The plight of the Yazidis, a religious-ethnic minority in Iraq, drew world attention last year when Islamic State fighters drove thousands of them to a mountain refuge in Sinjar. Far away, in the Midwestern city of Lincoln, Nebraska, the largest community of Yazidis in North America took action, led in great part by social worker Laila Khoudeida, who continues to seek help for her threatened people.
The Nebraska Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers this month honored Khoudeida, 26, as “Citizen of the Year” for her work advocating on behalf of people on the other side of the world.
Her close friend and fellow social worker Christie Abdul is impressed with her dedication to the Yazidi cause.
“She is just very inspiring in how she is so passionate about what is happening there,” Abdul said.
Though she has lived in Lincoln since her early teenage years, Khoudeida was born and raised in a refugee camp in Syria after her family fled persecution by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Having lived in the same conditions … I feel deeply and emotionally connected to the Yazidi cause,” she said.
Khoudeida has had cellphone contact with some of the Yazidi girls taken by Islamic State to be used as sex slaves, and she said she remembers one in particular.
“She was with another 40 Yazidi women and children who were being held in one of the buildings, and she would tell me that the ISIS fighters came and took another girl,” Khoudeida said.
But appeals to the U.S. and other countries to rescue the captive Yazidis failed.
“One day I called and her sister answered the phone," Khoudeida said. "I thought it was the same person I had been talking to, and she said, 'No, I am her sister. My sister was actually just sold off yesterday to an ISIS fighter.’ ”
Some women have managed to escape, but the punishment for those who are caught can be torture or worse.
“One woman who tried to escape, they caught her, brought her back and cut off her two legs,” Khoudeida said.
Through Yazda, a group Khoudeida and some other American Yazidis formed last year, she continues to seek help for the estimated 3,000 Yazidi women and girls who remain under the brutal control of Islamic State.