San Diego attorney Jacqueline Isaac, 29, is a woman on a mission — several missions — not least among them hauling fresh, non-weaponry supplies through war zones to Kurdish female fighting units in Iraq.
“We’ve been to Iraq three times since December and we’re getting ready to go back again,” she says. “First, we’ve got to fill the containers with more supplies for the Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities.”
Isaac’s first 40-foot Iraq-bound container taught her just about everything a international cargo-shipping logistician needs to know — the hard way. “Just getting the container from one place to another and finding a place to put it so we could fill the thing was a challenge.”
Isaac rallied community and church leaders across Southern California in late 2014 as she worked to feed the container’s gaping 2400-cubic-foot cargo space. To that end, the ambitious millennial hauled her aluminum-and-steel monster from destinations ranging from a San Diego County Sheriffs Department yard, then to a warehouse right around the corner from Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County’s Buena Park.
“It was our first container, and we learned a lot,” she says. It soon became clear that finding a permanent staging area, a warehouse large enough to hold at least a couple of containers at a time, would be necessary.
In addition to her full-time job in the probate field, Isaac stretches the roughly $300,000 budget of her nonprofit charity Roads of Success far enough to pack shipping containers full of footwear, medicine, clothing, blankets, and personal hygiene products. Two more Roads of Success containers are now en route to Iraq, while another is being filled at a San Diego warehouse that another charitable group recently agreed to share with Isaac’s organization.
The supplies now being loaded will end up in the hands of Iraq’s religious minorities, huge numbers of whom have been displaced by the onslaught of so-called “Islamic State” militants. More than 7000 Yazidi and other Kurdish women have become soldiers after their cities, towns and villages were decimated by militants.
“The women and girls I’ve met on Mount Sinjar are so inspiring,” Isaac says. “First they were victims of ISIS. Now they are now fighting back — as soldiers. The least we can do is help them by sharing what we are so blessed to have.”
Isaac works with her mother, Arabic television personality, Yvette Isaac, 56, to bring medical supplies, material essentials, and even counseling to Yazidi and Christian Kurds, non-Kurdish Iraqi Christians and other Iraqis who have been brought to the brink of total destruction by war.
Headquartered in Los Angeles and San Diego, Roads of Success supplies — with non-lethal aid — the female fighting units that make up about 30 percent of Kurdish and Peshmerga forces battling the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Jacqueline Isaac says help fulfilling her and her mother’s mission has come from local officials and organizations, including San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts and the San Diego County Deputy Sheriffs Association in the form of thermal blankets and shoes.
“We bring them just about anything you can fit into a shipping container except, of course, weapons,” the younger Isaac says. “Ours is strictly a humanitarian effort.”
Isaac’s delicate, elegant appearance belies her apparent fearlessness. Both she and her mother are well aware of the dangers in trekking across some of the bloodiest battlefields and terrorist-held terrain on earth. But they try to keep the danger in perspective.
“We have been to places where you can see the black flag of ISIS flying in the distance,” Jacqueline says. “You have to be careful, but you also have to use whatever fear you have to help you plan carefully. Then, you just have to put your fear aside.”
She points to the Yazidi and Kurdish women and young girls she’s met and helped in Iraq as “better examples of courage” because they have weathered murders of their relatives and attempts to dehumanize them through rape and human trafficking. “They are the ones who have shown us how to overcome fear while holding on to dignity and hope,” says Isaac. “We have to help these girls and these women — we don’t have a choice.”
But Isaac and her mother do have a choice. They could do what most of us do: hear about the kidnappings, rapes, and murders of women and girls as young as 5 by radical-Islamist militant groups like Boko Haram or the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and shake our heads in disgust — or mutter “jeez, what’s wrong with this world?” and carry on with our comfortable lives. That’s not enough for Jacqueline and Yvette Isaac. “When you see the faces of mothers, daughters, sisters and cousins who have joined the military to protect each other from these ISIS monsters, you see your own family; you see yourself,” Isaac says. “In spite of what they have been through, there’s still light in their eyes. You can still see hope and innocence even in the eyes of the ones whose innocence was taken by DAeSh... by ISIS.”
