Mirza Dinnayi (photo Aram Arkun)

Mirza Dinnayi’s Aid to Terror Victims Recognized with Aurora Prize

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YEREVAN — Mirza Dinnayi received the fourth annual Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity on October 20 in a large public ceremony in Freedom Square in Yerevan as part of the Aurora Forum events (see more on this in forthcoming issues of the Mirror-Spectator).

Dinnayi is cofounder and director of Luftbrücke Irak [Airbridge Iraq], which has helped save the lives of Yazidis and other victims of terror in Iraq. Of slight build, Dinnayi has an engaging and, at least on the surface, easygoing temperament, with a good sense of humor. This stands in contrast with all the terrible things he has witnessed in his life.

Crowds mobbing the rescue helicopter August 8, 2014 (photo courtesy Mirza Dinnayi)

As Aurora Prize Laureate, Dinnayi will receive a $1,000,000 grant as Aurora Prize Laureate, which will expand the scope of humanitarian work in the region. He has chosen to divide this sum among three organizations which provide medical care and rehabilitation to ISIS terror victims. Aside from Air Bridge Iraq, these include the Shai Fund and the Social, Educational, and Economic Development (SEED) Foundation https://www.seedkurdistan.org/.

The American Shai Fund (https://theshaifund.org/) works to defend religious minorities, primarily in the Middle East and Africa, including the minorities living in the Nineveh plain in Iraq. Its president and founder, Charmaine Hedding, declared at a Yerevan press conference held immediately after the Aurora Prize was announced, “I just want to say to the Aurora Forum, you are a light… the light that you have shed on some of these issues is absolutely phenomenal. It is an honor and privilege to be with you all here this evening and to be part of this fantastic event, and also more specifically, to highlight the plight of the Yazidi minorities that have been sex slaves, that have been sold in sex markets like we have never seen before. In our time, I never thought that we would see this and to not do anything. For those of us to say never again, not on our watch, for those of us who read about the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, how can we not get involved? The call tonight is to be a light, like the Aurora Forum, and to stand up for people like this, persecuted religious minorities. Mirza, it is a privilege to be here with you.”

Dinnayi said at the same press conference that the SEED Foundation, based in Erbil, is “actually the best NGO in all Kurdistan and Iraq because of the professionality of Mrs. Sherri Kraham Talabany,” its president. Talabany said, “Our mission is to help survivors of violence and conflict in their recovery. …We are a development NGO, a human rights NGO. We provide long-term care, mental health, psychotherapy, case management, legal protection services. We work with Yazidi survivors of Daesh. We work with survivors of trafficking, survivors of human slavery and we provide long-term care, because if you don’t treat the survivors of trauma, you’ll continue the cycle of violence in Iraq that has plagued the country for decades.”

Sherry Kraham Talabany, president of the SEED Foundation (Aram Arkun photo)

Path to Humanitarianism

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While Dinnayi was the center of attention in Yerevan and attending glittering gatherings, it is his work with the most vulnerable, under the most distressing conditions, that singled him out.

Dinnayi, the son of the chief of a Yazidi tribe, grew up in a village in the Sinjar province of Iraq, in Shingal. He remained there until he finished the 12th grade and received his baccalaureate degree at the age of 18. He said that when he was 3, Saddam Hussein deported the Yazidis from their villages in this area to big collectives. He said, “I saw the Iran-Iraq war, and how the Yazidis were killed. They could not express their religion so freely under the Saddam regime.”

The Yazidi religion was not accepted in the Iraqi constitution. Furthermore, there were informal obstacles to Yazidis holding high positions in the military, government or judiciary. There were some major legal issues for Yazidis, Mandaeans, and Christians in Iraq. Dinnayi said that if a husband or wife converted to Islam, either freely or forcibly, according to Iraqi law, all the minor children would have to convert and the non-Muslim spouse would automatically be divorced, as the spouse would be considered an infidel. For Yazidis, this was true for either husband or wife, but for Christians only in the case of the woman if the husband converted.

