For the thousands of Yazidis who remain captives of the Islamic State, Vian Dakhil remains their boldest advocate.
In 2017, Dakhil, the only female Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, has continued her tireless campaign to free members of her community one by one from the clutches of the Islamic State.
If she learns the location of someone being held, Dakhil alerts activists to their whereabouts and coordinates with local Kurdish Pershmerga forces. Dakhil keeps a running count of every known enslaved or kidnapped Yazidi; she has made her phone number widely available so that she can be reached day or night in case a captive member of her community manages to make a stealthy phone call to ask for help. (She has joked in interviews that every Yazidi in Iraq must know it, and though the Islamic State does as well, she refuses to change it out of concern that someone might not be able to reach her for help.)
“They call me or message me saying ‘Vian, please come, what do I do?’ Life is so desperate they feel like they can’t go on,” Dakhil said in February. “I ask them if they think there is a way to escape without being caught. If they think there is any chance at all, I tell them to take it.”
Yazidis are an ancient religious minority in Iraq whom the Islamic State has vilified as “devil worshippers,” targeting them in a genocide and mass kidnapping campaign beginning in 2014. As a woman in the Iraqi parliament, Dakhil has limited power — female lawmakers in Iraq traditionally stick to social issues and stay away from political infighting — but she uses that platform to continually bring up an issue that the overwhelmingly Muslim Arab male parliament might otherwise overlook.
Dakhil bargains with middlemen demanding enormous sums for captives’ freedom and sometimes pays their ransoms herself. She also visits refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and listens to Yazidi women speak of the horrors they faced at the hands of Islamic State fighters.
A member of a prominent Yazidi family in Erbil, Dakhil didn’t start out as a politician. She studied microbiology at the University of Mosul and then taught college biochemistry. But after attacks on religious minorities at the University of Mosul in 2007, she became an advisor to the Kurdish parliament on Yazidi issues. In 2010, the Kurdistan Democratic Party included her on its party list, and she became a member of the Iraqi parliament.
Dakhil rose to the international spotlight when, in August 2014, she stood in the back of Iraq’s parliament and called for the government to save her people, repeating her plea over and over in desperation until she eventually collapsed. A video of Dakhil’s speech went viral online, drawing international attention to the plight of the Yazidis. Two days later, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes to break the siege of Mount Sinjar — among the first U.S. strikes against the Islamic State.
Since then, Dakhil has traveled around the world, imploring the international community to save her people. But in 2017, she was ensnared in President Donald Trump’s first travel ban as she planned to travel to Washington in February to accept the Lantos Human Rights Prize. She at first stated she would not attempt entry, since she suspected she would most likely be prevented from entering. But the State Department eventually gave her an exemption, and she accepted the award, using her speech to criticize the travel ban and the Trump administration’s view of Iraqis.
“Isn’t it strange that the president of the United States would equate the victim and the executioner?” she said in her speech accepting the award.
The Iraqi parliament is nearly dysfunctional in the first place, making political action that might benefit the Yazidis — such as coalition building or passing legislation — extremely difficult, according to Sebastian Maisel, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Grand Valley State University who focuses on the Yazidis. And Dakhil is a heavily marginalized member of this already ailing body. Offending the more powerful Muslim Arab male lawmakers around her could see her sidelined even further. Her outspokenness belies the risk she has faced. Dakhil is a “triple minority in the Iraqi parliament,” Maisel says. “A minority as a Kurd, a minority as a Yazidi, a minority as a woman. She has to face many obstacles to do her work.”
That has meant that public outcry was perhaps the only tool she had, he says.
And she has made the most of it. In May, she issued a plea at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway, urging the international community not to forget the Yazidis and pleading for Iraqi forces to free captive Yazidis as they retake territory once held by the Islamic State.
“I go to any country in the world and speak about them, about the massacres, the rapes — about the Yazidis,” Dakhil said in 2015. “We really need someone to help us.”
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer to Foreign Policy.
Dakhil broke her leg in a helicopter crash days after her 2014 speech while on a mission to rescue Yazidis from Mount Sinjar.