“In tough times like these, being able to protect one’s family is more important than ever.” That caption came below this photo of a Yazidi girl carrying an assault rifle. According to the rest of the caption, she and her family were fleeing the threats of ISIS. The young girl appears exhausted as her hair blows in the wind and she looks back over her shoulder. Reddit.com had its own description of the caption: “Sinjar mountains, Iraq -- Runak Bapir Gherib, 14 y.o. from Shengar makes her way down the mountain after 7 days. She is with her mother and sister (in the back) waiting for a car to drive them away. She took the gun from Shengar to protect her family.” Being Yazidi, this girl’s people possess a history of persecution.
Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish, a minority group mainly residing in Iraq. While Yazidis are Kurdish through blood, they are not solely Muslim. According to Pew Research Center, the Yazidis’ beliefs include components of Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism (a monotheistic religion). Pew Research reported that 16% of Iraq’s population is Kurdish, 78% is Arab, and 6% is other. The vast majority of Kurds are Muslim, leaving only a small percentage to be followers of the Yazidi belief system. Saddam Hussein (former president of Iraq) tried to “Arabize” Iraq back in the 1980s and persecuted the Kurds, something ISIS continues to do. Yazidis have been forced out of work, displaced, and mistreated in their own land simply due to the fact that are not part of the majority – a fact they can’t change because it’s in their blood.
Yazidis and other victims of ISIS have found refuge in camps scattered throughout the Middle East and surrounding regions, but they are far from safe. Their own experiences haunt them as described in a U.K. Mirror article titled “Syria’s war children forced to grow up too soon by atrocities they’ve seen”. In the article, a 7-year-old boy, 14-year-old girl, and a 12-year-old boy were asked about their experiences. The 7-year-old didn’t want to attend school in his refugee camp because back in Syria “bad men” came in and kidnapped some of his classmates. These “bad men” would keep the boys until their fathers, soldiers in the Syrian Free Army, turned themselves in as an exchange for their sons. The 14-year-old girl said that one day she was walking to her grandpa’s house and saw a man get shot down by a sniper just outside the house. The 12-year-old boy doesn’t speak much at all anymore because of the horrific things he has experienced. His family’s home was destroyed in an airstrike while they hid in a shelter. Children should never have these images and memories burned in their minds, but it’s the result of war.
Runak, the girl with the assault rifle, has undoubtedly seen the same horrific sights as these children in the refugee camp. Having the responsibility of protecting one’s family puts an incredible weight on your shoulders – especially if you’re only 14. One day you’re a teenager living life and the next you’re wielding a weapon to save your loved ones from those who would slaughter them. Runak’s adolescence has been stolen from her, something that is impossible to be returned or replaced. What Runak possesses, however, that can never be taken is courage, bravery, and honor. How many young teenagers would sling a weapon over their shoulder, instantly taking on an immense amount of responsibility? The thoughts running through Runak’s head as she made that decision to take the assault rifle are unknown, but it’s quite likely only four words came to her head: “Protect them, I will.”