“I saw such discrimination from the beginning,” said Dinnayi. “When you grow up seeing such discrimination you have a special understanding of the whole universe, and, for example, why this happens to me.”

A child receiving treatment in 2007 (photo courtesy Mirza Dinnayi)

He began to write short stories and poems at the age of 15, mainly about the rural farming culture he knew and the Yazidis. It was not permitted to study in the mother tongue of the Yazidis, Kurmanji, so he and other Yazidis became proficient in Arabic. Even now, Dinnayi said, his Arabic is better than his Kurmanji.

Dinnayi became involved in a student group while studying medicine at the University of Mosul, but Iraqi intelligence got word of it and attempted to catch the members. Dinnayi managed to escape through the Kurdish borders in 1992 to the Kurdish area of Iraq, but the Iraqi Kurdish civil war forced him to seek asylum in Germany.

In Germany, he became engaged in many Yazidi cultural activities, advocated for the rights of non-Muslim minorities in Iraq, and worked for peace and coexistence. After the fall of the Saddam regime in 2003, when Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani became interim president of Iraq, he  invited Dinnayi to become his advisor for non-Muslim minorities. Dinnayi said he stayed there from 2004 to 2005 but it was hard for him to reintegrate into Iraqi society after becoming used to a German lifestyle. More importantly, a civil war had engulfed Baghdad by 2006 and 2007 and death was always around the corner. His family would call every few days to ask what he was doing there.

After this, he became an advisor for some ten years to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil concerning disputed regions, which include Yazidi, Christian and Turkmen populated areas, claimed by both the KRG and the central government.

Air Bridge Iraq

On August 14, 2007, Dinnayi was in Germany when the extremist Sunni Muslim terror organization al-Qaeda attacked two Yazidi villages near Mosul in Iraq, killing more than 300 people and injuring more than 850 with truck bombs inside the villages and markets. About 60 children were among the latter.

By this point, Dinnayi had studied both medicine and law, and though not a practicing doctor, knew what the needs were. He did fundraising in Germany for the victims and then went as a volunteer to distribute the money and aid. When he saw many children in the hospital who would die soon without help, he posted an appeal in a German newspaper, Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, asking for hospitals to host some of these child victims. Two hospitals agreed.

The real challenges then began. Dinnayi said that as the children were from villages, they did not have any passports or identification papers, and the age of one child, who had no family left, was not clear. Dinnayi asked the Iraqi government to issue some kind of passport for them. He also spoke with the German ambassador in Iraq, and explained the emergency. As Dinnayi had dealt with him before when he was an advisor to the government, he trusted Dinnayi’s judgment and agreed to issue visas within days of receiving the passports. This was a big risk for the embassy because, explained Dinnayi, there was no German NGO in Iraq at the time because of the civil war, and no one believed that Dinnayi would return the children to Iraq after treatment.

Within three days, the passports arrived. The problem, Dinnayi said, was that “all Baghdad was a ball of fire.” A friend at the German embassy requested that Dinnayi stay in the hotel until going to the airport. As a German citizen, if Dinnayi went outside, he might be kidnapped and cause the government problems.

Yet the hotel happened to have been attacked by al-Qaeda three or four weeks prior and activists and politicians staying there had been killed. Half of the hotel had been destroyed and food was not available.

Dinnayi took the passports and visas of the six children in the first group and went to Erbil, from which he planned to take a charter flight to Germany. The German embassy did not allow family members to go.

Some of the children receiving treatment in 2007 (photo courtesy Mirza Dinnayi)

He said, “So you can imagine, I had a 6-year-old child who cannot speak, barely walking. I had a girl with broken legs in a wheelchair. I had two other boys, also in wheelchairs. So I was alone with those six children.”

An ambulance took them to the airport, but after a wait of two hours, they were told that Turkey would not allow the charter flight to pass through its airspace.

Dinnayi said, “The children were very upset. The families told me, ‘you brought the children 150 kilometers from Dohuk to the airport. Now they cannot fly — what are you doing?’ Everybody was blaming me.” He took the children to a hotel and the next day got them tickets for a flight to Istanbul. There they booked an airport hotel to stay overnight, and a flight to Düsseldorf, Germany, the next day.

