Vian Darwish’s dedication as a champion for Yazidi survivors began when she was a 23-year-old college student and made the biggest decision of her life. “I started from zero - zero money, zero background, zero agencies’ support,” she says.
Vian and nine family members had narrowly escaped alive from their community of Sinuni, Iraq, during the August, 2014 genocide by Islamic State militants on the Yazidi ethno-religious minority in northern Iraq.
They sped away but had to abandon their cars when they were damaged by gunfire. They fled on foot with nothing more than their identification papers and passports in a small satchel –“nothing to wear, nothing to eat, no place to live.”
Even so, she says they counted themselves lucky, making it alive to Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Despite safety, she was “an emotional mess” for two months, anguished about her future.
Then Vian began to dwell on how others had endured far worse - terrible violence, slavery, and death of loved ones. This was when she made the biggest decision of her life.
“Either I will be a person who depends on others to support me, will wait for the humanitarian aid, the NGOs, the government to support me and my family or I will start to support my family, and my community and those survivors,” she recalled.
“It was a personal choice. I started to raise my voice to raise awareness. I spoke to journalists outside Iraq. I spoke to NGOs. I spoke English so I wrote posts on Facebook. At college we made a group of students and first we collected clothes, then money, then food and we started to support those people. If we didn’t have money, we took their kids to the parks.”
That was seven years ago. Vian has never stopped. Now 30, she is coordinator of the Yazidi Survivors Network at Yazda NGO, supporting survivors of genocide and sexual enslavement committed by ISIL. Previously she was a coordinator and documenter in Yazda’s documentation project, which gathers information on the Islamic State's crimes against Yazidis in August 2014.
What are the greatest needs of Yazidi women survivors?
The survivors are in a very difficult situation. I spoke to a survivor the other day who said ‘I want to understand if one of those agencies will work on those mass graves so that I know that my brothers and father are dead… Some of the survivors don't know if their husbands are alive or not, if they are now widows or if they are they still married. It's about waiting for the unknown. They need to know to go on. Some of them for example want to travel to resettle in another country but they cannot because they don't know about their family members. They have missing sisters, mothers, daughters, or parents. This is just one of their needs.
Another need is financial. All the villages that were attacked were heavily damaged. When the survivors came back most of them don't have breadwinners, so they are taking care of younger brothers and sisters. They don’t have work. They need education. They literally lost seven years of their lives. They lost their chance to be what they were dreaming of. The survivors are not asking for too much, just normal basic rights.
The United Nations said what happened to Yazidis was genocide. What would justice look like?
The Yazidis have become well known in the world and there is acknowledgement of genocide but if we come to practical things on the ground, there is nothing. The justice they want is not the justice of the Iraqi government.
In Iraq, Islamic State members are just punished according to only one crime - joining a terrorist organization. Punishment for the crimes of rape, slavery, genocide crimes, crimes against humanity, killing, murder, abduction is the justice survivors want. They are waiting for trials with international involvement.
What is the biggest challenge in your work?
The hardest part of what I do is when survivors ask me questions and I don’t know the answers. When they ask me about financial support, when they ask me – and this is very difficult – about justice.
I cannot provide them justice. I cannot provide them with all their needs. I cannot push governments. I cannot push the international community. I cannot push these bodies, for example, to work on the mass graves, to support them.
I am always honest with them. I tell them I cannot do this for you. Honestly this is my limit, I cannot do it. What I can do is advocate for it with other people.
The most encouraging, best part of your work?
The best part of it is supporting a group of women even if it is only with some words with a smile. I am a good listener. I listen to them with all my heart, and I don’t judge them. Sometimes I will receive messages, ‘Thank you for being here with us. Thank you for supporting me emotionally.’ This is the best part. I cannot express how I feel when they thank me, or they are happy for me to be in their life.
What advice would you give other young women activists?
If you see something wrong, if you see something that's against your will, especially if anything with force is happening to you, say no, speak loudly, you are not alone. Once you speak loudly, you won't be one voice, you might be thousands of voices. This is what the Yazidi survivors are doing.
What would you like to emphasize?
What I want to emphasize is that sexual violence survivors, especially Yazidi survivors, need not just words and empty promises but action. Their lives are basically on hold now. I have realized they want to go on, to continue their lives. They're stuck in a period of time, but they still have hope and want to go on.
Sometimes they still live in that period of time from August 3, 2014, until the day of their liberation. Unfortunately, when they are liberated, they start from zero. Their situation now is not much better than from their time in captivity. Also, psychologically the heavy and difficult experiences they have been through keep them stuck. They have triggers.
Also, people dealing with them should not see them only as survivors but as strong women. Of course, as survivors they are acknowledged as brave, strong, and courageous. But we, the people interacting with them, we should not label them as only survivors. We need to empower them and to push them to go forward and some of them really want to go forward, they want to move on, they want to have a normal life. I don’t think they are asking for much so why is their situation still so bad?