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Carrboro High School Students Meet with Nobel Peace Prize Winner

For students in Matt Cone’s social studies classes at Carrboro High School, the possibility of meeting world leaders and changemakers seems to be just one more aspect of the learning process, rather than an extraordinary opportunity that few American students could ever experience. On October 29, a group of his students met privately with newly named Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nadia Murad, before she spoke to an audience of 600 at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The informal and intimate setting for the conversation between Murad and Cone’s students created powerful impressions and a sense of connection, especially among many of the young women from CHS.

Murad is a survivor of the 2014 genocidal attack by ISIS forces on her hometown, Kocho, in the mountains of northern Iraq. Although she survived the massacre, her mother and six brothers did not, nor did most of the men in the village. Nearly 5,000 people were killed in a single day. She, like the other Yazidi women of Kocho, was captured and forced into sexual slavery. After three months of sexual violence, Murad escaped from where she was imprisoned in Mosul. Since her relocation to Germany in 2015, Murad has become a tireless advocate for the Yazidi people, an ancient religious minority, as well as raising her voice against sex trafficking, and the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Nobel winner Murad with CHS students Cone’s students had read Murad’s recent book, “The Last Girl,” and they constructed questions in advance for their meeting with her. The activist is only 25 years old, a woman of slight build and soft voice, and she clearly held the students’ attention throughout their conversation. The students wrote follow up letters to Murad after the experience at Duke, and several remarked that their sense of connection to her was deepened by her youth and vulnerability. Ezster Rimanyi wrote, “Seeing your small frame bearing the enormous weight of the past, I felt emotional - you shouldn't have ever had to go through violence but you and many others did. And you persevered. There was so much strength in your voice speaking to us even while you fiddled with your hands and looked at the ground. You have redefined strength in my eyes.”

Sofia De Oliveira wrote in her letter to Murad, “The experience that you and your Yazidi community has endured is something I can barely fathom. Reading your book, ‘The Last Girl,’ was extremely difficult and eye-opening, as I barely knew anything about Yazidis prior to opening up the book. I would be so torn if I were forced to leave my own home and abandon my faith. Imagining my favorite place where I find comfort and family being completely destroyed is absolutely devastating. It makes me understand why Yazidis like yourself wish to be able to return to safely living in your homeland without fear that the Yazidi identity will disappear.”

Several themes and realizations reappeared in letter after letter, but perhaps most striking to many students was the shock of understanding that genocide is perpetrated against “normal people.” Charlotte Ellis wrote, “I feel like a lot of times people become so desensitized, that to them, these stories are, well, stories. While reading this book, I had to keep reminding myself that I was meeting you, and that you were a real person. I had to remind myself that someone actually lived the words I was reading, and that it was so much more real than I was allowing myself to believe. It forced me to make the story so much more personal, and it forced me to confront and recognize that this isn’t a world away. It is happening to real people, right now.”

“Throughout meeting with you and hearing you speak at the talk itself, something that struck me was how ‘real’ you are,” wrote David Gonzalez Chavez. “It’s often easy to read about people doing amazing work and people who have gone through horrible events and think they’re entirely separate from ourselves, and thus we assume that their work or struggles are also apart from us. To me, this realization that you’re a regular person (though certainly extraordinary in your courage and passion) drove home the fact that tragedy can befall anyone; we might hear through the news of tragedies around the world, and through this we might assume that they’re a foreign problem.”

De Oliveira wrote, “When you were asked to define peace, I was moved by your beautiful answer to such a difficult question. You said that, to you, peace is when people can sit side-by-side at a table without asking one another what each other’s religions are. Peace is when women are not treated with disrespect or violence. This especially struck me when I was reading the end of your beautiful book and I received a news notification about the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue. Prior to this, I had always thought of religious persecution as an issue that is displaced from the United States because this country is so often branded as the safe haven for freedom of religion. This event struck me with the truth, teaching me that I need to be as concerned with religious persecution as anyone around the world and taught me that I should be more aware of what’s happening to the Yazidi people.”

“When I read your book, it was a sunny afternoon, and my parents were playing music and cleaning up as I sat on the sofa,” wrote Yvette Berner. “In sharp contrast to the bright and cheery atmosphere of my house, I felt sick. For some reason I couldn’t stop reading, even though certain parts became very hard to read. Even after I was done, for the rest of the day I felt as if I was weighed down by lead on my shoulders. The strength of your words, the determination in your writing shook me in a way no headline has before. To share a traumatic event, even just with one person, is immeasurably hard. To allow thousands of people to read about it - that is a heroic act.”

The other theme that ran through many of the letters from CHS students was the power of home and family, especially when they are ripped away through violence and war. Many letters expressed poignant realizations from the students about how often they take their safety, their access to education and their daily comforts for granted.

“What I was oblivious to was that refugees still wish to return to their home someday,” wrote Laura De Oliveira. “When I was young, my family and I voluntarily immigrated to the United States from Brazil. Having voluntarily left my home country, I was blind to how victims of displacement still yearn for their homes, despite the memories of violence and fear resonating there.”

Dhara Buebel wrote, “After reading your book, I have taken more time to talk to my siblings and, more importantly, think about how much I love them. Your connection to your family is what helped you get out of ISIS territory, remain strong while in captivity, and even in your younger years, when your life seemed to be simple, to have companions to have fun with in your small village. I am very lucky to have both of my parents present in my home and to get to have that love in my life.”

Her sister, Maya Buebel, wrote that she had been thinking about “the places I consider ‘safe spaces,’ my home, my neighborhood, my school, and then I realized that, for many people around the world, those places aren’t safe for them. I thought about how you told us how fortunate we are, especially as girls, to go to school and get an education, and how lucky I am to be able to consider my school a safe place.”

“I want to thank you for opening up my eyes to see past the bubble that I live in and to take action on this issue and others that are related,” wrote Lauren Forester. “Because of your work, I am now able to educate my friends, family, and teachers about this ongoing issue that has played such a large role in your life. I have been recommending your book to my peers ever since I started reading it, and will continue to in the future. It is something that has clearly changed your life, and I want you to know that it has changed my life in indescribable ways as well. As a woman, I now feel incredibly empowered to stand up for myself, for women in my community, and for women all around the world.”

View video: Nadia Murad at Duke

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