“You need to meet Laila,” she said. Amidst my law partner’s sparkling holiday celebration, my friend left me in awe with the story of a twenty-something woman living an hour away from me and helping women halfway across the world.
For as long as I can remember, my heart has been drawn to the plight of women in foreign lands. I wept as I walked through the home of Winnie Mandela, who in her war against South African apartheid spent 491 days in prison—with months in solitary confinement. I once eagerly pressed my business card into the hand of a spokeswoman for Afghani women oppressed by the Taliban, asking how I could help. When my husband was in the last year of his life, Syrian President Assad was torturing his own people who fled by the tens of thousands. I found myself googling statistics on how many million women were in refugee camps around the world.
I needed to meet Laila.
In 2004, Isis militants attacked the northwest Sinjar region in Iraq. The Yazidis, a religious minority, were captured and separated by sex. Women and girls were sold into sex slavery and subjected to horrific crimes. Lincoln, Nebraska, is home to the largest community of Yazidis in the United States. There Laila serves as a luminous link to survival for Yazidi women seeking to escape.
Laila Khoudeida has taken calls at all hours of the day and night from women held captive by their rapists and torturers. She has been an international voice for the invisible and a local founder of the Yazidi Cultural Center. It’s hard to imagine how many souls she has salvaged through her sacrifice.
Despite the moving stories of suffering from women around the globe, I have yet to come close to doing the brave work or having the huge impact of my heroines. But, like we all must, I do what I can. Support efforts to end human trafficking in my own community. Advocate for women escaping out of abusive relationships. Help elect women of integrity to office. Empower every good woman I can.
Earlier this week a group Yazidi women and children were reunited with their families after five years in captivity. Yesterday lawyers filed the first lawsuits alleging war crimes against Assad. Afghanistan remains perhaps still the worst place in the world for women.
We may or may not see the results of our efforts during our lifetime. But it is the Lailas who continue to inspire us each to “Think globally. Act locally.”
To my Laila and every Laila, I give my gratitude and all honor. To all who are doing what they can, I say carry on. And to all I wish a hopeful International Women’s Day.