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This poet put the Yazidi women’s suffering and strength into words

Learning about the horrors endured by Yazidi women at the hands of the Islamic State awakened something personal for Iraqi-American poet and former journalist Dunya Mikhail. In her book "The Beekeeper," she shares first-hand accounts of their pain and heroism. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    Finally tonight, we have been talking throughout this week about Iraq and about ISIS.

    Jeffrey Brown now brings us a conversation with an Iraqi-American poet and author who has helped publicize the plight of the women who have been abducted and sold into slavery for years in her native country.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A crowded Friday night at the Ishtar Restaurant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, where Dunya Mikhail, her husband and friends often gather to plan the activities of what they call the Mesopotamian Forum, Iraqi-born Americans putting on literary, musical and other events to help preserve their culture.

    But, for several years, Mikhail has been obsessed with events far away, in Northern Iraq, where, in 2014, ISIS forces set about to destroy a people, the ethnically Kurdish Yazidi, members of an ancient sect the Islamic State considered heretics.

    An estimated 3,000 or more men were killed, often in pits that would become mass graves. And some 6,000 women were taken captive, many sold in a market into sexual slavery.

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    And I said, that's real? That can happen?

    And, you know, not only as a human being, but as a woman, I felt really so insulted to know that. So that's when first I was curious to know more.

    I feel that the culture is an important part of the language.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mikhail is a poet and former journalist, an American citizen who fled Iraq in the 1990s after her writing landed her in danger during the regime of Saddam Hussein.

    Learning of the Yazidis awakened something personal.

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    When I left, I left with one suitcase. So, I felt that wasn't fair just to reduce my life to one suitcase. But now, when this happened, it reminded me of how lucky I was that I was able to leave and with putting some stuff in the suitcase, while these people were just — some of them just leaving empty-handed.

    And, still, these are luckier than the ones taken captive.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She began contacting friends in Iraq to learn more, eventually finding her way to Abdullah Shrem, a beekeeper in Sinjar devoting his life to rescuing enslaved women.

    First by phone, later in person in Iraq, Abdullah introduced Mikhail to women who told stories of rape and murder.

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    He said: "I want the world to know what happened here." He said, "Try to get it translated to as many languages as you can."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The result is "The Beekeeper," first-hand accounts of horrors endured and acts of heroism by rescuers and the women themselves, stories like that of Maha, whose children were killed and buried in a garden after her first attempt at escape failed.

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    She stayed there in the garden and refused to move, like a stone or something. She was — she's, like, turned into a stone.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What was it like, though, to hear these stories, horrific stories?

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    I felt honored to be able — like, too, that they were telling me that, and they were trusting, and they felt I will help them bear witness.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The world now knows a lot more about what happened.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Zahida was just 17 when the militants came.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Jane Ferguson reported on the trauma and shame women continue to live with long after ISIS was driven out.

    And this year's Nobel Peace Prize recognized Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who escaped captivity and became the international face and advocate for her people.

    When Mikhail returned to Iraq for the first time in more than 20 years to visit the camps, she was stunned and moved by the women she met.

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    They were so resilient. They would be telling me these horrible stories, but they were kind of trying to console me, as if they knew…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They were trying to console you?

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even though they're telling you about horrific things that happened to them?

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    Yes. Yes. Thus, I felt they were trying to make me feel better.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Today, Dunya Mikhail continues to teach Arabic to young students at Oakland University, a large public institution in southeast Michigan.

    In her classes, she instills a sense of culture, as well as language.

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    Small feet will tickle the giant feet of the Tigris.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And she continues to write her poetry, some of which also appears in "The Beekeeper."

    In her new work, rather than translating her poetry from Arabic to English, as in the past, she's writing in both languages.

  • Dunya Mikhail:

    It kind of mirrors you as a writer, maybe as an exile. You have — everything is dual. You have your memory, so you have another life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Dunya Mikhail's next volume of poetry is due next summer.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

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