A Yazidi Iraqi woman in the Bajid Kandala camp in Kurdistan's western Dohuk province on August 13, 2014 (AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

The day everything bright turned black

AMMAN, March 16, 2015 - When the AFP Foundation’s head Robert Holloway asked if I was willing to travel to Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in March to help women refugees tell their stories of fleeing the Islamic State group, I didn’t think twice.

Iraq has played a central part in my career as a journalist, from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the US-led war in 2003 and beyond. I remember scoops and anecdotes, and running into trouble with the powers-that-be. I escaped two assassination attempts most likely ordered by the authorities, and earned a long spell in hospital after coming under attack on the road to Basra.

This journey to Iraq is different. I am used to interviewing refugees. I have done it many times before for AFP. But this time, what matters is not what I will write, but how I can give these women the tools to set their own stories down in writing.

Journalist Randa Habib (C) and her workshop participants (Photo: Jo Weir)

A five-day workshop organised jointly by the AFP Foundation and Chime for Change, a charity founded by Gucci, aims to teach them how to use journalistic narrative techniques to get their message across more clearly.

Listen, and encourage the refugees

I will be hosting the sessions, along with the journalist Mariane Pearl, author of the memoir “A Mighty Heart” about the murder of her husband the US reporter Daniel Pearl by Pakistani militants.

Our goal is to listen, and encourage. I reach Arbil at dawn, before meeting up with Mariane and Jo Weir, the project leader. Together we discuss how to ensure our “students” gain the most from what we have to offer.

The dozen women aged 20 to 33 come from the Christian and Yazidi religious minorities. All are of fairly humble background, and most were enrolled in higher education in Mosul before the city was seized by IS jihadists. All are traumatised by their ordeal.

A family of Yazidi Iraqi refugees, in the Kurdish city of Dohuk on August 5, 2014 (AFP Photo / Safin Hamed)

First we need to get to know each other. On day one we keep things general: we talk about different ways of writing, about narrative techniques, professional ethics. A kind of mini-course in journalism. Then we tell our students that, if they wish, we will help them share their stories. Of being forced to abandon their homes in August 2014, of being uprooted, of the lives they left behind.

Not about extracting stories to print

We meet every day from 8:30 am to 5 pm. Some of the women have trouble getting the words out. For Mariane and I, it’s all about taking things slowly. Not to seem too curious or probing, but to make the participants feel that what they have to say matters, and to explain to them why.

I put my journalistic habits to one side, instead following my gut-feeling and intuition. This isn’t about extracting from these women good stories to print. It’s about making them feel comfortable, creating a bond that will enable them to tell me painful, private things. Simply because it will do them good.

On day two, I can already tell they are more at ease. They rush to embrace me by way of greeting. Warmth and smiles have chased away the fearful, downcast faces we saw at first. They can sense someone is interested in their fate, and that makes them willing to trust.

Yazidi Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State group cross into Syria at Fishkhabur on August 11, 2014 (AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

Their stories, when they share them at last, will stay with me for a long time.

There is Mona, a 33-year-old accountant from Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Iraq where she lived with her wheelchair-bound father. One day in August last year, the cry rings out through the town: “The Islamic State are at the gates!” They flee without a moment’s hesitation, along with all their neighbours, leaving everything behind.

Risking your life to pay staff wages

It takes them more than 10 hours to cover the 74 kilometres from Qaraqosh to Arbil, much of it on foot. Thousands of people are fleeing the jihadist offensive, converging towards the northern town protected by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

But when her employer calls the next day, begging her to come back and help pay out his workers’ salaries, Mona agrees. “I had to go,” she explains. “I made sure my father was in good hands, I went back to Qaraqosh, I paid the wages, and came back again.”

Yazidi Iraqi refugees at the Bajid Kandala camp in Kurdistan's western Dohuk province, on August 13, 2014 (AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

She is surprised at my astonishment, shrugging and smiling as if this were the most natural thing in the world.

Today Mona and her father share a basic apartment in Arbil with 14 other people. The church provides them with a small stipend to live on, as well as medicine to treat her father’s heart condition. The young woman is unemployed, but not crushed.

'They made us exiles, but they cannot break my dreams'

Each night she dreams of returning to the house her family built. She worked on it for four years, alongside her parents, and her five brothers and sister. With it she left her possessions, her memories, her identity. “The Islamic State have taken everything we had. They turned us into exiles. But they cannot break my dreams,” she says.

Then there is Lara, 20 years old, whose grandmother used to tell her of the atrocities endured by their community, the Yazidis, first at the hands of the Ottomans and later the Baghdad regime. “For me that was part of our history - but not the present,” she says.

Yazidi people search for traces of their missing relatives at the site of a mass grave discovered by Kurdish forces in the Sinjar region, February 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

Like thousands of fellow refugees, Lara and her family fled Mosul after it was overrun by IS fighters, fearing a genocide against members of their religious minority, which has been ruthlessly targeted by the jihadists.

She is simply terrified. “I can’t sleep,” says the slender young woman with emerald green eyes. “I am afraid to move around. How do I know I won’t face the same fate as the Yazidi women of Sinjar?”

Raped, sold into slavery

The Yazidi-majority town came under attack in August last year when IS forces massacred much of its population. Thousands of Yazidi women, many of them teenagers, were raped, sold into slavery, married off by force or simply handed over as chattels to IS fighters. An estimated 3,500 to 7,000 of them are thought to remain in the hands of the jihadists.

Lara can’t get over her fear. She spends her days cloistered in the home she shares with 17 other people. Coming to our workshop was a rare chance to step outside.

Displaced Iraqi Christians celebrate a traditional ceremony in Arbil on December 6, 2014 (AFP Photo / Safin Hamed)

A third young woman, a 24-year-old also named Mona, was about to graduate as an architect, and preparing to marry the love of her life, when the jihadists launched their offensive.

“We were planning the two ceremonies a few days apart,” she tells me. She had found the “perfect wedding dress”. She wells up with tears as she shows off the pictures of her bridal trousseau. “A few days before the wedding, we had to flee Mosul. I couldn’t take anything with me.”

Forced to flee days before her wedding

“Looking at all those convoys of cars, the people walking, elderly people, women and children. It just broke my heart. My dream had disappeared and everything that was bright had turned as black as the night sky.”

Mona married her fiancé two months ago in Arbil. But things are not easy. “There are 16 of us living in my husband’s parents’ house. It’s hard for us to share any private moments.”

An Iraqi Christian refugee bathes her daughter in the yard of a church near Arbil on August 12, 2014 (AFP Photo / Safin Hamed)

The young women’s stories will be published in the magazines of the Hearst group, which supports the Chime for Change project. All of our students were willing to have their stories printed, although many will use an assumed name. Some also agreed to be interviewed - with their faces hidden for the most part - for a documentary to be shown at the Tribeca film festival in New York later this year.

As they bade us farewell, all of them told us they felt more hopeful, more sure of themselves as a result of our work together. We all swapped email and phone details, and I expect we’ll be staying in touch for some time.

And yet, now the workshop is over and I am back home, I find myself with this empty feeling in my stomach and overcome by a deep, inexplicable fatigue. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be powerless?

Randa Habib, an AFP journalist based in Amman, is the AFP Foundation’s representative for the Middle East and Africa

Iraqi Christians celebrate Christmas mass in Arbil on December 24, 2014 (AFP Photo / Safin Hamed)