When the Ezidis were in despair after the ISIS onslaught and the atrocities their militants comitted aginst them, Abdulla Shrém emerged as a saviour for some of the women and children whom ISIS kidnapped. In the past six years, he has rescued 399 women and children from their clutches.
55-year-old Abdulla Abbas Khalaf (aka Abdullah Shrém) is well known among the families of the kidnapped Ezidis. Abdulla himself belongs to those families; ISIS murdered his four brothers and kidnapped his six sisters.
In 2014, ISIS kidnapped 6417 Ezidis, most of them women and children. 3530 of them have been rescued, among those more than 1000 women and about 2000 children.
Who is Abdulla?
A member of the Ezidi community, Abdulla hails from the Shréma village in Shingal District. He quit school after finishing elementary school due to poverty. “All of my brothers were conscripts in the Iraqi army, I was compelled to quit school and work to provide for my family. I was 12 when I started becoming a farmer.”
Abdulla married in 1991 and has two sons and two daughters. From 2005 to 2012, he traded in honey between Shingal and Syria, which made him acquainted with many other traders and the residents at the Syria-Iraq border region. He later utilizes those relations in rescuing the Ezidis who were kidnapped by ISIS.
“Due to trading, I lived in Syria for two years and got acquainted with many people, among them traders. I also learned much about the region.”
When ISIS attacks Shingal, members of his family decide to flee to Syria and from there go to Duhok in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but Abdulla disagrees and thinks it’s too dangerous and decides to go to Shingal Mount with his mother, his wife and children.
Abdulla and those with him later reach an IDP camp in Duhok, but the rest of his relatives get caught by ISIS on their way to Syria.
ISIS militants murdered Abdulla’s four brothers and kidnapps his six sisters. But despite the immense shock and the mental pain and stress from losing members of his family, Abdulla doesn’t falter and decides to do everything in his power to work on rescuing those ISIS had kidnapped.
His first attempt was to rescue his 22-year-old niece named Marwa.
Marwa was in despair and suicidal. An ISIS militant had forced her into marriage and had asked her what she wanted, and she had said that she still had an uncle whom she wanted to call
“One day I got a phone call. It was Marwa, speaking in Arabic. She was in despair and suicidal. An ISIS militant had forced her into marriage and had asked her what she wanted, and she had said that she still had an uncle whom she wanted to call.”
Marwa had memorized the phone number of Abdulla. The ISIS militant had agreed to allow her to call him on the condition that he would listen on the call and that she would speak in Arabic with her uncle Abdulla.
During the aforementioned phone call, Abdulla uses only one Kurdish phrase: “run away!”
“After a few days, Marwa had fled and taken refuge with a Syrian family. She called me from their home, and I started working on her rescue.
One of the traders I had gotten acquainted with, informed me that only those who smuggle cigarettes into ISIS territory can help you
One of the traders I had gotten acquainted with, informed me that only those who smuggle cigarettes into ISIS territory can help you. They put me in contact with one of them. I told him ‘If you are making $500 with each trip, I will pay you four times that amount.’ He agreed and I gave him the phone number and address of the family who had given Marwa a refuge.”
The family had demanded $7500, because they had said that one of their neighbours is an ISIS militant and if they find out, their own lives would be in danger.
Abdulla said: “I agreed to that. I managed to get Marwa into secure territory and from there to Duhok in Iraq. All of the rescue operations cost $9500.”
From their own, Abdulla keeps trying to rescue his sisters and others. At that time, 6417 Ezidis were kidnapped by ISIS militants, according to numbers from the Kurdistan Regional Government.
According to statistics from the General Directorate for Ezidi Affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Ezidi community in Iraq used to consist of about 550,000 people. 360,000 have been displaced, and 100,000 have immigrated.
The rescue of Marwa became a precedent for others, and Abdulla became known among the families of the captives and many of them would go to him for help.
Before the ISIS onslaught on Shingal, Abdulla used to do well financially. He used to import agricultural products from Syria, and export honey.
“I was not thinking about money, my only aim was to rescue those women and girls. I would tell them [the families of the captives] how much it costs, and they would manage to get the money themselves.
The rescue method
“The first thing I would do is contacting those who were smuggling cigarettes into ISIS controlled territory. Later, I would give children clothing for free to some traders so that they would take them to the homes of the ISIS militants in order to collect information.”
The third phase, as Abdulla explains, was renting a bakery inside ISIS controlled territory with his own money. This he would use as a contact point for gathering information about the kidnapped women and children.
From then on, the house of Abdulla in Duhok becomes a sort of busy office for rescuing captives.
His rescue operations were not without danger. “ISIS militants threatened me dozens of times by phone and letters. They had spread my name and picture everywhere within the areas they controlled in Syria.”
They would tell me that I must quit rescuing the captives, or else they would take me and kill me
Abdulla added: “They would tell me that I must quit rescuing the captives, or else they would take me and kill me. I didn't care about those threats; my main concern was rescuing the captives.”
Next to his brothers, Abdulla has lost 50 other members of his extended family to ISIS.
“By my own efforts I managed to rescue all my six sisters. We all live together now. I didn't discriminate between my own sisters and the other captives.
I didn’t do it for money, and I haven’t made a cent out of it. For me, rescuing an Ezidi captive is worth all the wealth in the world. I rescued 10 captives on my own costs.”
Abdulla has rescued 399 captives with whom he maintains contacts, and who see him as a father figure.
“One of them even called me from Germany to ask for my opinion whether she should get married or not.”