Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Nadia

Nadia Murad spoke about her personal journey and survival and how her ordeal turned her into an activist.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Nadia Murad: The making of an activist

5 min read

In Harvard visit, Nobelist and ISIS survivor focuses on the need to persevere

Nadia Murad came to Harvard as a survivor of genocide under ISIS, an advocate for victims of sexual violence, and the first Iraqi citizen to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her talk at the Memorial Church, as part of the Weatherhead Center’s Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture Series, focused on her personal journey and how her ordeal turned her into an activist.

As moderator Jennifer Leaning, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explained at the outset Wednesday, the talk didn’t deal with the details of Murad’s imprisonment. (Her book, “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State,” describes the rape and torture she endured as a prisoner.) Rather, she examined the events leading up to her capture in the ISIS attacks of 2014, and how they shaped her actions afterward.

Murad grew up in Iraq’s Sinjar District. She and her family were Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority targeted by ISIS. Speaking through interpreter Shahnaz Osso, she said that her life centered on her family’s farm, where they raised wheat and sheep, digging 75-foot wells to find water in the desert.

“When this is your way of life, you go to any ends to make it work,” she said. “I thought the best thing was to relax with my family at the end of a work day; I didn’t know there was anything better or worse in the world. People wouldn’t think that a farm in the desert would be a great life. But it was our life, it was peaceful to us, and we would love to have experienced it just a little bit longer.”

The night before her capture began peacefully. She recalled sleeping with her sisters in the yard, because her brothers were keeping them awake talking about ISIS’ approach on their cellphones. But as the night went on, the family began thinking about an escape route. “The mountain was the only place to go, but we lived so far from the mountain that we didn’t think we’d be able to make it. We had heard of people getting caught, and our village was very quick to be surrounded. We had run out of options by that point.”

“People wouldn’t think that a farm in the desert would be a great life. But it was our life, it was peaceful to us, and we would love to have experienced it just a little bit longer.”

Nadia Murad

She decided to fast-forward through her capture and abuse to focus instead on her escape. That, Murad said, was actually relatively easy: The hard part was staying alive afterward.

“Many people had escaped through doors and windows, but once you found a family to take you in, they would return you to ISIS,” she said. Today, she added, more than 350,000 Yazidis remain in refugee camps.

Murad survived by finding a family she could trust, through what she said was a mix of intuition and luck.

“Everybody knew what had happened to the Yazidis. I knocked on a door and all I could say was, ‘I have escaped, can you help me?’ I saw old homes and thought that if these people are similar to my family in their morals and values, they will recognize someone like them and maybe take me in.”

Though Murad spoke quietly, there were hints of how much she had endured. “Women saw the roughest part of what ISIS was doing. The men were often killed, but they made sure that women saw the most heartache and suffering. I have talked to many Yazidi women who would say they wish they had been killed like … the men.”

Thus, Murad’s activism, including the 2016 formation of the nonprofit support group Nadia’s Initiative, was born of a desire to see justice.

“Actions should have consequences. As a child I thought the worst thing was to have your hard work go to waste. I didn’t know there was something as horrible as a mother’s work being wasted, raising 11 children and having them be killed.” The word genocide, she said, didn’t occur to her at the time. “We referred to it by a Kurdish word, which means ‘the end.’”

“I think we can understand how difficult the road ahead of you is going to be,” Leaning said. “But we can also see how crucial it is.”

Murad’s talk was interpreted by Shahnaz Osso of Lincoln, Neb. Originally from Northern Iraq, Osso speaks both Kurdish and English fluently. She and her family came to Nebraska in 1998.

The Jodidi Lecture is among the most prominent lecture series of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and is among one of the most distinguished at the University. The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead Center and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.