2018. She is a Yazidi from Northern Iraq. The Yazidis are a people bound by an ancient faith tradition. They have sought to live in peace in harsh surroundings. Along with the Christians of the area, they have endured many persecutions through the centuries.
Nothing could have prepared Nadia for what happened on August 15, 2014. Nadia lived in a little village called Kawju (Kocho) in an area called Sinjar. The town’s residents were mostly farmers and shepherds. At 21 years, Nadia dreamed of becoming a history teacher or a beauty salon owner. Then came the unthinkable. The Islamic State (ISIS) invaded the village.
ISIS rounded up everyone and forced them into the schoolyard. The men were separated from the women. As Nadia said: “I hadn’t realized how small my village was until I saw that all of Kocho could fit into its schoolyard. We stood huddled on the dry grass. Some whispered to one another, wondering what was going on. Others were silent, in shock. No one understood what was happening.”
Nadia was forced to watch as six of her brothers were massacred. Her mother was executed, along with eighty older women. The bodies of the men and women were thrown into mass graves. The rest of the women, including Nadia, were taken to Mosul, the largest city held by ISIS at the time, and sold as sex slaves.
The depravity of ISIS unfolded as they sought to carry out a genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities. The Yazidis were singled out for persecution by ISIS because they were part of a Kurdish-speaking religion without a “Holy Book.” Using that background as justification, the ISIS Research and Fatwa Department targeted the Yazidi women for sex slavery in an effort to lure young men to join their militant cause. ISIS’ twisted bureaucracy of barbarity even prepared a document, Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves.
True to the dictates of the ISIS document, Nadia was bought and sold several times, with Facebook used as one of the prime ISIS marketing tools. She was repeatedly raped, burned with cigarettes, and beaten. Her first attempt at escape resulted in a vicious gang rape that left her unconscious. She decided to not try to escape again.
After months of unspeakable agony, one day Nadia discovered that a door had been left unlocked, and she fled. She found refuge with a Muslim family who helped her. The eldest son in the family risked his life to smuggle her to Kurdish-controlled territory.
I was first introduced to Nadia by some of my friends in Lincoln’s Yazidi community. Lincoln is home to the largest Yazidi community in America. Seeing the trauma in her face and sensing the wounds in her soul, I asked Nadia if she would be willing to share her story fully with us. I thought it important that we hear, in order to understand. She agreed. At one point, I looked at her translator. Tears streamed down his face. My Chief of Staff sobbed. It was too much to bear.
This past Tuesday, Nadia Murad was my honored guest at the State of the Union. I was happy to see her again, and she gave me a copy of her book The Last Girl. Her fiancé, Abid Shamdeen, accompanied her. He had served as a translator at the height of the Iraq war and had earned his citizenship. Nadia and I spent an hour with a reporter from the Washington Post. Nadia answered the questions with graceful but purposeful resolve, as Abid lovingly brought forth the full meaning of her words.
Though she was in Washington to raise awareness of the Yazidi genocide and join us in the call for a security settlement in Northern Iraq to protect Christians and Yazidis, she gently and profoundly articulated the need to respect human dignity, using the pain in her soul to help heal our broken world.