The next morning at the Istanbul airport, the person responsible for check-in refused to let the children on because the flight had no medical equipment. Dinnayi had no choice but to ask for the manager and play hardball. He recalled that he said, “These six children are victims of the al-Qaeda terror organization. You have a choice. I can call BBC and CNN in Istanbul and tell them that al-Qaeda killed the innocent minorities of Iraq but the Turks are not allowing us go, or you will bring me a piece of paper and I will sign that all that happens to the children is my responsibility. I will not charge anything. I will not ask for any compensation if anything happens. I am responsible alone in person.”

This was accepted, and after the children were treated for about two months in Germany, Dinnayi brought them back to Iraq successfully.

At this point, he thought that since there is no German humanitarian organization in Iraq he and his German friends might as well make one. He said, “We called it Luftbrücke Irak because of the Luftbrücke Berlin after Second World War, which also provided humanitarian aid via the air.” It was formalized as an organization in November 2008 (see https://luftbruecke-irak.de/?lang=en) and it helps terror victims of all creeds and backgrounds.

From 2007 to the present, all funding has been from private donors and friends. The host families in Germany, along with volunteer workers, do not receive any pay. Approximately 150 children from all over Iraq and from all religious communities (Muslim, Christian, Yazidi etc.) have received treatment in all. This does not include work to aid survivors of the 2014 genocide of Yazidis attempted by ISIS.

Mirza Dinnayi with Lamya Haji Bashar at the International Criminal Court, October 14, 2016. Haji Bashar was forced by ISIS into sexual slavery. She escaped in 2016 but was injured by a land mine. Dinnayi’s Air Bridge Iraq helped her obtain medical treatment and she became an activist for the Yazidis. In recognition of her human rights achievements, she was given the Sakharov Prize of the European Union. (photo courtesy Mirza Dinnayi)

Assistance to Yazidi Victims of ISIS

Dinnayi was in Erbil for his job as advisor to the KRG as Mosul fell under the control of ISIS on June 10, 2014. He was planning to return to Germany for a summer vacation with his family but he called his wife to cancel, declaring that he feared a huge catastrophe would soon occur. Indeed, two months later, the Yazidis in Sinjar were attacked and the entire community displaced. When 325,000 people went to the mountain it was a huge problem due to the lack of water and food.

Dinnayi was engaged in lobbying, meeting every day with diplomats to try to convince the international community to act. The whole mountain area was occupied by ISIS and the safe zone was 150 kilometers away. For this reason, the Iraqi government decided to initiate a humanitarian mission via helicopter from the Kurdish area to bring food and water there and extract vulnerable people to the safe area.

Dinnayi volunteered to fly with the helicopters, he said, because he knew all the areas where the refugees had collected and was in contact with them. Nearly every day he was with the flights, which were being shot at by ISIS. The helicopters were very old Russian Mi-17 models which were supposed to hold 20-25 people and yet each time they picked up 40-50 people.

“One day,” Dinnayi said, “our helicopter crashed because of overload and I broke my leg. Unfortunately. I lost my friend who was the pilot and some of the refugees died. But we were very lucky, because the crash was over the mount.”

Dinnayi was in a wheelchair for three months as his leg and broken ribs healed. He came to Germany and then to Geneva only one week after his return to speak at the UN Human Rights Council on the Yazidis, which led to an investigation about the Yazidi Genocide.

Mirza Dinnayi receives a medal as Aurora Humanitarian from the 2011 Liberian Nobel Peace Laureate and Aurora Selection Committee member Leymah Gbowee (Aram Arkun photo)

Helping Yazidi Girls and Women

Only 1½ weeks later he returned to Iraq and met the first group of girls who had been raped by ISIS. He said, “I was ashamed to hear these stories of atrocities, as a man, to hear what happened with those innocent girls of 16, 17 years old. I decided, I said, well, the catastrophe of the Yazidis and the plight of the Yazidi people is so huge that maybe I cannot help them in all the issues, but maybe I can do something for those women and children. And this was the reason that I concentrated my work to help the survivors of ISIS, and the women and children especially, who were sexually abused.”

