With Melissa Fleming

Home Is the People Around You

by Adiba Qasim | Interviewed by Melissa Fleming

Adiba Qasim visits Lalish, a Yazidi holy site in northern Iraq, in 2016 with Hani and Evan, whose fathers were killed by ISIS fighters. A Yazidi survivor herself, Adiba is now living in Switzerland, where she is a student at the University of Geneva and holds a Young Leaders in Foreign and Security Policy Fellowship at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. © UNHCR/Courtesy of Adiba Qasim

19 AUGUST 2019

Adiba Qasim

Home Is the People Around You

19 AUGUST 2019

Adiba Qasim

Home Is the People Around You

Adiba Qasim is from the Yazidi minority in Northern Iraq. In August 2014, her village was stormed by Islamic State militants who killed and enslaved thousands of Yazidis. Adiba and her family managed to escape just before the militants arrived. She was 19 years old.

At 7:00 in the morning, relatives called my father and said: ‘We are now coming to the North, because the Islamic State are 3:00 in the morning attacked us and many people have been killed and it is very difficult. So, run away! Get out of your house’!”

She was haunted by the knowledge that many of her friends and relatives were taken captive by Islamic State – and held as sex slaves. Some survived – and when they were freed, Adiba was there to help.

+ Full Transcript

Adiba Qasim Edited Transcript

Melissa Fleming: Adiba’s story really struck me, not just because of what she survived, but the way she’s pulled herself out, remade herself and the way she’s giving back so that people won’t have to suffer the way she and her family and her people did.

I am Melissa Fleming and welcome to this special edition of Awake at Night for World Humanitarian Day.

Adiba Qasim is from the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq. In August 2014, her village was stormed by Islamic State militants who killed and enslaved thousands of Yazidis. Adiba and her family managed to escape just before the militants arrived. She was 19 years old.

Adiba Qasim: At 7:00 in the morning, relatives called my father and said that: “We are now coming to the north, because the Islamic State are 3:00 in the morning attacked us and many people have been killed and it is very difficult. So, run away! Get out of your house!”

MF: She was haunted by the knowledge that many of her friends and relatives were taken captive by Islamic State – and held as sex slaves.

Some survived – and when they were freed, Adiba was there to help.

AQ: They were physically and mentally sick. It was difficult because the first question they were asking was, “were you also kidnapped”? Because at first they were thinking that everyone was kidnapped, taken as slaves. Sometimes, some of them, during the night, were shouting, crying and saying that no one of you is feeling what we’ve been through. No one understand us. I was trying to just sit with them and talk. I was there for everyone.

MF: This was the beginning of her work as a humanitarian. Today Adiba is a refugee in Switzerland, where she is studying at the University of Geneva and working as a Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. It’s a long way from the small village in northern Iraq where she grew up.

MF: Adiba it’s so great to have you here and thank you so much for joining us for the podcast Awake at night, here in our studios in Geneva. Welcome.

AQ: Thank you for inviting me. 

MF: Can you just tell us where you’re from and describe what your village was like, where you grew up?

AQ: I come from a village called Khanasor – we can say a town in northern Iraq. So, I was very close to the Syrian border. My childhood there was not easy. It was very difficult.

MF: What were the circumstances of your birth? What made it difficult?

AQ: We are from a minority, the Yazidi minority. And, as you know, we have been through so many genocides in the past, in our history. But, in my case, it was difficult, because I was not recognized when I was born. I was born in 1993 and I became the victim of the war in the ‘80s, the Iraq-Iran war. So, when I was born, I was not recognized. I had no identity.

MF: It was because your mother’s husband at the time had fought in that war and died.

AQ: Yes. She was married with her cousin. And then, in the ‘80s, he was forced by Saddam… everyone had to go by force to fight. He was taken and then actually he was killed in Iran. And my mother, she waited for so many years. But, after she lost hope, she started a new life with my father. In 1992, she got married with my father and they went to the government to take the marriage certificate. But they told her that: “You were married and you were not divorced, so it’s not possible”. She said: “But my husband was killed in Iran”. They asked her where the death certificate or papers are, and so on, and she said: “But the body never came back”. They said: “It’s not possible”. So, they didn’t recognize the marriage of my parents. And, when I was born, I was not recognized. I did not exist.

