Pic: Free Yezidi Foundation
We are now the media. Our generation have a more liberated voice than ever before so how in 2016 is genocide still a thing? We are living in one of the most pivotal times in recent history and it's time for us to wake up to reality. The day I met Pari Ibrahim she changed my life forever. Starting the Free Yezidi Foundation with her sister Zazi after losing members of their family to ISIS, their charity is based on the very front line of the Syrian War. Sat with our legs dangled over a bridge looking down at a river and up at Canary Wharf's bold skyline, what I was about to hear I knew the world needed to know in its purest form. This isn't easy to read but it's real and is happening in our world right now.
When you came to London what was your mission?
It was mostly to partner with Women for Women International to help us get funding and so they could advise us on one of the projects for one of the camps that we're doing for IDP women and girls. Also to show people in government that we, as a Yezidi organisation, led by women, can be strong and can eventually fight for justice and help women to succeed in the future and rebuild their lives.
How do you feel like it's gone?
It's gone well, they're all so supportive. Our organisation is registered in Holland and in Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The Middle East is a man's world, it's a competition and everyone wants to be on top.
How did it make you feel being brought up amongst that?
You always have to fight harder to get the same attention that the men get in the Middle East because they don't believe that women can be strong advocates. In the last one and a half years since ISIS committed these crimes against the Yezidi population, the women have been very strong in the community and around the world. Voices are being heard and that's mostly because of the women that speak.
How are those women changing?
All of the women who fight for women's rights and education are changing in a way that makes them stronger. Before this was happening to the Yezidis, the women went to school but they were very low profile and I now see they are much stronger.
How do the guys feel about it?
My father is very modern, we've lived in Holland for a long time and he continuously said it was so amazing that when the Yezidi genocide happened it was the women who stood up. I don't know how they feel. Some of them have tried to do something but I think because of what ISIS have done to the women and girls, the Yezidi community have the strength to raise their voice for those in captivity.
How do you think that these changes will have an impact on other women around the world?
I think it will definitely have an impact, especially in the Middle East. It will show that women can achieve something, starting from nothing. Starting a small organisation and then speaking at The Security Council or The House of Lords, it means so much. These are all men. I have many role models who are women. They give me strength and I hope also one day to become one for others. I think many of the Yezidi women have the same idea, to be a role models for others.
I was talking to Brita Schmidt from Women for Women UK recently. She was telling me the story about the women in the cage. When I read about it, I cried. How does something like that impact a country?
It impacts a lot of the Yezidi people and I know that many of the Kurdish and Iraqi people were hurt by it. The story about nineteen girls who were in ISIS captivity and sold as sex slaves, in the beginning there were over six thousand Yezidi girls and women captured and sold as sex slaves. It's unbelievable. We fight for the right of the women to be free and liberated but most governments keep a distance from it. We heard recently that nineteen Yezidi girls have been burnt alive in a cage by ISIS. It is unbelievable that we accept these things in the UK in 2016, we have to understand that the safety of the people here in the UK is also in danger. These ISIS members are now mingling with the refugees and also making their way here. The Free Yezidi Foundation tries to get attention for the liberation of these girls to bring justice for the victims at the International Criminal Court. Some of these people are from the UK. Jihadi John, he is now dead but there are others who are coming back here. What will happen to them? How will we prove that these men have committed crimes against humanity? I think there should be a link and the Free Yezidi Foundation is trying to form that link between the countries and the testimony of the women and girls. The evidence is there in Kurdistan and we want to bring at least one ISIS member to trial so we can show the world that they cannot act with impunity. We want to show that there will be justice for victims of sexual abuse in conflict.
You are on the front line. What made you want to help?
I was just a normal law student in Amsterdam. I had a job at the library and when this happened we got a call at 5am from family members that ISIS had entered Sinjar. They were saying that ISIS were killing all the men and taking women and girls as slaves. I was in Germany and went back to Holland to try to immediately raise awareness of the topic. We then heard that the Yezidis were trying to flee to Mount Sinjar and were there for three days without food or water. Finally, America said OK we're going to bomb ISIS. With the help of the YPG they opened the corridor and eventually freed all of the people who were surrounded. ISIS were about to kill all of them. Children, women and men were starving on top of the mountain; it was so hot that August in 2014. I just quit everything and started the Free Yezidi Foundation. We started doing demonstrations, went on BBC World and tried to raise awareness. In the beginning I wanted to collect some money that would get to the Yezidi IDPs but eventually it became so big that I couldn't get out of it. I don't want to get out of it, it's beautiful. I recently started my education again and I have just one test to go and then I hope to spend one hundred percent of my time on this cause.
