23-year-old Hazim Avdal is an Iraqi refugee and a member of the University of Chicago’s Class of 2021. In 2014, he and his family were forced to flee their hometown in Iraq due to an ISIS attack. Avdal’s story reached George and Amal Clooney, who helped bring him to the United States through the Clooney Foundation for Justice. The Maroon sat down with Avdal to hear more about his backstory.
Chicago Maroon: Tell me about your background (where you were raised, your family, education, etc.)
HA: I was born in 1994. I grew up and went to school in Herdan, a small town in the Shingal (Sinjar) region of northern Iraq. In 2013, I graduated from high school with honors as the seventh highest scoring student in the entire country with a GPA of 100.17 percent, and I was accepted to the University of Mosul’s College of Medicine. Before I could attend college, Yazidi students were purged from the college by al-Qaeda; I, among around 2,000 other Yazidi students, was forced to drop out under threat of death. I then volunteered to teach chemistry at my local high school temporarily and took other jobs, hoping to be able to continue my studies next year. But the very next year, 2014, the Yazidi genocide started, and my dream of pursuing a college degree vanished.
After working with Yazda for two years, I was brought to the U.S. with the help of the Clooney family. I arrived in the U.S. in January of 2017, after which I moved to Augusta, Kentucky, and resettled with the Clooney family. I applied to the University of Chicago in April of 2017 and was accepted in May. I moved to Chicago for school last September.
Most of my family went to Germany as refugees after the genocide, and I am the only one from my family here in the U.S. (and the only Yazidi I am aware of in Chicago). I still have a brother and a sister living in a refugee camp back in Iraq.
CM: Where were you when ISIS attacked your hometown? What was the aftermath of the attack?
HA: I was working in Sulaymaniyah, which was about a six-hour drive from my hometown, at the time ISIS attacked. My hometown, Herdan, had a population of around 2,000 people, out of which over 530 individuals were unable to escape from the Jihadists in time.
About 7,000–8,000 Yazidis lost their lives or were enslaved in the aftermath of the genocide. So far, over 60 mass graves and mass killing sites of Yazidis have been discovered in the Shingal area, five of which are located at the entrance of my hometown. My family was very lucky to manage to escape the town only 10 minutes before the arrival of the ISIS jihadists.
CM: What kind of work did you do for Yazda? Can you elaborate on their mission?
HA: After the genocide, my family and I went to a refugee camp in southern Turkey. After spending about four months in the camp, I left my family and returned to Iraq alone to become a full-time volunteer with the newly-established humanitarian organization Yazda, a multinational, global organization established in the aftermath of the Yazidi genocide in 2014 to support the Yazidi ethno-religious minority and other vulnerable groups.
My work was primarily I.T.-focused, although I performed other tasks such as humanitarian aid distribution in the camps, translation, documentation, and responding to media inquiries about the genocide.
Over the next nine months, I designed and programmed a database management software to keep client records of female Yazidi sexual gender-based violence survivors who had escaped ISIS captivity. The software I designed played a major role in helping to provide services to over 1,200 female survivors and is still in use to this day. I created another database system that enabled the doctors and medical staff in Yazda’s primary health center to record the medical history of the patients, to generate reports, and to track the prescription medications of all patients in a camp of nearly 16,000 internally displaced persons.
CM: What do you think can be done to raise awareness of Iraqi refugees in the U.S.?
HA: When I first arrived in the U.S., I was shocked to learn how most people were unaware about what people were going through because of ISIS, and the refugee crisis in general. It is sad that this is the case, because there are still thousands of people living in harsh conditions, for whom our easily-available, everyday “basic life needs,” such as clean water, are luxuries.
I certainly don’t believe that this unawareness is because people purposefully choose not to learn about those horrible events, but instead it is those social media bubbles that we all unintentionally create around ourselves.
If I, a student, can’t singlehandedly stop a war, then the easiest thing I can do would probably be letting as many people as possible know about how many lives that war is destroying and have destroyed. If we all do the same and spread the word, hopefully that will encourage our world leaders to take action.
CM: How has your transition to the U.S. been so far?
HA: Overall, it has been a smooth transition in terms of adjustment although the first few months were challenging and getting used to a new culture was by no means easy. I have been so lucky to have an amazing system of support as there are so many wonderful and kind-hearted people around me. The Clooneys did everything they could to make sure the transition was as comfortable as possible for me, and therefore I felt I was home the moment I arrived in Augusta.
But the real difficulty lies in making a balance between two lives. I live here in a relatively calm and peaceful environment here in Chicago now, but my heart is still with my people whom I left behind in Iraq. They have been living in camps for well over three years now, lacking virtually everything. People are desperate, and many have given up on life altogether. All this makes the transition very difficult for me because I can’t simply just start a new life here and forget about all that’s happening back there.
CM: What do you want to do in the future?
HA: I have just started school and still have a few more years to go for my B.A. I may want to get a Master’s or Ph.D. after that, but that’s far in the future. I am hoping to be able to help other students get their college degrees from good schools like ours and become future leaders in their communities.
CM: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
HA: If you, dear reader, want to support refugees or other students like myself, I encourage you to visit Yazda.org or cfj.org. Yazda would be a good place to start if you want to help refugees in Iraq and especially the survivors of the genocide and the Yazidi women who escaped captivity.
You can also donate your time and skills either remotely or in person. In Yazda, for example, we always need graphic designers, content writers, and help with English, web development, and almost any skill you can think of. You definitely possess some skills that can be useful for the humanitarian response.
If you want to donate money, that will, of course, be extremely helpful, too. I know of students who can’t afford as little as $50 to continue going to school. A very small donation can make a big change in someone’s life—more than you can imagine. $25 can buy enough food for a family for two weeks, $10 can buy basic school supplies for a student for a whole semester.