A Kurdish woman who was an eyewitness to Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks in 1988 and now lives in Norway has been named the 2017 winner of the Pacem in Terris Peace & Freedom Award, presented by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport.
Dr. Widad Akreyi, a social justice activist, joins previous recipients who include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
A special ceremony for Akreyi is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22., at Christ the King Chapel, St. Ambrose University, Davenport. Bishop Thomas Zinkula will preside, and Akreyi will be present to accept the honor.
Zinkula offered his congratulations on Akreyi's website: "You have been selected by the Pacem in Terris Coalition for your fearless documentation of torture and other human rights violations, as well as your pursuit of justice through medical research and the monitoring of peace initiatives. Your findings regarding crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing have brought horrific acts to light for all the world to see."
Born in 1969 in Aqrah, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Akreyi fled with her family to Mosul five years later to avoid the Iraqi government's offensive against the Kurds. She was an eyewitness to the chemical attacks lodged by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. She called the subsequent campaign, labeled a genocide against the Kurds, "the worst time of my life."
She started at a young age to advocate against the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons, gender-based violence, disarmament and international security. She was forced to leave her homeland in 1991, along with a mass exodus of Kurds from the area, because of an Iraqi regime offensive, following forced withdrawal from Kuwait.
Akreyi, at 48, is younger than most award recipients, said Kent Ferris, the diocese's social action director who manages the interfaith coalition that makes the award each year.
"I think that is partly based on her life experiences, and I also strongly believe that she is part of an emerging cohort group that is responding to the great injustices of our present day," Ferris said.
Loxie Hopkins, Davenport, is on the awards committee with Ferris, and said she is struck by Akreyi's experience as reflected in 13 other women who have won the honor.
Hopkins gave an address on those women at this week's Women In Justice Conference at St. Ambrose University, and said like the others, Akreyi started out with an ordinary life, had an experience and went on to do "really extraordinary things."
Like Dorothy Day and Sister Helen Prejean, the doctor's efforts in social justice "will add to the legacy of the award," Hopkins said, "and to the contributions made by other pioneering women."
These women, she said, stood up to power and authority and did not back down. "Sometimes we all need to do this," Hopkins said.
Akreyi sought political asylum in Denmark, enrolled in language studies and has earned advanced degrees in genetics, genomics, global health and cancer epidemiology.
She now works with the non-profit organization she helped to start, Defend International.
According to Ferris, Akreyi created partner agreements with others, and launched campaigns to defend the rights of writers, civil activists, children, women, and the rights of prisoners on death row and in hunger strikes.
She has won other awards for her work and activism, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Award.
This Pacem in Terris honor, she said, stands out because it carries the legacy of St. John, and is presented by a coalition of people who strive to make a difference in their communities.
The award coalition, in addition to the Davenport diocese, includes St. Ambrose University, Augustana College, The Catholic Messenger, Churches United of the Quad-City Area, Islamic Center of Quad-Cities, Quad-Cities Interfaith, Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities, Muslim Community of the Quad-Cities, Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Sisters of St. Benedict, Sisters of St. Francis, Dubuque and Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton.