Always accompanied by his trusty smile, Farhad Shamo Roto exudes joy of life. Winner of the 2023 Marianne Initiative and founder of the “Voice of Ézidis” association, Farhad now also helps Ukrainian refugees find a home. From the Sinjar mountains to the Elysée Palace, Farhad has never stopped fighting for his people and human rights. Meet the rights defender for the Eye of the House of Journalists.
Despite hardships and obstacles, the almost-thirty-year-old Ézidi continues to forge his path with insatiable energy. He has made his community his vocation, or rather the freedom of his people. A repressed minority in Iraq, the Ézidis fear that their history and culture will disappear with the genocide.
A thousand-year-old people harassed and massacred
Ézidis and not Yézidi, as the international error would have it. The term “Yézidi” is incorrect for the community concerned: behind this appellation lies political manipulation, in order to categorize the Ézidis as a terrorist group.
“The word ‘Ézidi’ is the correct version. It dates back to Sumerian and Babylonian times, and is derived from Khuday Ez Dam, which means ‘I was created by God’,” confides Farhad.
“But in recent decades, scholars and the media have associated the Ézidis with Yazid Bin Mawia, the second caliph of the Umayyad caliphate who opposed the Prophet Mohammed.”
A use that will cost the Ézidi people dearly, as ancient conflicts between Yazid Bin Mawia and Mohammed still divide Iraq.
“We shouldn’t let anyone involve us in a conflict that has no end. We come from a community dating back to ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. That’s why I write our name as Ézidi and encourage others to do the same.”
“I was born in 1994, in a village in northern Iraq, in the Sinjar region. We were a family of farmers who grew garlic, and our only source of light was daylight. I was one of the first in my village to gain access to school under Saddam Hussein’s regime, and even graduated with honors.”
Being an Ézidi and considered indigenous, Farhad was for a long time the victim of harassment and bullying by his classmates.
His community experienced, and still experiences, waves of extreme violence from the rest of the population.
The Ézidis practice a non-Muslim religion, have their own language and a specific culture. Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, the government attempted to assimilate the Ézidis, notably by forcing them to abandon their customs and traditions and forcibly converting them to Islam. Islamic terrorist groups, on the other hand, advocated their total disappearance.
“Mothers’ cries will never leave my mind”
A failure followed by violent repression from 2014 onwards. “The Islamic State harassed us, tortured us, then resorted to massacres and genocide, recognized by the UN as such. As a kid, I lived in isolated mountains, but we heard about the massacres all the time.”
From August 3 to 15, 2014, the Ézidis plunged to the depths of hell. The Islamic State decides to carry out an ethnic purge, costing the lives of at least 5,000 people, and leading to the exile of over 300,000 Ézidis. Over 5,000 women were also kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. Figures that continue to climb as tongues are loosened and independent research is carried out.
“I was homeless and stateless in my own country,” says Farhad, an emotional first-year university biology student.
Even today, he is unable to return to his native village. “My family and I only survived by a miracle. We were trapped, the only way out was in the mountains, in a corridor crossing Syria before going up towards Iraq. We ended up in camps for internally displaced persons.”
These camps, set up by the UN at the start of the genocide, remain a living hell for the refugees. “I lived there for three and a half years with my family. Many refugees were committing suicide, and we were terrorized and lost. The experience felt like years in prison. The screams and cries of the mothers will never leave my mind.”
However, Farhad was unable to remain cloistered in his prison: the young man was active, setting up a network to help new arrivals settle in over the years, and setting up a thousand tents with friends.
“I went into biology because my village needed people with medical skills. With no outside help, the displaced have to fend for themselves with food and other supplies. I had no choice but to cross the border regularly to bring back food for my family. And for a plethora of volunteers, it was a one-way trip.”
“The Islamic State bombed us and shot at us when its members spotted us. All these experiences only made me want to dedicate my life to others.”
The Drôme, a surprising haven of peace for the Ezidis
After three long years, a ray of hope appeared at the end of the tunnel. One of Farhad’s uncles was now the bodyguard of a diplomat stationed in France, and had been negotiating his nephew’s arrival since August 2014.
His uncle had a narrow escape himself, and managed to get Farhad and his parents out of the country. “Volunteer groups in the Drôme agreed to host us in their homes, but getting our visas took us a year. In 2017, we then flew to France.”
He lands with his family in Grane, not far from Valence. Thanks to organizations such as Val de Drôme Accueil Réfugiés, entire families can flee genocide and enjoy peace.
More than 80 families have been accommodated in the department since 2015. Today, France is home to more than 10,000 Ezidis.
After a few months in the Drôme, Farhad settled in Lyon for four weeks. He seized the opportunity to move to Paris in 2018, thanks to a civic service until 2019.