MF: You were stateless.

AQ: Yes.

MF: So, your mother wanted to enrol you in the school and what happened?

AQ: At the school I was not accepted, because I didn’t have an I.D.

MF: So, all your friends entered into school and you couldn’t.

AQ: Yes, my cousins, my friends, everyone was going. I was always dreaming, when I was sleeping. I was always dreaming that I am at school, that I am writing, having books and I was always pretending. I was always borrowing the books of my friends and reading with them and studying with them.

MF: And, sometimes you actually went to school. How did you cope with this situation?

AQ: As I said the school was not far from our house. My friends, the other children in the village were going to school. So, I was walking with them, staying outside the window, listening and learning by doing that. I was not able to enter the school.

MF: So, you actually stood outside the classrooms?

AQ: Yes. There was a guard at the school, who was always coming and kicking me out of there, saying “go away, don’t watch” and so on. But I was running to the other side and going to two different classrooms and windows.

MF: So, you actually got your education somehow by yourself?

AQ: Yes. I’ve been always proud and I always had something inside of me, when I was there. I was like: “yes, yes! I will read and write, and then I will go to school and show it to people and then they will give me a chance to do it.” And, actually, I did exactly that. So, I was studying alone until 2013 and then I met a person from the Ministry of Education. After 2003, when Saddam was gone, Iran started to give the bodies to Iraq. The body of my mother’s husband arrived in 2003. And then my father could make our papers and in 2008, actually, I was recognized.

MF: So, you got your first documentation.

AQ: I was a teenager.

MF: At the age of?

AQ: I was having a boyfriend and it was too late to go to primary school, but I already had a good level at that age – I was 15 or 14 – and I started to look for chances. And, in 2013, I met this person who came from the Ministry of Education from Mosul and I said: “You can make a test, I can take an exam, but just give me a chance.”

MF: What did he say to you?

AQ: He was so happy! He said “Ok” and took me to the blackboard. He was reciting poems about education and pain, and so on, and I was writing them. He was proud and happy, and said: “You can come and do the exams”. But the risk was that I had to go to Mosul and I am from Sinjar, from a minority, a woman and a Yazidi. Mosul was very dangerous. Sometimes the soldiers at the checkpoint were telling me: “Go back! Who is asking about school in this situation? You are so young. Go back home”. I said “No”.

MF: But you passed the exam?

AQ: I passed the exams.

MF: Can you just tell me a bit about the Yazidi people, just for people who don’t know? What does it mean to be Yazidi?

AQ: We are an ethnic religious minority. We are one of the oldest religions in the Middle East. Yazidis are in Sinjar in northern Iraq, they are in Syria, in Turkey and before they were in Iran as well. But there it is almost finished, and they immigrated to other countries. So, now we have big community in Russia, in Armenia, in Georgia, in the US, in Canada, in Germany. They are almost everywhere now. But our language was not recognized. Yazidis were not able to have a voice.

MF: What was the community like? What kind of memories do you have?

AQ: We were very poor, but we were so happy. We were very happy people. My village was just amazing and all the people were dancing a lot. They were happy. They were always proud to have this culture and they always said that 74 genocides couldn’t destroy us. We also have the mountain, the Sinjar Mountain, which was the mountain that in so many genocides saved my people. In 2014, at the last genocide many people were running there and were going into the mountain. This is how most of them are alive. They are still living on the top of the mountain, since 2014. They are not able to go back to their villages. But, yes, life in my village… We would go into the mountains every Wednesday. It’s our holy day. We have our holy places and every year we are celebrating and renewing these holy places. It was a simple life, but it was beautiful, we had peace.

MF: Until 2014, when Islamic State militants captured Sinjar and other towns including your village in northern Iraq and they targeted Yazidis. Tens of thousands of Yazidis had to flee, including you. Many of them were captured, kidnapped, others didn’t survive. Can you just tell me about what happened on that fateful day?