Isaac was stunned by the level of desperation she found among the Yazidi women, children and elderly men still clinging to life atop Mount Sinjar the first time she arrived there with supplies.
“These people were in starvation mode,” she says. “We weren’t giving them food, and they weren’t literally starving; I mean they had gone so long without anything like fresh blankets and clothing, lotion for their skin, soap to clean with. They were exposed to the harsh elements and their skin — my God, they were slowly dying from exposure to the incredibly dry, sometimes freezing and sometimes burning-hot wind on top of this mountain. They were desperate for any relief.”
ISIS and Religious Minorities
Video of that first trip shows Isaac handing out blankets, clothing, shoes, and toiletries to the Yazidi survivors on the mountain, most of whom are female civilians and female soldiers. The footage reveals a tenuously composed Jacqueline Isaac concealing an overwrought state beneath her facade. Stress hit hard after a 120-mile-per-hour streak across the desert floor through a narrow corridor where brutal fighting between the Kurds and ISIS still raged on its flanks.
“No, I don’t mean kilometers-per-hour,” she says, explaining her first sojourn along with officials from the Kurdistan Ministry of Health. “Our convoy of about thirty Peshmerga and Kurdish military vehicles left before sunrise and had to keep moving very, very fast in order to make sure ISIS couldn’t target the vehicles in the convoy.”
The trip hadn’t gone as planned. Not only did the hoped-for large group of American witnesses to the human suffering on Mount Sinjar shrink in size to a group of one — Jacqueline Isaac — at one point the Egyptian-American had all but lost track of the cargo container she and others had worked so hard to fill and send to Iraq. Now, streaking across the desert, she would soon be handing out those supplies in person.
“I had to go to the mountain,” she says. “I had to see it for myself. I had to see the people getting the supplies.”
Getting the container, dwarfed among massive stacks of identical containers aboard a giant cargo ship, across two oceans and the Mediterranean Sea via multiple ports-of-call had been an ordeal. Originating from the Port of Long Beach, the container eventually sailed on to Turkey. That’s where the “fun” really began.
“Turkey gave us a really hard time,” Isaac says. “It took three weeks of constantly pushing and questioning; ‘Where’s this bill-of-lading now? Where’s the container now?’ I was on the phone with this Turkish official, then that one. Finally, the container made it to Dohuk [in Iraqi Kurdistan].”
Isaac’s original plan had been to have her container trucked to a United Nations internally displaced persons camp not far from Mount Sinjar, then distribute its contents to the mountain from there as pauses in the war allowed.
“But a passage was opened up by the Kurdish military,” Isaac recalls. “We had been in Iraq for two weeks waiting for the container to come [overland] from Turkey. We were on our last days before we had to leave when we got the news that the container was in Iraq.”
With the corridor now open by the Kurdish military and the Peshmerga Army to Mount Sinjar, and with the Isaacs’ time in Iraq running out, the decision was made to truck the container of critically needed supplies directly to the people atop the mountain. Jacqueline Isaac made her decision to catch up with the container, ISIS be damned.
“Our truck was protected by military vehicles in front and in back,” she says. “I felt safe even though the road was very rough and we were going so fast. I knew ISIS was out there, but there were more immediate problems, like my glasses and the weather. My eyes were so blurry.
Isaac recalls struggling to see ahead of her as the caravan of trucks tore across the rocky corridor to Mount Sinjar. “I remember constantly having to put my coat on, then take it off again because it went from freezing cold when it was still dark, to scorching hot by 7:00 a.m. We had the air-conditioning on in the truck, but it was just too hot to make a difference. Then, on the mountain and on the way back it was so cold, so cold... I was shivering.”
Accidents of Birth
Isaac sounds almost sheepish describing her travails in getting to the Sinjar Mountain range. The reason she’s loathe to complain has less to do with wanting to sound tough and more to do with a revelation she had while on the mountain. “It’s just luck,” she says, her voice suddenly thin, “Nothing more — well, God’s grace, of course. But luck of being born in one place versus another is all that separates me and you from these people stuck on a mountain in the desert with monsters below trying to kill them and destroy their entire families in the most disgusting ways you can think of. It’s just an accident of birth.”
