Graduate student’s Iraq research leads to human rights advocacy

When he set out to do research in Iraq last June, Matthew Barber was not expecting a front-row seat for a humanitarian crisis. A doctoral student in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Barber intended to study Kurdish and pursue his interest in the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority group.  

Instead, he witnessed the relentless pursuit of the Yazidis by the Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS, particularly its deadly Aug. 3 attack on the Sinjar mountain region, a northwest Yazidi homeland near the Syrian border.

In the months since, Barber has emerged as an energetic advocate for Yazidi human rights, pushing for the release of an estimated 7,000 Yazidis—the vast majority of them women and girls who were taken prisoner during the siege and remain in captivity. The group Human Rights Watch wrote in an October report that the women have been subject to an array of human rights violations by ISIS forces, including sexual assault, forced marriage, enslavement and forced religious conversion to Islam.

Barber says his advocacy is a natural extension of his scholarly work. “I think it’s a duty, it’s incumbent upon us, to give back to society by sharing knowledge that could be helpful,” he said. “I don’t function as a detached scholar; I have strong networks and relationships with people on the ground.”

On the day ISIS forces barricaded Sinjar, they trapped defenseless residents in their villages, Barber said. Those who tried to escape were caught at checkpoints and commanded to convert to Islam—or die. Some refused and were killed. As many as 300,000 were displaced in a single day.   

“It’s one of the most traumatic things I’ve seen,” said Barber, whose research came to a halt as refugees inundated Dohuk, the northern Iraqi Kurdistan town where he was living. “The roads were an unending caravan of cars,” he said. “People were on every street, taking shelter anywhere they could.”

The attack on Sinjar was the latest in an apparent ISIS campaign to target Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities. Just weeks earlier, the group had expelled Christians from the ancient town of Mosul, where the community had lived since the dawn of Christianity.

But with the Sinjar attack, Barber may have been one of the first Westerners to notice a disturbing pattern. As ISIS forces caught fleeing Yazidis, they systematically separated women and girls from their families and hauled them away to detention facilities.

Barber met family members of some of the abducted women. “Families everywhere were telling me, ‘We don’t know where our daughters are,’” he said. A regular contributor to the Middle East political blog Syria Comment who had spent time in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, he was no stranger to writing about crisis as it unfolded around him. He wrote and tweeted about what was happening to the Yazidis—more than 5,000 of whom had been killed—and began working with refugees to advocate for the release of the women and girls.

Barber’s writings quickly caught the eye of the international media who sought him out as an expert source. He provided eyewitness accounts and vital background on the little-known Yazidis to outlets such as the BBC, NPR, Radio France, CNN and PBS.

Barber returned to Chicago and resumed classes this fall, with a focus on Islamic thought. Many thousands of Yazidi women and girls still are being held in undisclosed locations throughout Iraq. His work to free them frequently keeps him up into the morning hours.

In late October, Barber joined a delegation of high-ranking Yazidi leaders that traveled to Washington to urge U.S. State Department and White House officials to help rescue the women and girls, allocate more humanitarian relief and promote the security of hundreds of thousands of Yazidis still displaced and homeless. “If the government will take action now, we can save many thousands of lives,” he said.

Barber says the work is yielding results. The New York Times recently ran a story about five Yazidi girls who have managed to escape their captors, and humanitarian aid has been secured for Yazidis still clinging to areas in the Sinjar region.       

But advocacy to free the women and girls continues to consume him. “This has become my daily reality,” Barber said. “Every morning I wake up, and my first thought is, ‘What do we need to do today to make a difference, to try to help?’”