AQ: On the 3rd of August 2014, in the early morning, we were sleeping on the roof of our house in Sinjar. It was very hot. We had relatives in the south of Sinjar, which is the first part that was taken by the Islamic State. At 7:00 in the morning, the relatives called my father and said: “We are coming to the North, because the Islamic State at 3:00 in the morning attacked us. Many people have been killed and it is very difficult. So, run away. Get out of your house!” It was shocking. Many people started to take their cars, put their families and their clothes, and just run to the mountains. No one knew where they were going. We were surrounded by the Islamic State. After Mosul was taken in June by the Islamic State, the Kurdish forces came at the North – 7,000 of them? I don’t know how many came. They came and said: “We can protect Sinjar and nothing will happen to you.” And, they even didn’t let us leave before that. But actually, when the Islamic State arrived, they all left us. We were left alone and we had not even weapons to fight. We had nothing. We were left alone. And, before that, they told us that Kurdistan also closed the border – that we cannot go to Kurdistan, we have to stay here and nothing will happen to us. That is why many people didn’t go to Kurdistan directly, and were killed and kidnapped.

So, at 7:00 in the morning, we were shocked and my father was saying: “We will not leave. We have to stay here and nothing will happen.” And also my other relatives were saying: “No, we are not going. Nothing will happen.” Our Arab neighbours, the Muslims who were at the neighbouring village, also called us and said: “Oh don’t run away. It’s nothing. They are just coming to take the power, but stay there and we can protect you.” But, actually, the Arab neighbours were the first ones who started to take women, killed men and so on. I forced my father and my brothers, and said: “We have to go.” Almost 70 percent of Sinjar was taken and we were still home. So, at 11:30 – 12:00 at noon, I forced my father and my brothers. We were 14 people in a small car. We tried to run and after 10 minutes they arrived at my village. All my other relatives, 70 people, were taken. Actually, they were taken by the neighbours, not by the stranger Islamic State who just arrived. They were taken by the neighbours.

MF: The neighbours who had colluded with the Islamic state.

AQ: Yes.

MF: So, you escaped by 10 minutes.

AQ: Yes, I was so lucky. Leaving the village, there were so many accidents. It was terrible. People got killed in front of us, because we were running. The Peshmerga and the Kurdish forces left us, and they were trying actually to hide themselves. And then, PKK came from Syria to protect us, there was a clash and people were killed.

I also have half-brothers who are older than me. One of them was driving his car. We had an accident and his car was not working. But then, this fight happened and we left him. And we said: “Everyone should save their soul and that’s all.” Actually, we didn’t know if he and his family were alive or were killed at that moment. After a few days, we discovered that they are alive. Everyone was just thinking of their own soul.

MF: Where did you escape to?

AQ: Actually it takes one hour to arrive to Kurdistan, to a safe area. But we left at 12:00 and arrived at a safe area in the night. When we were in the safe area the gas in our car was finished and we decided to sleep on the street. But then, there was a little shop, a little grocery shop which also had some gas. So we went there and asked, if they can give us some gas. They said: “You will not go anywhere.” And they hosted us in their house. That night we stayed there, we took a shower, we ate and the next morning we went to another area in Kurdistan. We found an unfinished building and went there. We asked the owner of this unfinished building, if we can stay there. We were so many families, all together in this building.

It was not clean. There was not enough water, no toilets and so on. We stayed there and then I was just looking at my siblings and my parents, who couldn’t do anything and they felt bad they couldn’t do anything. They felt guilty and ISIS was also close – a few kilometres away. So, we had to run away from there as well. And we said: “Let’s go close to the border, to the Iraqi-Turkish border.” So we went to Zakho, to a school. Everyone was living in the school. We were actually living outside, with our blankets, as we had nothing with us. Only the clothes that we were wearing, just a pyjama.

We stayed in this school for about 15 days, trying to discover and check who is still alive, who was kidnapped and what happened. Then, we realized that all our relatives were taken to Syria, as we were still in touch with some of them. They had their phones with them in the beginning.

