Several weeks ago I met with a woman who lives and works in northern Iraq/Kurdistan with ISIS survivors (Yazidi and Muslim), most of them former slaves (and mostly children). Lisa had heard about the program and wanted to know if it was something she could take back to Kurdistan with her, to use in her restorative therapy center. Sitting there with her, listening to her tell story after story about these communities and what they have been through in recent years, was both devastating and intensely hopeful – a tension I wasn’t sure how to navigate emotionally. I just listened in silence, stunned by the extent of the suffering these children have been through, awed by the work that she and her staff are doing to help these kids heal and give them hope for a better future, and completely humbled by her desire to use the program to that end.

Without a moment’s hesitation I told her she could use the material if she felt it would aid her in her work, but I confess I was a little apprehensive about how it could make any difference to these kids’ lives, given the deep trauma they have been through (and continue to struggle with). Even so, as I began to tell her a little bit about every hero, Lisa surprised me by latching on to certain stories in ways I could never have foreseen – finding through these heroes’ experiences of suffering and hardship a way into the lives of her children. We ended up selecting seven heroes as a starting point – people with whom the kids might be able to identify, but more importantly, people whose struggles and eventual overcoming might spark the children’s imaginations, offering them a new paradigm through which to interpret their own trauma and healing. Amazingly, Lisa managed to find a translator within days of our meeting, so that translation into Kurmanji is already under way, even as I write this post.

The heroes we selected are Malala, Corrie ten Boom, Ghaffar Khan, Mother Teresa, Mama Maggie, Jawdat Said, and Sojourner Truth – each one for a very specific reason. For example, we chose Mother Teresa in order to get the message across to all these kids that they are loved and wanted (to counter the messages they received while in ISIS captivity and are still receiving, in many ways, from a world that has forgotten them). We chose Jawdat Said, a fellow refugee who, like these kids, is grappling with the devastating effects of displacement and loss, but is still choosing to preach love and compassion and walk in the way of nonviolence, in complete defiance of the prevailing cultural/religious/political ethos of this region.

And we chose Ghaffar Khan, a great leader of his people, the Pathans (forefathers of the Taliban), because of the way he was able to step into this violent culture and completely transform it from the inside out, creating the first (and perhaps only) nonviolent army in history – an army that committed to fight for freedom without the use of violence. Against all odds, Khan managed to gain the reverence and respect of his people – so much so, that they were willing to turn from their violent heritage for his sake, and theirs. Lisa thought his story would appeal to her boys especially, because of the way they were brainwashed, while in captivity, to think of the Captain – the head of ISIS – as an almost god-like figure that they should all fear and aspire to be like. According to this model, violence is power. Introducing them to someone like Khan – a powerful and greatly revered leader – can subvert that belief by giving them a new kind of model to aspire to while breaking the hold the old model has on them.

As we were selecting some of the more historical figures – Corrie ten Boom and Sojourner Truth, for example – it suddenly dawned on me that in these children’s context, history is actually a current event. I was floored by the realization that what these kids have been through is comparable to the Nazis in Germany: the selection and ethnic cleansing, the concentration camps and all that went with that. It was (and is) shocking to think that the Yazidis can relate to this, on so many levels, and that Corrie’s experience will most likely resonate with them in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

And the same for Sojourner Truth. Truth was a black slave living in the United States in the mid 1800s who eventually escaped and walked her way to freedom. Even as I started to tell her some of Truth’s story, Lisa was immediately able to relate it to the stories of some of her young girls/women, most of them also former (ISIS) slaves, women whose children were taken from them and sold into slavery, or whose children’s heads were bashed to pieces before their eyes. Listening to her make a connection between Truth’s story and her own girls’ stories shook me to the core. I just sat there in stunned silence, thinking, “how can history still be happening like this?” But this was not what Lisa was focused on. Instead she was excited by one of the key messages in Truth’s story – that of tenacity – because of the way she felt it could speak to these women and empower them to continue walking their way to freedom (which is a much longer journey than just a physical release from slavery).

There is much more I could write about my meeting(s) with Lisa, but perhaps these paragraphs will suffice to allow a glimpse into this particular world of suffering, one which we mostly do not and cannot comprehend. I could have walked away from these meetings in utter despair, but I didn’t. I know that even in the devastation, there is hope. Because of people like Lisa, people who are dedicating their lives to alleviating the suffering in some way by stepping into it and countering it with a far greater force – the force of love. To me, Lisa is every bit as much a peace hero as the seven she will be taking back with her to the children in Kurdistan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if her kids look upon their Mama Lisa in the same way – as the hero who has stepped into the ruins of their life with a love they didn’t know it was possible to still experience. It is my greatest hope that some day, these children will become the next generation of peace heroes – all because someone held out a hand to them in their pain and helped them walk their way to freedom.