He helped pressure the Yazidi Spiritual Council to accept these women, because in the beginning the Yazidi community itself would not accept them. Fortunately, the Yazidi religious leader or Baba Sheikh accepted these children and women. Yet, Dinnayi realized, there is no medical or psychological aid for these traumatized beings in Iraq. There is only one psychotherapist per every 250,000 people in Iraq, and generally that person has no experience in trauma.

One of the German states, Baden-Württemberg, decided to accept up to one thousand of the women and children victimized by ISIS. The Germans asked Dinnayi to lead this project. Dinnayi did this as a volunteer, and his NGO became a partner of the German project. A German team from the government ministry led and decided for the project, but Dinnayi led the receiving commission in Iraq.

Within almost 9 months, 1,100 women and children were resettled through this project. Dinnayi said it was a very, very hard job. He worked 18 hours a day and had to interview all the women and children. He said, “I myself was traumatized, because you hear every day 20 stories of rape, and you ask yourself, every time, why did people do that to those innocent women. I saw 9-year-old or 11-year-old girls who were pregnant because they were raped 20 times or 30 times. … In the summer of 2015, I was actually at the end. I couldn’t sleep. I was crying every day. I came back to my family, to my wife and children living in Germany. And I told them, okay, let’s go and take three days’ vacation.”

Mirza Dinnayi surrounded by the founders of the Aurora Prize at Yerevan’s Freedom Square after he was announced as the 2019 Aurora Prize Laureate (Aram Arkun photo)

During those three days, he debated with himself whether he should withdraw from the project and seek psychological treatment himself. At the end, he decided that if he withdrew, the project would collapse because no one could live under such stress. On the other hand, he said that if he continued, “it is only helping me, because I see these atrocities and besides that I see that I can help those victims so maybe this will help to heal my trauma. And I was lucky, that I had overcome this trauma. Until now, I have these traumatic ideas.”

The project also had various bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome. The Germans required detailed files on each woman, each between 11 and 32 pages, which Dinnayi had to translate. Then most of the husbands of the women had been killed or were missing, so they were not allowed to get passports for the children nor to fly without their husbands.

Dinnayi went to Iraqi civil courts and asked them to issue a temporary guardian certificate for the children, with which passports could be obtained. When children did not have family, Dinnayi ended up being the guardian.

He had no time for anything but work. Dinnayi related, “The problem was that I even forgot day and night during the project, because I was sleeping one night in Duhok (my office was in Duhok), and then I went with the beneficiaries to Erbil, almost two hundred kilometers, sleeping one night there; flying in a special charter with 60 or 70 people to Stuttgart, Germany, sleeping one night in Stuttgart, then moving by train to my family, sleeping one night there, then coming back to Erbil because I had to prepare the next mission. So I was during four days in four different places…So every time, it was like a joke, before I opened my eyes. Am I at home, I shouldn’t do a mistake at least in front of my wife…where is the bathroom?”

Dinnayi said, “I am so happy when I compare the situation of those women and children who we got to Germany and the children and women who are still in the camps. There is a big difference. The children are very well integrated. They still have this pain. There is an injury inside them that we are not able heal, unfortunately, because you cannot return back to them their pasts, and you cannot bring their relatives back to them, but their lives are secure, they are no longer living in tents.”

The girls and women got visas for two years and there were 22 municipalities in the state of Baden-Württemberg state which placed those women in special houses. There they had 24-hour translators, a social worker would take care of them, and each family had its privacy. After 2 years they were moved to regular housing units, the children went to school and the women went to treatment. This was the first time in the history of Germany that a state undertook such a project, Dinnayi said, which is why the project is so unique.

After this, the Canadians started another project for resettlement and took a couple of hundred of the women and the Australians did the same. No Americans helped.

Yazidis and Armenians

The new Yazidi temple Quba Mere Diwane at Aknalich, Armenia (Aram Arkun photo)

Dinnayi speaks often about the special relationship between Armenians and Yazidis.