MF: What were they telling you?

AQ: They didn’t know actually where they are going. And then we lost contact.

MF: And then what did you do?

AQ: We stayed in the school for 15 days and it was very difficult. Organizations and people were giving us food, blankets and clothes, and I paid a driver and took my family to Turkey. The driver drove us to the border, to the mountains. In the mountains, we were walking, climbing and it took us two days to arrive.

MF: So you ended up in Turkey, in a camp?

AQ: At that time, we lost trust and we lost everything, when we almost entered Turkey. The Turkish soldiers were coming and trying to take us back, saying “go back home” and so on. We said that we lost everything. We have nothing more to lose. If you want to kill us, do it. But we are not going back home. So, they left us and we continued our walk. And then, families actually came from these villages, they were calming us and so on. But we didn’t trust them. We said no, we cannot go, we cannot continue. But then they came and they spoke in Kurmanji with us.

MF: They knew your language.

AQ: Yes, because they were Kurds. And we also have Yezidis in Turkey. We stayed in a school and then they moved us by their cars to this military camp. Me and my family, we were seven people. We stay there, in this small, three meters room and it was “our everything”, our kitchen, our sleeping and we were all sleeping next to each other.

MF: And you, what were you doing?

AQ: I was active in a way. I was cleaning, actually. Cleaning the camp and trying to wash the doors and the windows.

MF: But you also continued your education in this camp.

AQ: Yes. I did not speak any English. I wanted to speak. I wanted to say what happened, so there was one guy speaking English in the camp. I was always following him. Wherever he was going, I was following him and taking words and making sentence about where we came from, what my age was. I couldn’t give up, I was always fighting. I was always looking for something new.

MF: So meanwhile you’re hearing news probably trickling out about what was happening, particularly to the women. Probably some of your friends.

AQ: Yes, of course. My cousins, my friends… some of them committed suicide directly, to not be touched by them [ISIS]. So, I was hearing all of that and having this guilt inside of me, as well.

MF: What was the guilt?

AQ: That, if I was 10 minutes late, I would be one of them. I was feeling very guilty that I am free now and they are taken. It was terrible. It was crazy.

MF: You made a decision then about your siblings, I believe.

AQ: Yes, people started to leave. They started to take the boat and to go to Greece from Turkey

MF: Right, because this was now the beginning, also of what Europe called this the refugee crisis.

AQ: Exactly.

MF: When Syrians and Iraqis started taking the boats through Turkey into Greece.

AQ: Yes. When people started to leave, I also put my brothers in a boat and I sent them to Europe.

MF: How old were they?

AQ: Well, first I sent my sister and my little brother. My sister was 19 and my brother was 12. I sent them by walking. My other brothers, one of them was 20 and the other one was 16. I put them in a boat and they went to Lesbos.

MF: Where did they end up?

AQ: First, they ended up in Lesbos. Then, the organizations helped them and took them to Germany. And then, they put them together with my other siblings, in Germany.

MF: Your family, your whole family except for you, are now together. In Germany.

AQ: Yes, but I never wanted to leave. I always wanted to be home. And, as I said, I was having this guilt inside of me, I felt like it was impossible. It’s easy to just close your eyes and just to go. It’s very, very easy to go start a new life, but I chose to be in the reality, I chose to be in the community. So, I sent my siblings and told my parents that I need to go back home. So, I went back to Iraq in 2015.

MF: And what did you do there?

AQ: I went to a rehabilitation centre, supporting and helping the women who had been sex slaves and who managed to survive with their children.

MF: So this was your first…

AQ: Yes.

MF: You became a humanitarian worker. They had just managed to escape…

AQ: They had just managed to escape. I’m coming and holding all this pain with them, and they were physically and mentally sick. And we had to take them to the hospital.

MF: What was your role?

AQ: I was more translating, watching them and doing activities with them. But it was difficult because the first question they were asking was: “Were you also kidnapped?”

MF: They asked you that?

