At first, Dildar Kaya found her work very difficult. “You get very lonely very fast,” she said.
She had found a place where she could put her knowledge, skills and passion for minority rights, women’s rights, and mental health services to good use.
Enthusiastic about advancing sustainable development and change, Dildar moved from Germany to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2019 to support the recovery and reintegration of survivors of ISIS captivity and access to mental health services for vulnerable people.
“I found my niche and then I just came,” Dildar, 27, said in an interview.
This is a region where many women and children who survived ISIS captivity and sexual and other violence live in crowded conditions in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, many awaiting reparations promised by the Iraqi legislature and hoping for justice.
Based in the city of Duhok, part of Dildar’s work is assisting in the implementation of programs that provide access to vulnerable individuals to protection services including legal, case management, cash assistance, mental health and psychosocial support.
She describes a field trip to a refugee camp hosting about 3,000 people. The refugees are not allowed to leave without security approval. They have little electricity. It’s extremely hot. Seven or eight people live in one tent. There is little if any privacy.
“This is all very, very difficult for people,” Dildar said.
Having worked in Europe on social justice issues and gender equality with marginalized women and youth, Dildar had the experience to recognize the intersection of mental health, minority, and women’s rights. She developed a deeper understanding, aided by her academic background in psychology.
This enabled her to advocate for survivors of conflict and violence, particularly female survivors of ISIS with a focus on the displaced Yezedi population which had been subject to murder, abduction, torture, sexual abuse, and slavery.
A lot of the women who survived ISIS captivity have no source of income and their families carry a burden of debt to people who supported their release, Dildar said.
They missed so much school while in captivity that they have difficulties finding employment opportunities or have become too old to restart school.
And many, traumatized by their experiences, need mental health support. Some are afraid to seek it out or to accept it for fear of stigmatization.
The stories of their intense experiences are part of what made her work difficult at the beginning, Dildar said. Eventually, she learned to cope.
“In the beginning it was very difficult because you get very lonely very fast,” she said.
“My workload was very high. Six to seven days per week I was just working. Then I started to cope more and more with it.”
She learned to pace herself, took up yoga, meditation, mindfulness writing and painting, and found a social circle. “My family and friends, parents and siblings, my colleagues here, constantly supported me,” she said. “I’m thankful for it.”
There are still issues that cause anxiety – bomb attacks at the airport in Erbil and one at a camp in late summer. “There are regular bombings but otherwise I’m in a very safe city,” she said.
She counts among her successes being part of a team that drafted the first mental health strategy framework for the Duhok Governorate and surrounding areas. The strategy, providing general guidelines, is aimed at helping define priorities in terms of preventing mental illnesses and delivering mental healthcare services.
She also authored a report advocating practical solutions called Supporting the Reintegration and Recovery of Female Survivors of ISIS in Kurdistan, Iraq.
Earlier in her work in Germany Dildar was part of a dialogue with former Chancellor Angela Merkel that led to awareness-raising and improvements of regulations on the rights for disabled youth and on refugee rights in Germany.
Her social and political interests led her to work with Oxfam, the German Children and Youth Foundation, the Turkish Human Rights Association, UNICEF, and now in the Kurdistan region.
She held a fellowship from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom 2018-2020. She was a 2017-2018 fellow of the transatlantic program for young minority leaders of the Johns Hopkins Universities American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
What advice would Dildar share with other young women activists?
She warns this field of work can be ”very hard” and it’s important to seek out and nurture relationships with people who have similar values, norms and objectives. Be a good listener and reach out when you need or can offer support.
“Try to connect as much as possible and try to listen, active listening,” she said. “When you find ‘this is the kind of mindset I want, the kind leader I want to be,’ actively try to have that person in your life as a mentor, a contact or as a friend.”
She said unconscious ageism and gender discrimination may be used to undermine your authority. “But if you have good colleagues, connections, friends, it helps a lot. I was supported by people I never thought would be supportive. I reached out to them and I’m so thankful.”
Dildar Kaya and Norwu Kolu Harris are featured guests in the podcast series When Feminists Rule the Word - Season Three: Let's Talk About Power.
What would you do if a genie granted you absolute power? In episode two, host Martha Chaves poses that juicy question to her guests, activists Dildar Kaya in Iraq and Norwu Kolu in Liberia.
Dildar works with ISIS survivors and Norwu in empowering women and girls. They examine the theme of feminism and power, identifying the qualities of good feminist leadership and workplace structure.
Martha, a professional comic, describes the evolution in the comedy world away from misogynistic and other mean humour. “You know who has power over me?” she asks. “My cats.”
Martha poses the ‘absolute power’ question more than halfway through, promising massages and ice cream for all when she’s in charge. Find out what Dildar and Norwu would do and enjoy answering the question yourself.