Courage to Witness
In Volume Two we introduced you to Jacqueline Isaac, a California-based attorney and human rights advocate who defends persecuted Christians and Yazidis. For nearly two years Jacqueline has advocated for the establishment of an international court to try ISIS for genocide. Her nonprofit Roads of Success recently launched Tech Over Trauma, a program that connects girls rescued from ISIS captivity with Skype mentors, therapy, and education.
While working in Iraq in 2015, Jacqueline met Ekhlas, a sixteen-year-old rescued Yazidi girl with a dream of becoming a lawyer. Ekhlas’ ability to transmute trauma into courage, coupled with Jacqueline’s platform and mentorship, has taken them all over the world to testify on international stages. We traveled to Germany with Jacqueline this past February and witnessed firsthand the power of solidarity.
It’s fasnacht—“carnival”—week in Konstanz, Germany and the streets are buzzing. Grown men in furry, bell-laden costumes jingle past clowns and street musicians. Young women in harlequin tights and skyward heels teeter down cobblestone sidewalks. It’s a playful dichotomy set against the medieval architecture of this mystical lakeside town.
But at the edge of Lake Constance the festivities are relatively contained. Just fifteen minutes from the city center is a functioning psychiatric compound, and in one of its formerly vacant dormitories lives a quiet display of courage and solidarity.
Later today, behind the walls of the compound, I will meet a victim of ISIS captivity. I will ask her to bare her soul and recount the horror she lived through. I will ask her to relive the trauma through the telling. I will ask her a series of questions about a crisis that is still unfolding for her family and friends back in Iraq. As we drive the few miles to her location on a bitterly cold evening in February, I ponder the implications of this dynamic.
We walk up three flights, our footsteps echoing throughout the barren stairwell. The hall’s stark white walls and linoleum floors imitate a hospital waiting room. We reach an unmarked door, tap three times, and wait. Darting brown eyes peek out from behind a taped-up piece of paper, checking to see who inquires. The eyes disappear as the lock groans and the door creaks open.
Jacqueline introduces us right away to Ekhlas. It is clear she is the spokesperson for the floor, standing with a confident yet humble countenance, always within sight and speaking up. I recognize her haunting eyes and sharp features from her testimony segment on the BBC during which she testified about the horrors ISIS inflicted upon her and her people. It’s hard to believe she is just sixteen years old. Her demeanor is disarming given her all-too-recent past.
We sit in a circle and begin our introductions. Ekhlas wastes no time getting straight to the story of her captivity and escape. A few of the girls—perhaps less rehearsed than Ekhlas—stand up and walk out of the room. Some start making tea and naan while some tuck away into their bedrooms. “It’s still difficult for many of them to talk about,” Jacqueline says.
Ekhlas continues: it all began in August 2014 when ISIS raided her home and killed her father and brother in front of her eyes.
“The sound of the gunshots and their screams will never leave my ears,” she says. “When I saw [my father] get killed, I was going crazy. I wanted to go to his dead body, but then one of the fighters grabbed me by force.”
Militants captured Ekhlas and her mother and took them to the nearby government prison where ISIS held Yazidi women and children. The fighters told Ekhlas and the other girls that they were now slaves and would do whatever was asked of them. For the next six months, Ekhlas endured incessant rape and abuse. She watched her closest friends, trapped in the same nightmare, cry out for mercy. She even witnessed a 9-year-old girl raped to death, a memory that gives her pause in a moment of thick, impermeable silence.
Then with a breath, she pushes through. “There is nothing you can imagine that they haven’t done to us. They ruined our lives. They left us with nothing and took everything. I always asked myself: What did we do to deserve this?”
Ekhlas tried to escape three times, but was always apprehended and punished for her insubordination.
Finally, in February 2015, in the throes of a battle between ISIS and Peshmerga forces, Ekhlas managed to break a lock and escape. She remembers the frigid night air, the bloody feet, and the relentless hunger and thirst as she trekked for nearly six hours through the mountains until she was rescued by the Peshmerga and Yazidi community.
We don’t stay here for long. She snaps up like a rubberband, sits tall, and tells us she wants to use her voice to help her people and rescue the girls still in captivity. “You could say I have a lot of courage now,” she says. “But I want to be more brave and bold so I can become a lawyer to represent the voice of women and all Yazidis.”