AQ: Yes. Because at the beginning they were saying that everyone was kidnapped, everyone was taken as slaves. It was difficult. Sometimes some of the images, you know, came during the night. [There was] shouting and crying and saying that no one of you is feeling what we’ve been through. No one understand us. We are dying.

MF: And you were staying there with them?

AQ: Yes. In the same house and I was not sleeping sometimes in the night. I had to translate something until 2:00 in the morning. Because they did not sleep. I was trying to sit with them and talk. But they were also looking for someone to listen to them. I was there for everyone.

MF: Can you remember one story in particular?

AQ: Yes, all of them. All of them had been through so much. But there were actually two young girls, they were 15 and 16. One of them gave birth in captivity. And she had the pictures of her child with her, and the child was taken from her after she gave birth. She was just 16 years old. She was suffering and shouting and she was not telling it to anyone. So, she was talking to me.

The other one, a girl, she was 15 years old and said how she was bought and sold and how her father was hiding her and how they had to dress her as a boy, to wear boys’ clothes, not to be taken. But then boys were taken to military camps, and then she had to be taken by force as a slave. And then [she was saying] that she found a way to get out and how the smuggler also raped her on the road and so. So, these two are always staying with me and I am holding them with me wherever I go.

MF: These kinds of stories that you took in from the survivors of these horrific crimes… How does holding these stories inside of you influence who you are today?

AQ: There is this feeling of anger. You know, I always question why it happened. But at the same time I always think we are very strong. I always think that these women are the strongest people to be fighting back. Trying to live again. Now these two girls are living their life. One of them she started her life in Australia. And the other one in Germany. So I’m so proud of them, but there was so much pain, so much pain. At the same time, I’m proud. I’m proud of where I came from. Proud of my community. No matter what we’ve been through. But of course there is so much anger. I’m here in Geneva. Let’s say the capital of human rights. Not everyone wants to listen. Not everyone wants to understand. Yes, we are inspiring. They love it when we speak, they love it when we tell our stories. But what after?

MF: Do you feel that it’s your mission to continue to tell the stories, to give back or to help people? How has this influenced like the future of your life, your goals?

AQ: For the moment, I am trying to raise awareness about the genocide, about what happened and how it happened. How is life in war? But, I don’t know. I also feel that there is so much responsibility on my shoulders. I lost also after the genocide friends [who were] with me, journalists, very close friends who were killed in Mosul during the liberation. Who were trying to go to save these people, trying to look for women because they were hiding in Mosul. And I am taking this responsibility, as they gave me their job and they left. So this is what I’m thinking.

MF: You were doing this humanitarian work with the Yazidi women and girls that managed to escape, but at a certain point I think you moved on from that. What did you do next?

AQ: I started to work on documentation, because documenting the genocide is very important. There were not that many women who were doing this job and I was saying that it’s very important to have a woman there, because so many of the women who were taken had stories that needed to be told. So I started to document. Actually, I was working again with women and again listening to their stories and taking every single thing, every single point – and also the child soldiers, the Yazidi children, who were brainwashed. But it was not easy.

They were very, very brainwashed and then working and going to jail, because they were also some Muslim children who were involved with ISIS. They were underage and in the prisons in Kurdistan I was visiting them and trying to find some rehabilitation support for them, because it doesn’t work like this. They will grow up and become adult in the prison. And then, when they are out, they are the future terrorists. So, we need to find some educational rehabilitation for them. And then I started to join international media and to go back home. To really go back home and to go see my city again.

MF: Can you describe that first moment, when you went back to your city and saw what it looked like?

AQ: It was empty. It was dry. It was, everything was yellow. So many bombs, so many mass graves. There were only some soldiers there. No more life there. There was no more home, everything was changed. Can you imagine, even now, sometimes in the nights I don’t sleep, because I remember the smell. The smell of dead bodies and some of them were still not [dead] for a very long time when I saw them. The animals… It was just like that.

And then I started to work and to go through every single mass grave and document and check. There were old people. Not old, but old for ISIS.

MF: Old for the ISIS men.

AQ: Yes, they were killed there.

MF: And when you say you were documenting it, what was your role?

