Widad Akreyi has a vision of what the future can look like in her home town of Aqrah in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Akreyi’s vision is of a sovereign country that will encompass the historic lands of the Kurds and the minorities who live in peace with them. It is a vision of a place of safety for these people. It is a place that will give them a way to escape the genocides that have befallen those people, much as Israel has become a safe haven for the Jewish people.
But it will take an involved world, and specifically an involved United States, and an involved Israel to get there, she said.
Akreyi, was born in 1969 to a secular family in Aqrah, and survived the horrors of war while documenting for history the genocide and the suffering of the Kurds and minorities where they have lived for thousands of years.
On Sunday, Akreyi, co-founder of the human rights organization Defend International, earned her place among the world’s brightest brokers of peace when she was presented with the Pacem In Terris Peace and Freedom Award during a ceremony at Christ the King Chapel at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.
Looking over the crowd of about 100, Akreyi said she was proud “to be the first woman born in Kurdistan” to receive the award.
But then she spoke of her people, the Kurds, Christians and other minorities persecuted in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
“The horrors of wars have shadowed our path in life,” Akreyi said. “The soil of our land is saturated and soaked with the blood of genocides.”
Akreyi said she was only 5-years-old when the Iraqi government declared war against the Kurdish people and she and her family had to flee their home. They returned in 1980, but had their home attacked during the Iran-Iraq war, which ran from 1986 to 1988. Before it was over, Iraq waged a new war on the Kurds and other minorities in the region with chemical weapons. In what became known as the Anfal Genocide, she said, the Iraqi government used religion to legitimize the attacks by claiming that the Kurds and Christians and other minorities in the region were infidels.
Thousands were killed, she said, and young women were sold into slavery in other countries.
“The more division the Iraqi authorities incorporated, the more we worked for inclusion,” Akreyi said. “The more aggression they showed us the more time we devoted to peace and reconciliation. The more civilians they tortured and slaughtered the more my instincts guided me to reach out to all segments of society. The more they tried to erase the evidence, the more risks we took to document the atrocities and the harms inflicted on humans and the environment.
“Because one day, we thought, one day the world will wake up and realize the repercussions of overlooking our suffering and on that day the souls of victims will finally find peace,” Akreyi said.
Akreyi said when looking at the Armenian Genocide of 1914 to 1917 carried out by Turkey, the Anfal Genocide and the first genocide of the 21st century carried out by ISIS against the Yazidis in Iraq in 2014, one can see the perpetrators of the genocides used their specific religion to legitimize their actions.
The atrocities carried out by ISIS spared no one, with women and children being killed, or raped or sold into slavery, she said.
It was history repeating itself again, as visions of 1914 came to life in 2014, she said.
Akreyi said it is heartwarming to know that there have been people from around the world, of different faiths and backgrounds and heritage, who have supported the Kurds and the minorities who live with them.
“They believe that all humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” she said. “They believe in acting toward one another in the spirit of humanity because human rights are universal and justice and peace are human rights.”
Survivors, she said, want justice, and a sense of safety and security to complete their lives.
What the perpetrators of the genocides were doing was ethnic cleansing, she said. Their goal was to either wipe out or force out those minority populations living on those lands and change the demographics of those areas.
“If we only think of bringing people out we will be helping those who perpetrated the genocide achieve their goals. We may end up, without realizing it, that we helped them achieve what they fought for.”
After the ceremony, Akreyi said that now that ISIS has been defeated, the way to protect the Kurds and the Christians and the other minorities living throughout the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey is to help them achieve an independent state.
“If we want all these people to have a decent life, a peaceful life, they must have their own state,” she said.
“This is their home,” Akreyi continued. “The Kurds have lived there for more than 5,000 years. I grew up in a city that was an example of Kurds, Jews and Christians living side-by-side in peace and harmony. I remember my mother missing her friends because they were forced to leave their homes and go to Israel.
“The only country that has recognized a Kurdish state is Israel,” she added.
Allan Ross, executive director of the Quad-City Jewish Federation, said that the 30 million Kurds throughout Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own.
“It’s time for them to be able to determine their own destiny,” Ross said. “It’s time for them to be able to form their own country.”
If the rest of the world does not get involved, he said, there is a real chance of more genocides against them.
“I believe the United States and its allies should first protect the Kurds and support their aspirations for their own country,” Ross said.
“Our sovereignty would be a shield against genocide," Akreyi said.