top of page

One Woman's Time in Kurdistan

In 2014, the Yazidi people were targeted for genocide, for the 74th time in their history, by Da’esh.  In Shingal, as Da’esh attacked, slaughtered, and enslaved thousands, thousands more were able to escape and hide in the mountains, praying for rescue.  The Yuva Organization was started then, though no one knew it yet.

This is context for what the Yazidi and others who lived in Shingal had been through when several years later I arrived, naïve and determined to help in whatever small way I could. I volunteered for the NGO Yazda, where I met Firas. Firas took me under his wing; he brought me to his village where I stayed with his family, met the village elders, was brought to the temples, and helped the volunteers he had organized to teach. But let me start at the beginning, when I was just a young American woman, in Iraq, on her own. I had every reason to be afraid. But no one I met made me think I was unsafe with them.

Rather, they introduced me to the Protector of the most holy Yazidi temple, Lalish. Stores wouldn’t let me pay if all I wanted was a water bottle. Muslim women took me to their mosque and showed me how to pray. In short, I was never considered other. From my first day, I was considered part of the community. We were all just human, offering what we could to one another.

In my first two weeks in Dohuk, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, I heard and read dozens of firsthand accounts of the captives.  The majority of these I will not share, but suffice it to say, if I hadn’t heard these atrocities first hand, I wouldn’t have believed that humans were capable of such things. All I will say is that when the women were taken, they tried to tear their hair and cover themselves in dirt. They wanted to be as unappealing as possible. It did not help. I personally know mothers who escaped, and whose daughters remain in captivity, and I cannot imagine that pain.

Da’esh attacked on August 3rd, 2014, several years before I traveled there.  There was little time to flee, just warnings hours ahead of time from nearby villages that this was happening, this was coming, Da’esh was on its way, there was no time for the Yazidi. The peshmerga had abandoned them in the night.  They had to flee. By sundown, Da’esh had control of Shingal.  Between 3,000 and 5,000 Yazidi were killed and 6,000 were captured.  Hundreds more died as they huddled on Shingal Mountain. There wasn’t enough food or water. They were surrounded by Da’esh.  The U.S. airdropped supplies for approximately one week before declaring the siege over, despite hundreds still on the mountain.  There was no shelter from the elements.   Days later, Syrian Kurdish forces opened a path to Syria, where civil war was still ongoing.

Firas Omer is the founder of Yuva, though it took years to become the organization it is today. Da’esh attacked August 3rd; on August 4th he took it upon himself to distract the children through teaching, using what little supplies people had been able to carry.

When they could return to Duhola, destroyed though it was, Firas did not stop teaching. The school was decimated by Da’esh, so he took to buildings that remained somewhat intact, he taught outside, he did not stop. He found volunteers and they grew in number; until the school was rebuilt, Firas made it his responsibility to educate. He would not let these children’s lives be completely ruined, so they would continue to learn as best they could, as houses were slowly repaired and the dead and missing were mourned.

It was not long after meeting me that Firas first invited me to stay with his family. I eagerly accepted.

It was a three hour drive to Duhola, one of the villages in the area largely destroyed by ISIS, but made longer by a stop at the Khanke IDP camp. Miles of white tents, a fence, and miles more. There were too many refugees for what developed into a camp, so now there is an official camp and an unofficial one (the “wild” camp) right beside it.  Water was non-potable, tent fires were frequent, and thousands remain there.  There we picked up a member of the peshmerga and his wife—apparently having a peshmerga with us helped us get through checkpoints.  As we got closer to Shingal there was at least one checkpoint at every village. At several the men in the car had to pull me away from masked men with guns, demand my passport back, and move on as quickly as possible.

As we drove, we made our way through empty desert and sparse grass before we began passing the occasional crumbled house. Then entire destroyed villages. The houses that were made of clay might have the frame left, the ones that were made of cinderblocks were just a pile of the blocks with the roof collapsed on top of them. The villages were small, but completely empty. We drove along the Syrian border, less than a mile away, as the alternative was to cross near Mosul, still under the control of Da’esh. Across the border there were always plumes of smoke. Some of them were from oil refineries and some were from something worse, but there was no way tell the difference.

Firas’ home village was half destroyed. Completely devastated buildings next to ones only partially burnt. Families live all together, so we were welcomed by his parents, wife, four younger sisters, and younger brother. Some of them spoke a bit of English, but I mostly just sat quietly and smiled. The entire village seemed to be related, whether by blood or otherwise—everyone was an uncle or cousin. The overwhelming feeling was one of openness. The people who lived in Duhola went through circumstances unimaginable, yet they treated me as one of their own. They promised to protect me and keep me safe.

Firas, his oldest sister, and his wife brought me to two Yazidi shrines. One of them was on Shingal Mountain—and as we drove up the steep side, unguided by any trail, I knew we were following the same path Firas and his family had fled through before. The mountain that refugees had to run or drive up, if they were lucky. We would stop so that school children—who didn’t know us and we didn’t know them—could climb in the back of the pick up and get off again at the base of the mountain.