AQ: We have an organization called Yazidi documentation, Yazidi organization for documentation. It was born after the genocide and trying to take every single evidence. And I was the only woman in my community doing this job. Going and staying in the front lines. There were only men. And I was also scared, not scared but…

MF: How did the men react to you, doing this?

AQ: The Yazidi men were very proud and happy to have me there, and it was amazing.

MF: You have actually a very beautiful short haircut. I think, tell me about your hair. Because I think hair has special meaning in the Yazidi culture and what it was like when you were a girl and what it means to have cut it all off.

AQ: Oh yes, I had very long hair. Actually, in my community many women have long hair. It’s a symbol of beauty and women normally would not cut their hair. They cut it only when they are sad so if they lost their husband, their boyfriend or whatever. And I had this very long hair. I never cut my hair before 2015. And then I cut everything, I was no more interested to have it on me and I just had so much sadness and I just threw everything away. You know, having so much pain and going back to Iraq and seeing everything.

Then it was like I realized everything then. Because the genocide happened and I left. And then going back home in 2015 and then realizing how much we lost.

MF: You were facing it.

AQ: Yes, I faced it. Being the reality. It’s very important and you see now I have no more hair.

MF: You have beautiful, elegant, short haircut.

AQ: I cut everything.

MF: You are looking very smart. Now you’re here actually in beautiful Geneva. What brought you here to Geneva and what did you first encounter when you got here?

AQ: In 2017, I lost this very close friend and I got some problems.

MF: Who was the friend?

AQ: He was called Shaheen. He was a very close friend to me. He was killed in Mosul while he was saving a little girl. He was killed by a sniper. I think he just took half of me with him. I still cannot recover from that. Every time I see something about him, I feel that it’s today. He was just a very good human being. I lost him, I lost some other people in Sinjar and I got some problems: I was not able to go back home because of the government – they were scared that I will go to the group that they don’t like. It became impossible to move. It became impossible to continue my job or to go home. My hometown. My village where I grew up. I couldn’t go.

And then I left for Turkey. It was not a choice to leave. It was never a choice to leave, actually. I couldn’t imagine myself again being a refugee and seeking asylum somewhere. It is very hard. So I left Iraq on October 30, 2017 and I arrived in Turkey. And, I went to the Swiss embassy and explained what happened and they said you have to be safe and you should not even stay in Turkey, because it was not safe for me. So, I got my visa and I arrived here. I asked for asylum here in Switzerland, but I think it is the most difficult thing I’ve been through.

MF: It was the most difficult thing you’ve been through?

AQ: Yes.

MF: Why is that?

AQ: I had to go to another place to ask for asylum and then. [Starts crying] Do you have a tissue?

MF: Yes.

AQ: So, again I left everything behind, leaving Iraq. And then I arrived here and I directly asked for asylum and explained my situation. I arrived and it was dark. Arriving in Switzerland, there is so much snow and cold. I was very sad: Why did I have to go ask for asylum? Why did I arrive here? Why I had to leave my home and leave everything behind? It was very difficult.

I went to this asylum seekers’ centre. Seeing so many refugees from all over the world, it was very difficult. I was just looking at people and just crying. I forgot myself and they started to cry about themselves. Some of them were telling that it was 30 days that they are walking until they arrived. It was very hard. And then, they got my information and they said: “We are going to show you your room, where you can stay. Then, they gave me a blanket and they took me to this room. When I opened the door and entered the room, there was a woman with a veil. I said: “Oh, she is from the Middle East.” She was crying on her bed and actually she was from Yemen. She was a lawyer from Yemen and was the first person who came. We spoke in Arabic together. We were both just tired and cried and we hugged each other. After that, we started to talk and she started to explain things to me and we became friends and we started to smile on the bed.

MF: Adiba, I have to say, you’re here for one year and six months and I’m going to fast forward and then you’re going to tell me how you got there, but you are actually studying law in French at the University of Geneva and you have a fellowship at the prestigious Geneva Centre for Security Policy. How did you get from being in this asylum centre to be studying law and teaching soldiers about war and your experience?

