Diplomatic Pouch / July 7, 2016
By Larry Luxner
As fighting continues to rage in Iraq and death tolls mount from ethnic bloodshed and ISIS terrorist attacks, one prominent activist is speaking out on behalf of abused and tortured Iraqi Kurdish women.
The SEED Foundation, a nonprofit group established by Sherri Kraham Talabani, made its local debut May 19 with a gala dinner at Washington’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The fundraiser attracted more than 200 people and raised tens of thousands of dollars for the organization, which is based in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil.
Guests included politicians, business executives, philanthropists, diplomats and think tank officials, along with two prominent journalists: New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott.
“As many of you know, almost four years ago my husband, Qubad, got a ‘job transfer.’ I quit my U.S. government career of 15 years and we moved our family to Kurdistan for a new adventure,” said Talabani. “I thought, how can I take my experience of working on international economic and social development all over the world to help Kurdistan?”
Talabani, who was born and raised in Coral Springs, Fla., had come to Washington and in 2005 married Syrian-born Qubad Talabani, the former D.C. representative of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The second son of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the 38-year-old Qubad Talabani is now the KRG’s deputy prime minister.
During her husband’s tenure in Washington, from 2006 to 2012, “Kurdistan had experienced a solid decade of dramatic expansion,” she said. “There was progress everywhere, a vibrant economy and vast opportunity. There was a spirit in the people that I have not seen anywhere else in the world.”
But that was before the central government in Baghdad — pressured by a sudden drop in world oil prices — cut off funds for Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region. Even worse, the civil war raging next door in Syria led to the creation of Islamic State (ISIS), and eventually nearly two million displaced Syrians and Iraqis ended up in Kurdistan.
“Like I’m sure all of you here, looking at the pain and suffering of those fleeing conflict, I have felt feelings of hopelessness,” said Talabani. “We have seen a brutal genocide of the Yezidi people. I grew up hearing a constant refrain — Never Again! But here we are again, looking at human suffering on an unimaginable scale.”
To that end, SEED works to help victims who have been displaced by ISIS terrorists, with a specific focus on the minority Yezidi population, which has been subject to abduction, torture, rape and sexual slavery.
The organization’s goal: to “build a resilient, healed, healthy and productive community through a holistic package of services” that includes recreation, training and education opportunities to victims of recent atrocities. Among other things, SEED trains women as farmers and teaches men how to build pallets for furniture.
“In my view, the challenge of Kurdistan’s future will be how to integrate the displaced,” said Talabani, a former official of the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government agency. “With its own population of five million people, Kurdistan now hosts almost two million displaced — and more seek freedom and stability there every day.”
In Iraq, violence continues unabated. On July 3, suicide bombers detonated a truck filled with explosives on a busy Baghdad shopping street, killing more than 200 people in the deadliest attack ISIS has ever perpetrated anywhere in the world. The blast followed similar attacks in Turkey and Bangladesh in the past week, and marks a dramatic escalation following the Iraqi military’s recapture of Fallujah from ISIS control.
Yet Iraq’s internal refugees are suffering from more than the stress of being displaced.
“These people, especially the Yezidi community, were subjected to the most extreme violence and brutality,” she said. “Every man, woman and child who survived has experienced the violence and the loss of family members.”
In her speech, Talabani gave a poignant example of that violence: a Yezidi woman identified only as “G” who was captured by ISIS. Her husband was killed, and she and her children were beaten, starved and threatened every day.
“Over 18 months of her captivity, she was sold and ‘married’ — a euphemism for rape — every few days or weeks to some new, more brutal captor. Her 17-year-old daughter was forced into sexual slavery also and she never saw her again, and her three adolescent boys were taken and made Da’esh soldiers,” she said, using a local, derogatory term for ISIS. “Her two youngest children, a boy and girl ages six and eight, remained with her, but were repeatedly taken away by Da’esh soldiers for days or weeks at a time, beaten and presumably sexually abused, and returned to their mother.”
Eventually, G’s brother-in-law paid a smuggler nearly $20,000 to rescue G and her kids.
“When we met G, she handed us a list of 19 family members still missing, and described the daily terror of knowing her four children continue to suffer with Da’esh,” Talabani said. “There are other variations — being sold at slave markets, children murdered before their mothers’ eyes, beheadings — and they all include incredible suffering. Thousands of women and children remain in captivity and are being trafficked and sold all around Iraq, Syria and beyond. At the same time, women and their children are actively being rescued and escaping to Kurdistan daily. These are the survivors.”
Talabani stressed that while fighting ISIS through airstrikes is crucial, “helping victims build a future and addressing the seeds of this conflict is just as important.”