Teenage girl who survived kidnapping now using a TASIS-provided computer to help those still in captivity
Posted 02/09/2016 11:00AM

The American School in Switzerland is honored to play a small role in improving the life of a 16-year-old Iraqi girl who has survived a nightmare few can conceive of.

The heartbreaking story of Ekhlas, who was kidnapped by ISIS after witnessing the murder of her father and two brothers, is revealed through an interview with Jacqueline Isaac in this video (viewer discretion is advised). Isaac is the Vice President of Roads of Success, a non-profit organization that empowers, advocates for, and provides humanitarian aid to support victims of terror—girls, women, and minorities—across the Middle East. Their initiatives include relief missions, trauma counseling, skills training, legal workshops, and media programs that reach millions across the region.

From L to R: Mantovani, Toprak, Isaac, and De Gregorio

Ekhlas was imprisoned along with other women and children from her village, but they were able to make a daring escape when Peshmerga fighters attacked the ISIS troops. After walking barefoot through the frigid mountains without food or water for five hours, the refugees were rescued by the Yazidis, a minority community that has faced terrible persecution from ISIS.

Isaac, who has drawn inspiration from her visionary mother as she’s worked tirelessly to support victims of crisis and advance the rights of religious minorities and women across the Middle East for more than a decade, discovered Ekhlas at a rescue camp in Iraq in March 2015. She and her colleagues fed the girls, played games with them, and created a workshop in which they asked the girls to speak of their dreams for the future. Isaac immediately saw something special in Ekhlas.

“She raised her hand with boldness and stated, ‘Whether it takes life or even death, my dream is to save my sisters in captivity.’ I captured this exact moment recorded through a friend's phone and shared her dream with the United States Congress and millions on C-SPAN. What Ekhlas did not realize was that her courage in making that statement would remind government leaders of their humanity and compel them to make decisions to do the very thing she wanted, help her sisters.”

In May 2015, Ekhlas received asylum in Germany. Isaac was in regular contact with her and some of the other girls in Germany for months and was finally able to pay them a visit this past October. She arrived bearing an important gift, which brings us to how TASIS came to play a small part in Ekhlas’s remarkable story.

TASIS became involved in October, when Isaac—who was introduced to the School by friend and TASIS parent Mary Miller and then connected with Global Service Program Coordinator Zach Mulert—made a visit to campus and spoke to a group of students and adults passionate about global service, challenging students to start a “Tech Over Trauma” initiative, in which they’d collect money and computers for ISIS survivors.

While students are still engaged in this ongoing effort, it was Technology Services and Support specialist Fabrizio De Gregorio who was able to offer more immediate assistance after a chance meeting with Isaac that began when he offered to give her and Miller a ride to a TASIS soccer game. The soccer game had actually just finished by the time they arrived, so De Gregorio drove Isaac and Miller back to campus. They were grateful for his help and insisted that they take him out to dinner as a thank you, and they also extended the invitation to Technology Manager Nicola Mantovani.

After learning about the incredible work Roads of Success is doing, De Gregorio and Mantovani returned to the Information Technology office the next day and received permission from Technology Director Fulvio Galli to donate two iMacs to the cause.

“They were thrilled. It felt like their dreams came true because this became their outlet to the world. For the first time, they had a tool to reach the entire world—whether that was gaining an education through insight and counseling or, later on, sharing their stories with the world online.”

“We were so excited,” said Isaac. “I was planning to bring an old laptop to Germany, so when I learned that I’d be able to bring an iMac instead, you can’t imagine how much of a relief it was for me. They were now going to get a huge computer. A little laptop might have worked for two or three girls, but this computer could work for up to ten, maybe even 15. It was amazing to realize how many more girls we could reach. It also gave me hope just to make a human connection like that—to meet this person and have him moved to action just by hearing my stories. It rekindled my hope in people.”

Isaac then drove to Locarno, Switzerland, to give the first computer to a family of Syrian Christian refugees. (Melki Toprak, a local partner who helps Syrian refugees in Switzerland, spoke with Isaac at TASIS, and they both encouraged students to get more involved by mentoring Syrian refugee teenagers in the Lugano area. Toprak also suggested that Roads of Success donate one of the two TASIS computers to the family in Locarno.) Isaac then continued on to Konstanz, Germany, where she stayed with about 100 rescued girls (aged 13-35), including Ekhlas, in a dormitory for four days. The iMac was presented to Ekhlas’s floor, which included 15 girls.

“They couldn’t believe it,” said Isaac. “They were thrilled. It felt like their dreams came true because this became their outlet to the world. For the first time, they had a tool to reach the entire world—whether that was gaining an education through insight and counseling or, later on, sharing their stories with the world online.” (To see more of these unbelievable stories, be sure to visit the Roads of Success facebook page.)

The end of the Roads of Success video shows an emotional Ekhlas receiving the computer, which she is using to learn English as she prepares to one day become a Women’s Rights lawyer. It will serve as an invaluable tool as she pursues what is now her main objective in life: freeing those who are still in captivity.

While she visited, Isaac taught a handful of girls how to use Skype and some other basic programs. Her goal is to eventually have two computers on each floor of the dormitory in Germany, and she has also worked to set up teaching centers for girls in Iraq. Many of these girls have received iPhones, which are easier to use in tents for private counseling sessions.

Isaac and team with rescued girls at refugee camp in Northern Iraq

Isaac now communicates with Ekhlas on a regular basis and looks forward to visiting her again soon. She believes that Ekhlas and many other persecuted girls across the Middle East have the potential to be the next Malala, if they are only given a chance.

“These young girls are strong, brave, and courageous,” she said. “They have what it takes to be like the Malala of tomorrow. They are incredible but need a little push to not only survive but to thrive. If each country takes it upon themselves to care for a few, the psychological deterioration among the girls will be alleviated and the countries will be responsible for building up a new generation of resiliency.”

Roads of Success has received a great deal of attention from the media over the past year. To learn more about their mission, explore the following links.

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