AQ: I managed to find a Swiss family and I’ve been explaining them my situation, and they hosted me. They hosted me in their house, so I could feel safe. I stayed with this family and then I knew I had to start to check and see what is around. I’m in Switzerland. What are the opportunities? Actually with the Swiss Amnesty, I knew someone there who is working and since 2015 he has been working on the Yazidi situation and trying to raise awareness about the genocide. And then he asked me if it’s possible to write an article about how I came from Mosul to Gruyere, to this region and Fribourg and so on. I said OK. So, the article was published in a newspaper here in Geneva. And then the director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Christian Dussey, found the article and invited me here. This is how I landed here in Geneva. It was just amazing. In this Geneva Centre for Security Policy, I really found my home. I’ve been thinking before that home is a piece of land. But no, I was wrong. Home is the people around you. Where you feel safe, you feel good, you feel accepted. This is what I found here at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

MF: Adiba, what do you want to do in the future?

AQ: What I want to do in the future? Now, after 18 years of not being able to go to school and with this self-education, I have been accepted at the University of Geneva, I’ve been accepted here. And I’m taking my career. I will study international relations and law, doing human rights in the future. Well, I already started. I’m not going to start, I already started. But as I always say, future is big and I’m working hard on it.

All I want to do in the future is to fight for refugees’ rights, to fight for the weak communities. We want to be accepted, we’re human beings. I am like anyone who just walks on the street here in Geneva. But, if anything happened, they could always say: “Oh, she was a refugee,” or “she is a refugee” and point at me. So this is something that I want to work on it in my future. But of course I will always be fighting for my community, on the genocide, recognizing that this genocide is not only today and tomorrow. It will take us maybe to the next generation. So this generation who faced this genocide, we have to fight. We have to really to study, we have to learn more and to be able to say it to the next generations. And this is a responsibility that I am taking.

MF: You mentioned to me that you might want to pursue a humanitarian career.

AQ: Yes.

MF: Adiba, I’m sure there is a lot that you have nightmares about. But, what is keeping you awake at night?

AQ: What’s waking me at night? Something that wakes me up at night is reminding me that I am I am strong, that I can continue and that I can do it. I think I smile and I go back to sleep. I’m never worried, I’m a person who’s never worried. I don’t know why. I’ve been through all of these bad things, but I learned so much also. I’ve been through a war and the bad things never, never put me down. I’ve been using the war and I’ve been using all these bad experiences to build myself and to create a message and to teach and to tell the world “Hey we should not worry, we can do it! It is possible and we can change.” And this is all I learned. And I’m saying this to myself every day and every night. That has also pushed me to continue, it is my region, it’s where I came from and I’m always proud. I’m always proud of where I came from and what I’ve been through brought me where I am today.

MF: Adiba, thank you so much for sharing your story, your painful story, but also the story of your remarkable strength. On this podcast I have to say I’m really proud to know you and I know that you are going to change the world.

AQ: Thank you.

MF: Thank you for listening to this special edition of Awake at Night. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit Find us on Facebook at @UNHCR. And on Twitter we’re at @refugees and I’m @melissarfleming. You can follow Adiba on @QasimAdiba and please spread the word about the series using the hashtag #awakeatnight.

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Thanks to the fantastic design and studio teams here at UNHCR, and to my producers Bethany Bell, and Laura Sheeter of Chalk and Blade. The sound design was by Pascal Wyse (PRON WISE) and the original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah – and produced by Ben Hillier.


Adiba on the outskirts of Khanasor, near Mount Sinjar, in 2013. That was before ISIS arrived, and before she cut her hair short. “I just had so much sadness,” she explained. © Courtesy of Adiba Qasim

Adiba explores a tunnel in northern Iraq in 2017 where ISIS fighters hid out and held Yazidi women captive. She is pointing with her torch at some of the women’s belongings. © Courtesy of Adiba Qasim

Adiba went back to Sinjar, in northern Iraq, to gather documentation of atrocities committed by ISIS. When this photo was taken in 2017, the front line was barely a kilometre away. © Courtesy of Adiba Qasim