You and your sister are both involved, what does that mean to you?
My sister means everything to me, when I'm down she comes and hugs me and tells me everything will be OK. She gives me strength. She lives with the victims one hundred yards from the camp that supports women and girls with therapy and music. We have computer classes, English and different things for women to empower themselves again to bring them back into society. These women are all victims. Some of them are victims of sexual violence, some of them are victims of unimaginable things that have caused trauma so sisterhood means everything. I've heard a lot of stories of women who have lost sisters. I hear girls say they are raising money so that if one day they receive a phone call from their sister they can buy her back from her captors. Having a sister, she is like the backbone for me.
What's been the most inspiring thing that you've seen along the way?
I cannot say anything about the political people, they do not inspire me at all. These people working at the UN, you'd think they would support the cause to stop girls being kidnapped and raped. I do have role models in the girls, in the victims that have escaped out of ISIS captivity. The strength that they want to keep on going with their lives, that's what makes them my role models because they are the voices of the Yezidi people. They come back with the strength and tell people what has happened to them and that is pure courage.
Why do you think these guys are behaving the way that they are?
Probably when they were children they had something very bad which has made them from a human being to a monster. I think that the failing of the world is what makes people monsters because we are silently agreeing with the crimes they are committing. I have warned a lot of countries. You have to look and ask are these really refugees or are these ISIS fighters who have committed horrible crimes, now mingling with society? It's dangerous for everyone.
Do you think that these people are ever going to change?
No. ISIS has experts in brain washing children and they won't be able to go back to normal. After you commit a crime, I do not think it's a good idea to bring you back into society. They will not change. The stories that I have heard from these girls and what has been done to them, young children are being hanged because they're crying for a bit of water, girls being raped ten times a day. It's unbelievable.
A lot of people I am friends with don't know about this. Is there anything we can do to help?
The FYF is trying to raise funds to use on the projects because there are many needed things inside the camp. With sewing classes, with music, we give them something back and that is happiness, we're putting a smile on their faces again. If anyone can raise funds through true music or true art it's a blessing. Right now, we would like to raise $7,000 for an electricity generator for our center in Iraq. My little brother is a producer and he made a song for the FYF with a friend of his and it's called 'Why Don't We Just Love?', it's an amazing song and through this we also raise awareness and money to help the Yezidi community.
How do you think music can help people?
It is a healing thing. If I'm feeling down then I listen to music to get away to a reality where everything is peaceful and that's what helps these young women and girls. In the beginning they are very shy and later on you can see the teacher really embraces them with love and they start singing. That's the best thing you can see as a human being.
You mentioned earlier that ISIS can brainwash children which is terrible. If you could sit with those kids and you give them a different message what would it be?
I would tell them that they have to look at their own parents and family members and ask them: would they want to see the people close to them hurt? Would they want to be hurt this way? If you relate it to a family member or someone close to them then that will help them see a change but you have to be quick with it. Yezidi children are being brainwashed by ISIS to commit suicide, to be bombers or be child soldiers. We've opened a children's centre because some of them escaped ISIS captivity. We try to comfort them by drawing, art, music and then they feel more at ease.
From here, what's next?
The Yezidi people have begun to raise money. There are smugglers and instead of smuggling tobacco, they smuggle to bring back the girls. Yezidi families don't have another choice. We need to save our girls. I have lost nineteen girls from my family. More than twenty-one men have been killed or taken, I don't know what has happened to them. Two of these girls came back out of ISIS captivity. It is horrible what they've been through, it is up to us to make a difference and liberate these girls. I think action from government and the international community is needed.
If you could change the world, how would you like it to be?
In the Middle East, I would start off with educating women, making them stronger and making them confident to change things. Most of the women have a good heart and a good sense of giving love. That's what the world needs.
And how would that change the world?
By loving and caring for people it will change everything, you give people a right to live.
Find out more about the Free Yezidi Foundation here: https://www.freeyezidi.org