There he met Mario Mažić, co-founder of the NGO “Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Croatia”, and in 2019 registered his association “Voice of Ézidis” (VOE) in the French capital.
Paris also enabled him to grow VOE, something he couldn’t do in the Drôme. Although he had been active for several years, he had previously tried to register VOE in Iraq, but to no avail: he had to change the organization’s name, which meant losing its very essence.
But under the radar, in Iraq as in France, Farhad Shamo Roto raises mountains to help his compatriots. “I’ve worked on a wide variety of cases” he explains, gazing into the distance, recalling the past.
“I’ve provided legal advice, helping survivors settled in France with their paperwork and integration, I’ve organized many events to link the French and Ézidi communities in France. We mobilized to help the community during the pandemic, I was sometimes a financial support…” he sums up. In all, more than 500 families benefited from his help, even during the pandemic.
Mario Mažić, with whom he maintains a strong bond, calls him on a beautiful afternoon in June 2020 to tell him about the program initiated by the Obama Foundation, called “European Leaders.”
According to Farhad, “Mario was convinced that I could be part of the program. I did an interview and I was selected.”
European Leaders and Initiative Marianne, the international turning point
With a wealth of experience, a master’s degree in International Relations from HEIP and an unstoppable will, Farhad was selected to take part in the Leaders Programs in 2020, for a six-month period.
Its aim is to “inspire, empower and connect” activists and rights defenders from all corners of the globe, following the example of the Marianne Initiative. The first internship was “great training in advocacy” for Farhad, who wants to develop his VOE organization internationally, and helped him solidify his address book.
“This program was a real turning point for me. The other participants are part of my family now, we really stick together!”
There he met Belarusian LGBTQ+ rights activist Nick Antipov. The two men hit it off and keep in touch, driven by the same vocation. Delighted by his experience, Farhad set about finding a similar internship: he was eventually selected for the Marianne Initiative class of 2023, to which he applied in December 2022.
|Launched in December 2021 by President Emmanuel Macron, the Marianne Initiative for Human Rights Defenders is a three-part program. The first is international, involving support for human rights defenders in their respective countries through the French diplomatic network.|
There is also a national component, involving the hosting in France of human rights defenders from all over the world for six months, to enable them to develop their skills and network. Finally, a federative component aims to build an international network of human rights defenders based on French institutions (associative, public, private).
For six months, human rights defenders from all over the world can build and launch their projects in France. This year, thirteen people of various nationalities were honored for their struggles: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Uganda, Russia, Mali, Bangladesh, Bahrain and Peru.
After welcoming fourteen women last year, it’s now the turn of a mixed class to be welcomed to France as part of the Initiative. Laureates will have access to a training program to strengthen their capacities and commitment in their country of origin or in France, whether in favor of minority rights, freedom of the press and expression, civil and political rights, women’s rights or environmental rights.
Thanks to the program, the winners can develop their association or their work from the French capital, as well as weave a solid network of rights defenders. It’s also a way for France to unite its prizewinners and raise its profile abroad. Since 2022, the Maison des journalistes and the Marianne Initiative have been working together to strengthen exchanges between exiled journalists and human rights defenders around the world.
“I was able to take part in the Initiative thanks to the referents who supported my application“, explains the young man. “For six months, I further developed my skills in advocacy and association management, and expanded my network of national and international institutions and NGOs. In the end, the Initiative continues well beyond this time.”
The war in Ukraine, a sad echo of his life
When Russia declared its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Farhad and his friend Nick were devastated. Co-founder of the anti-discrimination project MAKEOUT, Nick Antipov is well versed in the issues of exile and forced migration.
Both are wondering how to help the thousands of Ukrainians who will soon be forced to move away from the conflict. Remembering the reception system in the Drôme region, where French families take in Ézidis, Farhad, with the help of his friend, mobilizes civil society. The aim was to find homes for Ukrainian families and civilians as quickly as possible.
In just a few days, the ICanHelp association was up and running, with the website receiving hundreds of hits a day and just as many requests. The interface allows Ukrainians to register and others to offer their homes as refuge. Nick and Farhad are responsible for putting people in touch with each other.
“Very quickly, we became the link between the two parties in France, and received an enormous amount of support. The European Union, Canada, Germany and Turkey joined the program. One Frenchman even hosted 20 families single-handedly!”
Farhad is still very committed to his work for the Ézidi cause, and continues to help refugees from the other minority in France. He is currently working with the UN to protect his people in Iraq, where they still have no status.
“The UN allows us to be heard and to have a voice in our lives“, which he hopes will soon be “peaceful.”
Next month marks the nine-year anniversary of the genocide. Farhad is organizing a press conference with some twenty other Ézidi associations. They have also launched an appeal to Iraq to rebuild the Sinjar region, their birthplace.
Maud Baheng Daizey
Crédit photo : Marcus Wiechmann