The most striking thing was how empty it all felt. Even of the homes that weren’t destroyed, more than half had no one living in them anymore. There were maybe five dozen children. Everyone was just… gone.

Before bed one night, Firas sat to translate a conversation his uncle and father wished to have with me. They didn’t understand why the international community was turning a blind eye to their struggle and pain, and I didn’t have a good answer. The intellectual one—there were too many crises, new ones constantly starting, and no one had the attention span for them all, let alone that of a small, relatively unknown people in an already war-torn country—was too cold, and anything else sounded too naïve. They were scared, because everyone around them wanted to kill them. Two of the other men who came to speak with us that night are peshmerga now. They had fought to protect their village when the peshmerga abandoned them in August 2014. But when the Kurds returned, they were scared about a betrayed Yazidi force who had weapons and began threatening the armed Yazidi unless they joined.

The next morning Firas and his wife brought me to the partially rebuilt village school. We went to two of the classrooms, where the students could practice their English with me again. Then we met with the headmaster and a group of the teachers—all middle aged men adorned with bushy mustaches. And they all listened to me intently—the only woman, 25 and wide-eyed. Firas had asked me that morning to say something inspirational about the importance of education and everyone drank in my words, as though I had some wisdom imparted upon me by being born in America.

It broke my heart. These men all pleading with me to spread information about their plight, to just try to get people to listen. They thought my being an American meant I had power in some way, and I couldn’t seem to express that I had none. I had anxiety and an Instagram account. They felt that had been ignored and abandoned—and they were right. But in their eyes, I knew about them, I had gone there to work and to help, surely that meant that more people were learning about the Yazidi.

I told them I would do what I can. I knew, even then, it would be limited to long distance volunteering, almost entirely on my own. We all have our own crises to attend to. But I do have a voice, even if sometimes it shakes, and I am willing to be loud.

That was all I could promise. My words. I have tried, with the publication of my poetry collection And My Blood Sang, to make good on that promise.

The poem below is included in my collection, and may be the most important one. I was running from my own trauma, which I was not yet able to face. I knew the women I met in Iraq had been through torture I could never comprehend, but there was a flicker of similarity there. Their kindness helped me heal. Their strength and resilience showed me what was possible. Here were true survivors, true heroes, and despite all they had been through, they showed me nothing but generosity and love. I arrived having seen the darkness in humanity, and they reminded me of the good. By the time I left, I was in a different place. I remembered why I wanted to help. I remembered that I was not alone. I remembered that people are basically good.

It's too common a cliché, yet it was true: I went hoping to help others, and they helped me. All I can do is try to return the favor. Never forget means never forget for all; yet most people have never even heard of this ethnoreligious minority. They are incredible, and they continue to suffer. They still fight prejudice, and they still rebuild. They believe in their own future despite their past, or perhaps because they know they have overcome every obstacle, time and again, and will continue to persevere.

So please, I ask you, do what you can to help the Yazidi, to grow the Yuva Organization. If all you have are your words, then I ask that you use them as well.


Duhola Village

by Maia Brown-Jackson

I was born a runner.


And you could not help but get hurt, and hurt, and hurt,

and then you run before you could realize


I swore I could be a hero,

not a damsel in distress, and

I sought those whose worlds were decimated

and promised what little I had to offer.


what happened,

that your worldview shattered,

that you experienced something

you never believed possible for a girl like you.


They had run to survive;

they carried their past with them

rather than flee it.

They were far braver than me.


And you learn quickly,

as you slowly come to terms,

that there are two kinds of broken people.


And they protected me.

They promised me safety;

I believed them.


One says: I was hurt;

why was it me?

It wasn’t fair that I was chosen

for this pain and I refuse

to suffer it alone.


They are the broken who

take care of their own.


The other: I was hurt;

I will not let it happen to you, too.


We were all born survivors,

descended from runners who

passed their wounds onto us,

blood far removed yet persecuted all the same.


(And do not listen to those who hurt you.

They will whisper lies about the broken ones


The moment they realized I was

alone and naively unafraid,

    (blindly, recklessly so,

    still in denial, still uncomprehending)

they refused the prejudice

the powerful want us to believe we/they/all carry

(for the elite would always pit us against each other;

we are stronger together)


and tell you that no one is truly good

and no one will ever save you.)


and said, You are safe here.

And I believed them.



You were hurt and you survived

and you have a choice.


They endured trials worse than hell

and clawed their way back

—and I watched in awe as

my pace finally began to slow—

and took in a strange girl and

said, You will not be hurt here.


Make sure you do not let yourself

become the monster that did this to you.

And together,

united in our perseverance,

beautiful far beyond any physical manifestation

could hope to express,

we were ready to stop running.


So when you’re out of breath,

your feet bloodied and your lungs in agony,

you can still choose to stand and fight.

And the brave and the traumatized

will not let you fight alone.

bottom of page