SEED Foundation warmly congratulates Dr. Mirza Dinnayi, a Yezidi humanitarian and native of Sinjar, for receiving the 2019 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity at a ceremony in Yerevan, Armenia. Dr. Dinnayi has been recognized for his life-saving work in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region spanning over a decade, including his humanitarian response and advocacy on behalf of the country’s most vulnerable people, the Yezidi victims of ISIS’ genocidal campaign in Iraq.

The Aurora Prize is granted annually on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors. On October 21, Dr. Dinnayi was inscribed in the unique modern manuscript. “The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative empowers those who risk everything for the sake of others and show extraordinary courage and conviction in situations of adversity, and Mirza Dinnayi is a perfect example of that,” stated Vartan Gregorian, a Co-Founder of the Aurora Prize and Member of the Selection Committee.

With Iraq in the midst of an insurgency during the late 2000s, he co-founded Luftbrücke Irak (Air Bridge Iraq), an organization that has helped to save the lives of people of Iraq’s many diverse components. Dr. Dinnayi began bringing people suffering from desperate medical cases to Germany 12 years ago — across all religious and ethnic groups, without discrimination. As the director of Air Bridge Iraq, “He embodies the power of compassion, of personal commitment, of a burning desire to save lives…” Gregorian added.

Three organizations Air Bridge Iraq, SEED Foundation, and the Shai Fund will each receive part of the laureate’s $1 million grant. Dinnayi said he chose the organizations because they will help provide medical care and rehabilitation to victims of ISIS terror. SEED  was founded in 2014 and now operates in Erbil and Dohuk where it offers psychosocial and other mental health services to many Yezidi survivors of ISIS. 

In response to the genocide starting in 2014 against his group, the Yezidi people, Mirza Dinnayi was one of the first responders, and helped to set up a program to bring ISIS survivors and their immediate family to Germany for medical and mental health services not available in Iraq. “When this crisis began, and we all watched the horrors unfold, it was the Yezidi women and girls who survived the worst of the brutality who were escaping ISIS with life-threatening injuries and completely traumatized. Mirza acted. He brought over 1,000 survivors to life-saving care when the rest of us were just mobilizing,” SEED President Sherri Kraham Talabany recalled.

In addition to the physical abuse inflicted upon the Yezidis by ISIS, many still bear the psychological scars born of witnessing heinous atrocities, torture, mental and sexual abuse including repeated rape, life in captivity, and their family members’ — often unknown — fate. 

“I feel more responsibility towards the world, as the international humanitarian community has accepted me as one of its own. Now my goal is to become a worthy member of the Aurora family,” Dr. Dinnayi said in an interview for The Aurora Prize. “Friends tell me that such international recognition of my work will strengthen the chance for peace-building and establishing the principles of coexistence inside the Iraqi community itself, bringing the voice of peace to our communities.”

SEED is grateful to benefit from the honor and the award which will be used to support even more survivors of ISIS. “We are elated that he has chosen to donate a portion of the Aurora Prize to SEED so we can continue to provide holistic and sustainable mental health services in Kurdistan together with our many other partners,” its President added.

In August of 2014, ISIS began its genocidal campaign against the already vulnerable ethno-religious Yezidi community whose homeland straddles the Iraq-Syria border just northwest of Mosul city. Men were summarily executed and buried in dozens of mass graves — many of which remain un-exhumed leaving some survivors not knowing the fate of their loved ones. Women and children were separated from the men, captured, enslaved, and sold and trafficked by ISIS members as sex slaves and servants.

Thousands of Yezidis were stranded on Mount Sinjar (or Mount Shingal) and Dinnayi’s organization used old Soviet-era Iraqi helicopters to rescue some of the injured. The risky flights over ISIS-held territory were dangerous with one crashing while Dr. Dinnayi was on board. He survived that crash, though others perished, and he took that as a sign that he must continue his mission to do all that he could to support his community.

Dr. Dinnayi, 46, has been an activist since the Saddam-era. He was forced to flee to the safety of the Kurdistan Region in 1992 when he was a medical student in Mosul due to political protests. He later sought asylum in Germany and would serve as the Advisor for Minority Affairs to Iraq’s first president following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. His humanitarian work, spanning into the 2000s, was recognized by the prize committee.

“I visited the hospitals and saw the many injured children. I also saw that there was no infrastructure, no real medical treatment for those children, and I said, I have to do something,” he told the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. Many needed medical care not available locally, so Mirza asked a friend working for a newspaper in Germany to publish a call for help.  It worked. Two hospitals in Germany said they would treat the children for free if they could be brought to the country. That proved no easy task. Already a mostly agrarian and marginalized community, most Yezidis lacked passports. However, Dr. Dinnayi lobbied Iraqi government and Germany Embassy in Baghdad to produce passports and visas for the children.

This year, Zannah Bukar Mustapha, the Director and Founder of Future Prowess Islamic Foundation in Nigeria, and Huda Al-Sarari, a Yemeni lawyer and activist, were also honored by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. Each received a $50,000 grant. Previous Aurora Prize Laureates include several notable international humanitarians: Burundian activist Marguerite Barankitse (2016), American physician and missionary Dr. Tom Catena (2017), and Rohingya lawyer and human rights campaigner Kyaw Hla Aung (2018). Laureates have the duty and opportunity during their year of service to shed light to their cause and other humanitarian causes around the world.