The Armenian parliament and now the Aurora Prize have provided special recognition to the Yazidi Genocide. He said, “This is the first time that the Yazidi were accepted and we are so lucky that Armenia, especially the grandchildren of a previous genocide 100 years ago, recognized this genocide.” Furthermore, he said, “Through the establishment of this forum and this prize Armenia became one of the greatest nations, because they are in solidarity with the victims of genocide.”

In general, he said, “The Yazidi community in Armenia is a well-integrated community in Armenia.” He noted the recent building of a new Yazidi temple in Armenia and contrasted that to the situation in Iraq. If a temple would be destroyed in Iraq, there would be no possibility of rebuilding it, as Yazidis are treated as infidels.

He said, “I think we share a cultural heritage together, but unfortunately we also share a history of pain.” Aside from culture, Dinnayi has found that there are even close genetic connections between Yazidis and Armenians. He said, “I did a DNA investigation with the Family Tree DNA laboratory in the US on some 30 Yazidis from Iraq and the nearest population to the Yazidis was the Armenians. In my family tree, I have more than 100 matches of which many, many are Armenian; 75 percent of my matches were from Armenia and Asia Minor.”

The Future

Prior to the Aurora Prize, Dinnayi had another small humanitarian project in Iraq, but at present he said he was mainly working for the recognition of the Yazidi Genocide in Europe, especially with the European Parliament. The latter has passed various resolutions, but what he wants, he said, is to have a special tribunal, either a hybrid tribunal for the crimes of ISIS concerning the Yazidi Genocide, or an internationalized Iraqi tribunal to bring those ISIS fighters to justice and try them according to the international conventions about genocide. While many ISIS fighters are in prisons, they are being tried according to the Iraqi anti-terror law or the Iraqi penal code and not in connection with genocide or international crimes in general. Dinnayi said that the Iraqi penal code is a joke—it is very easy for rapists, for example, to have impunity and overturn any punishment due to a provision allowing this if a certificate of marriage is presented afterwards.

Dinnayi noted that many countries, among them Armenia, symbolically recognized through their parliaments the Yazidi Genocide, which he said is very good and important. He added, “We know that this challenge will take a long time. We know about the Armenian Genocide, that it took 100 years until some countries said yes, while the perpetrators until now say no, this was not a genocide…So you see how difficult a situation it is.”

He is also working to persuade other countries to accept more women and more victims, though there are no new projects in this vein so far. In the past five years, Dinnayi said, little has changed. Around 80 percent of the Yazidis from Sinjar remain refugees or internally displaced persons in the camps in Kurdistan or outside of Iraq. The people refuse to return to their villages, he said, while those who remain seek an opportunity to leave.

Among the problems is the corruption of the current Iraqi government. It took no steps towards transitional justice and reconciliation. The future, not only for the Yazidis but also the Christians and Mandaeans, is bleak, he said, if there is no special zone or a kind of autonomy established in Sinjar, or the Nineveh plain for Christians. Furthermore, although ISIS is not in this area at present, militias and the Iranian-Turkish conflict create instability.

Meanwhile, Dinnayi is afraid that the Turkish invasion of Syria may lead to a big wave of refugees coming to Sinjar. He exclaimed, “I hope that the international pressure on President Trump, on the Europeans, will put enough pressure on Mr. Erdogan to stop this invasion, because it is against humanity, it is against international law.” All the Yazidis meanwhile have been deported or displaced from places like Afrin, Syria, over the last five years. There used to be around 35,000 Yazidis there. Some were forcibly converted to Islam.

Going forward, Dinnayi has no intention to slow down.

Dinnayi will continue his work, despite paying a heavy personal price, including health issues. He declared, “If you start humanitarian work, you will be part of this humanitarian family and you cannot stop any more. Because you are in direct touch with the victims, with the people in need, with the vulnerable children women, men, and if you stop for one minute, you will feel guilty and you cannot stop more. This was the reason [I continue my work]. I was not expecting to get a prize from any people.”

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