Sometimes we don’t know how brave we are until we have to be.
“Yes, we are little nervous and little afraid to go back after all that happened. I feel good to [be] back, and to end the last year and graduate. Now it’s a little hard, but little by little I will focus.”
“It’s a little hard…”
I smile at Fadi’s message and wonder if this is an understatement or just his dry sense of humor.
It was two months ago today that a secret cell of ISIS fighters launched an attack on Fadi’s neighborhood in Kirkuk and took over a dormitory while some of his classmates were hiding inside. His friends were later rescued, but it was a terrifying ordeal.
Just days after the attack, these amazing students were back at school in the same terrorized neighborhood. They are choosing to see beyond fear—studying hard to finish their last year of engineering studies despite the fact that it's “a little hard” to focus.
“We all hid under the bed to protect ourselves from the shrapnel. Two girls hid under one bed. We didn’t bring a blanket with us, so we pulled the mattress over us and made it like a shield. After five minutes, we heard men talking in the kitchen. We didn’t know how they got there—we even didn’t hear any door breaking. They were just there!"
Mona speaks for the group of students. Their story comes out over cups of tea and Nescafe. We sit together at a cafe, just a few days after they hid under their beds for more than eight hours to avoid being found by members of ISIS.
It was late in the afternoon. Mona and her housemates were in a storage room getting food for dinner when they got the call warning them of danger. There was a bomb in the house next door, they were told. They needed to find a safe spot to hide.
Mona and the others ran to the bedroom they shared, hid under the beds, and waited for an explosion that never came.
Instead, they were shocked by the sound of strangers in their home—ISIS fighters.
Mona and the other young women laid silently under their beds while the ISIS militants roamed the house. They could hear them praying, eating food out of the fridge, and washing up in their bathroom.
“Those men knew this was a student dormitory, from the class schedule that was hanging on the door.”
They laid silently as the militants came into their room, went through their bags, and sat down on their beds for an hour to talk strategy. The only thing separating them from the girls was a thin foam mattress.
Photo: Archbishop of Kirkuk (Facebook)
“All the six men entered our room again, put the mattresses back on the bed, and sat on them. They didn’t see us because it was dark, and we were hiding.”
The men lingered for an agonizingly long time before moving to the kitchen.
Early on, a friend had given Mona’s phone number to the Iraqi Army. Throughout the ordeal, Mona and a roommate texted army officials, pleading for them to send help—their phones set to be dark and silent as to not give away their presence.
“[We] continued until 10 pm, texting the Iraqi army, asking them to come and help us. They kept promising they would come in five or ten minutes, but never showed up. My cell phone died after 10:00 pm, and only [my roommate] continued texting.”
Close to midnight, the young women got a message from a leader in their church. “There is a way to rescue you. But it is risky. Just wait for a call from me.”
Then came the call with the plan: with ISIS members still in their home, they needed to go out through their back door, make their way across the yard to the surrounding wall. There they would find someone to help them. “We were so scared…we decided to risk going out. We figured if we stayed, we would all die. But if we tried to get out, there was a chance to live.”
“We started moving out, whispering to each other to not make any sound. I was the first to go out. I walked to the wall where I saw a chair and two men from the emergency forces waiting [on the other side]. I got on the chair, lifted my arms, and they pulled me over.” One at a time the other girls followed, each pulled over the fence in turn, until finally they were safe.
Just a few days after being pulled over that wall, Mona sat with us at a cafe and calmly told their stories of risk and bravery.
Mona and her housemate risked being discovered by ISIS in order to text the army for help. They risked their lives to escape their dorm and get to safety. They also risked their future to study engineering in the middle of a terrible financial crisis in Iraq, when few jobs can be found.
A lot of us struggle to see beyond fear. We become paralyzed by the news, by suggestions that danger lurks around every corner. Maybe you live somewhere like Kirkuk, where danger sometimes does lurk around the corner.
Wherever you live, having a vision for a better future can help us see beyond fear. Mona and a score of other students choose to see beyond fear to a university diploma, a career, and hopefully a more peaceful future. And they are doing everything they can to make that future happen.
See beyond fear. Help displaced students build a better, more peaceful future in Iraq.