Last year Ekhlas stood next to Jacqueline in front of the UK Parliament in an effort to pass a genocide resolution that will hold ISIS accountable for war crimes. As Jacqueline recaps the memory, she is balanced at the edge of her seat, hardly able to contain the pride in her voice. “[Ekhlas] was screaming at the Parliament members, ‘Stand with us. We need your help. We can’t do this alone.’”
When Ekhlas spoke, people listened. Her story and her courage compelled Parliament to unanimously pass the genocide resolution, a crucial declaration that takes one more step toward prosecuting ISIS in an international criminal court.
With such a potent testimony, it’s risky for Ekhlas to speak out in a public space; her voice has engraved a target on her back in the eyes of ISIS. Yet she continues to speak. “I do understand that it can be dangerous, but I have a responsibility now because I represent a people. I represent those who are kidnapped and still in captivity. Not just the Yazidis, but all girls,” she says. “My faith has taught me not just to defend myself, but to defend others as well. I will never surrender, no matter what happens.”
I glance over at Jacqueline; she is radiating a deep fondness that reaches across the room. Her pride in Ekhlas doesn’t flow from a top-down savior complex, nor does it claim to be a “voice for the voiceless.”
It wasn’t until I met Jacqueline and Ekhlas that I realized the problematic implications of this narrative—one that the church and well-intentioned advocates have taken on like a battle cry. The way Jacqueline empowers Ekhlas—leaning toward her with a patient ear, allowing Ekhlas to do the telling—challenges the “voiceless” narrative. The women’s relationship says that there is no such thing as a voiceless person, only voices that are drowned out by circumstance. Jacqueline simply recognized the story Ekhlas possessed and gave her a platform to be heard.
That is what love does: it unlocks new realms of imagination and creates space for buried dreams to flourish. When we believe in a person, we turn their gaze toward the potential they were once blind to in themselves. I can’t help but wonder if Ekhlas’s dream of becoming a lawyer and a voice for her people was planted when Jacqueline stood up for her in front of Congress, Parliament, and the Vatican. Perhaps it extends further back than that, to when they met in Iraq in 2015 and Jacqueline told her, “Your story matters—and it can change the course of history.”
Jacqueline and Ekhlas resemble sisters, not only in appearance, but also in the way they speak to one another in rapid Arabic like they’ve known the other for a lifetime. They are inseparable the entire weekend in Konstanz, Jacqueline’s arms always around Ekhlas carving out a safe space into which she could lean.
Love does that too: it embraces us in our suffering, crouches to meet us in our weakness, and dwells there. Theologian Jean Vanier recognizes the power that flows from this point of connection: “Weakness recognized, accepted, and offered is at the heart of belonging, so it is the heart of communion with another.”
In Ekhlas and Jacqueline’s friendship I see weakness recognized, communion manifested, and solidarity on full display.
Our conversation is rapidly coming to an end, and I ask the most pressing question weighing on me and many of my friends back home: “What can we do? How can we stand with you?”
“You can encourage us, pray with us, stand with us in front of your governments,” Ekhlas says.
She motions for us to turn on the recorders of our phones. She is going to sing us a song that she wants the world to hear. Her voice rings with a rich tone, deep and low: Biri sensin biri ben … Gel bir dünya kuralım.
“You’re one half, I’m the other … Let’s create a world together.”
“Belonging creates and undoes us both,” says Irish poet Pádraig ó Tuama. It will take all of us to construct a sense of belonging in the world for Ekhlas and our sisters, starting with safe spaces to be heard. It will take a corporate effort to undo the lingering effects of trauma and remake the very definition of solidarity. We must persist because just like reformation, it won’t happen overnight. It will require a daily perseverance in gestures of unity. We each have a piece of the puzzle to lay; our piece might take the shape of writing letters, making jewelry, becoming a Skype mentor, or advocating for these girls in our own circles. Through these means we can tackle evil head-on, in all of its abiding manifestations. All the while we can trust that each act of love, no matter how small, is its own reward.
Photos by Haley Withers
For more information about Roads of Success and Tech Over Trauma, visit roadsofsuccess.org.
Brianna is a Pacific Northwest-based writer and editor who seeks stories that breathe hope and inspire action. Her favorite kinds of people are peacemakers, bridge-builders, storytellers, and dreamers. She is the Senior Writer at Nations Media.