Day 6

How an Iraqi farmer risked it all to rescue dozens of Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS

Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail's new book 'The Beekeeper' highlights the heroism of Abdullah Shrem — who used a network of smugglers to rescue women taken captive by ISIS.

'He created a different kind of hive, a hive of smugglers'

'The Beekeeper,' formally Abdullah Shrem, with his youngest daughter, Rola, and the orphaned children now in his care. (Submitted by Dunya Mikhail)

'The Beekeeper' knows plenty about hives.

Abdullah Shrem, a Yazidi from Iraqi Kurdistan, earns a living by selling honey between Iraq and Syria. Both his sister and niece went missing in that region, and when he would go looking for them, it was a different hive he created.

Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi-American poet based in Michigan. (Michael Smith)

"A hive of smugglers," says poet Dunya Mikhail.

His sister and niece, like many women from the area, were captured by ISIS and held as sex slaves.

In her new book, The Beekeeper, Mikhail details the heroism of Shrem — a farmer she calls honest and good-natured — who helped rescue women captured by the militant group.

Mikhail met 'The Beekeeper' when speaking with women about their experiences of being held captive. It was the first time she had travelled to her home country in 20 years.

She wanted to understand how so many were being taken as sex slaves.

"As a woman I felt really insulted and I wanted to know what was going on," she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

'It starts with a call'

While Shrem's work began on a smaller scale, his reputation is now known among many women in Iraq.

"It starts with a call," explains Mikhail. Enslaved women reach out to relatives looking for someone to help them.

"Now that they all know that Abdullah is rescuing people — that he is succeeding, he's making great success in bringing the women back — they call him," she says.

Dunya Mikhail and Abdullah Shrem visiting the sacred Yazidi temple complex at Lalish, in northern Iraq, in 2016. (Submitted by Dunya Mikhail)

Shrem takes down the womens' locations and then coordinates with a network a smugglers to find them a route home. The smugglers have to find a safe way for women to escape rebel-held areas and areas devastated by fighting and airstrikes.

"One time, he smuggled people [by] putting them in coffins," says Mikhail.

The story that stands out most for Mikhail, however, is of a woman named Zuhour.

The sympathetic seamstress

Zuhour, a mother of three, ran away from her ISIS captors. They had starved her and her children, offering no milk for her baby.

As Mikhail describes it, the woman came upon a seamstress. After her customers left, Zuhour approached her and explained her situation.

"She whispered to [the seamstress] that, 'I am Iraqi and I beg you to give me shelter. If Daesh [ISIS] finds me, they will kill me and my children,'" Mikhail recalls.

Dunya Mikhail, age 21, reading poetry at Baghdad University. (Submitted by Dunya Mikhail)

The seamstress was sympathetic, but her father was a member of ISIS. Still, she welcomed them in.

For three months, the woman and her children hid in the sewing room — a room the father didn't enter. When he was home with his daughter, the family would have to remain silent.

"One time, her baby was almost going to be suffocated ... the baby was crying and she kind of almost suffocated him when trying to stop him from crying," Mikhail says.

Eventually, Shrem and his network were able to return the woman to Kurdistan.

'A brother to them'

When Mikhail met Shrem, she was taken by how respected he is in his community.

"I felt how special we were treated because of him … and the women themselves, they all think of him as a brother to them," she says.

When rescuing the women, Mikhail explains, Shrem stays with them "step-by-step" as they travel. When the women meet their families at a border, 'The Beekeeper' is always there.

"He never missed any meetings like that … he would cry with the family every time," she says.

A young Dunya Mikhail, front left, poses with her family in 1975 in Baghdad. (Submitted by Dunya Mikhail)

While ISIS is now defeated in Iraq, he feels that the country and his region will never be the same.

"Now he's afraid to go and find all these memories, but not the people," Mikhail says, adding that in addition to his sister and niece, Shrem's brother is missing.

And with 3,000 women from Kurdistan still missing, Shrem's work continues.

"Every time I save a woman," he told Mikhail, "I save my sisters too."

To hear the full interview with Dunya Mikhail, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.