Taking Her Fight to the French Senate, Homayra Sellier Defends Yazidi Women, Refugees

Interview by Peyman Pejman

Nadia Murad is a 23-year-old Yazidi woman who was raped in Iraq by the so-called Islamic State, commonly referred to by its acronyms ISIS or ISIL. “You decide whether it is to be war or peace,” she said in a recent address to the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations. “We have to address the causes of immigration, not just the immigration itself . . . we have to end wars and put humanity first.”

Putting “humanity first” is what Homayra Sellier, an Iranian-born French activist, considers her primary calling. She has spent nearly two decades addressing causes of – and seeking solutions for – sexual abuse, primarily against children, but not limited to them. Yazidis, an estimated 500,000-strong Kurdish minority, still have about 3,000 of their women in ISIS slavery, according to news accounts.

“Many Yazidi women have lost everything: husband, children, livelihood, everything,” Sellier told Kayhan London. “They don’t want to be immigrants. They want to be self-sufficient.”

Senator Bruno Retailleau and Zhalia Sirwan Hama Salih, Miss Kurdistan 2016
Senator Bruno Retailleau and Zhalia Sirwan Hama Salih, Miss Kurdistan 2016

That belief, and Sellier’s many years of up-close-and-personal experience in the humanitarian field, are the driving forces behind a project unveiled at the French Senate on November 17th under the patronage of Senator Bruno Retailleau, president of the center-right Republicans Party, one of the two mainstream political parties competing in next year’s presidential elections. The meeting was attended by a number of other senators, as well as by members of the Kurdistan government, a partner in the initiative.

“We want to establish a project that will create a self-sufficient micro-economic environment for Yazidi refugee women and orphans who are in Dohuk,” Iraqi Kurdistan, said Sellier. “We have received a 5,000- square-meter piece of land from the Dohuk government. We want to build a simple medical facility, schools, and facilities that would allow these refugee women to pursue their craft – in cooperation with a number of international fashion designers— and sell their designs, while the kids continue to go to school.”

The idea, says Sellier, is to “give them hope for two, three, four years until the situation in the region is resolved and they can go back home.”

Her campaign has both political and financial potential.

“The initial funding we will need to build the facilities for 100 Yazidi women and 500 orphans is about 1.5 million euros. All construction and plans are drawn up by Yazidi architects and other professionals,” Sellier says.

That amount is miniscule compared to what large international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government-backed development agencies — such as USAID in the United States and DFID (the Department for International Development) in the United Kingdom – spend on individual projects.

Sellier says 1.5 million euros is the equivalent of 15 days of operational costs at the so-called “Calais jungle,” a refugee encampment near the northern French city of Calais. The camp was dismantled in October and the refugees dispersed to other locations around France.

Sellier’s commitment to humanitarian causes originated with a personal story.

“I had a good friend who was raped when she was in Paris by someone who was supposed to shelter her. [Hers and] all these stories shook me up. I decided that if I could, I would do something to be an advocate for those kids and youngsters who, for various reasons, face such circumstances.”

She resorted to the usual channels, “sending money only to Third World countries, thinking that’s the only place where the problem was because they are poor, and sending [money] only to support girls, thinking, incorrectly, that only girls are victims of sexual abuse.”
Initially donating money in a private capacity, she then started working with UNESCO on an international project addressing the sexual abuse of minors and Internet pedophilia.

President of Afam Ngo, Mrs Shirin Azadpour, with whom ‘Innocence in Danger’ has partnered, Senator Bruno Retailleau and Homayra Sellier
President of Afam Ngo, Mrs Shirin Azadpour, with whom ‘Innocence in Danger’ has partnered, Senator Bruno Retailleau and Homayra Sellier

After a year, she decided to set up her own NGO, Innocence in Danger, in 1999. The website http://www.innocenceendanger.org/en/ defines it as “a worldwide movement for protection of children against all forms of sexual abuse.”

Since then, the NGO has become active in a dozen countries, including France, Germany, Colombia, Lebanon, Morocco, Switzerland, and the United States.

Sellier is convinced that her Yazidi project “makes sense. Europe has too many problems. It doesn’t have space for immigrants. They don’t want immigrants. And the immigrants don’t want to come. They are afraid, too. Rather than bringing them over in the hope that they will rebuild their life and then have them get lost in the system, let them have a self-sufficient life in a place they know.”

She hopes that initiatives such as her appearance before the French Senate will help her secure what she lacks: funding, and the kind of “hard-hitting” communications campaigns that she would sponsor if she had the resources.

“I wish we had tons of money to get exposure. But we are not a large NGO,” she says. Sellier prefers to operate on a lower budget and spend more of the money raised on actual projects, instead of paying large salaries and running up high operational costs – practices that have mired bigger organizations for years and for which they are continuously criticized.

Sellier says her organization has had success in part because it has adopted a diverse strategy. It’s not just about advocacy. Nor is it just about pushing the envelope to change legislation and ensure better enforcement of existing laws.

“The work we do in each country depends on the possibilities we have,” she says. “In France, for example, we are very strong judicially and politically. We have strong political ties, and I am meeting with every one of next year’s presidential campaign candidates suggesting changes to laws. We are also strong in Germany.”

Elsewhere, in countries such as Colombia, Morocco, and Lebanon, work has been more limited to sheltering and offering protective services.

Concludes Sellier: “I am proud of a lot of the successes we have had in different places. Each [of them] means a different thing.”