That realization, Isaac says, hit her when she saw a beautiful, yet weather-ravaged, war-beaten Yazidi toddler taking shelter inside of a cardboard box... a box that had come from the container Isaac had shipped from Southern California to Iraq only weeks before. She hadn’t dreamed that in addition to the blankets and medicine she brought, that even a cardboard box would mean so much to a frightened child on a frostbitten mountain half a world away.
“I took a picture of her,” Isaac says. “She was four, maybe five years-old. She saw the box as a treasure. Something she might find warmth in, a place she might be safe.”
No name evil enough
“DAeSh” is a loose Arabic acronym that’s used by enemies in the Middle East to describe the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The name DAeSh has two negative connotations. Translated to English, it indicates the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. You may notice, the English acronym spells “ISIL” rather than “ISIS.” ISIL is also the name given to the group of radical, mostly Sunni-Muslim militants and serial beheaders by the U.S. and other western governments, including France.
In addition to having a negative, colonial-era connotation because “the Levant” is an early 20th century European term for the border region dividing modern-day Iraq and Syria, when pronounced, DAeSh sounds very much like an Arabic word meaning roughly, “those who crush underfoot” or “those who sow discord,” according to the France 24 news network.
“There is no name that is evil enough to describe how deeply ISIS has scarred the Yazidis,” says Isaac.
A report released by the United Nations in March says that recent Islamic State attacks on the Yazidis and other religious minorities on and near Mount Sinjar were rife with acts that “almost certainly amount to war crimes.”
The report documents numerous accounts of child rape, summary executions by the hundreds, as well as the ongoing captivity of as many as 6000 Yazidi women and girls by the so-called Islamic State.
Despite these reports, the Isaacs remain undaunted in their drive to personally bring supplies to Iraq’s persecuted religious minorities. They brought mental health professionals and missionaries to lend support to women and girls who had escaped or who had been rescued from ISIS captivity during their second trip to Iraq. “At the time, we were near Erbil with a team of professionals providing counseling to girls and women who had been rescued from human traffickers and who survived ISIS attacks — although their families didn’t survive.”
According to the U.N. report, some of the girls of Sinjar were forced to watch Islamic State militants kick the decapitated heads of their brothers, cousins, uncles and fathers as if their loved-ones’ heads were soccer balls.
Hearing similar accounts first-hand from the young girls and women, who had been subjected to repeated raping at the hands of so-called Islamic State militants after witnessing their male relatives being slaughtered, strengthened the Isaacs resolve to continue coming back to Iraq as long as the country’s religious and ethnic minorities remain in peril. “Some of our security people didn’t want me to go to Mount Sinjar,” Jacqueline Isaac says. “But I was going. That was just a fact.”
She still recalls the thrill of witnessing Yazidi survivors using the supplies gathered in San Diego. “It was an amazing feeling for us to see the same blankets we packed into the shipping container here in San Diego actually being used by survivors and soldiers on that mountaintop in Iraq,” she says. “The NASA [thermal] blankets you really notice because they’re like an almost metallic material that reflects sunlight. They were instantly recognizable.”
She believes the fact that the first container Roads of Success sent to Iraq, a portion of whose contents also went to families at a U.N. refugee camp, ever made it to the women soldiers defending Mount Sinjar is no less than a miracle. The Isaacs were warned that they were taking a big chance by trying to send supplies to Mount Sinjar, never mind visiting the most dangerous real estate on the planet in person. “Because we went, we were able to bring back video footage of us delivering the supplies with our own hands, supplies that people in Southern California had donated,” Yvette Isaac says. “The donors back home were so happy to see the same items they helped put into the container actually make it to Iraq.”
Laughing nervously, she says she had reason to believe the mission would succeed. “You see, we were told [the container] might never make it to the people,” Yvette Isaac says. “They said ISIS might get everything.”
“Nothing was going to stop me from going,” Jacqueline Isaac repeats as her mom Yvette chimes in. “I knew she would go; I knew she would do good; and I knew she would be safe.”
Pressed to explain what made her so confident her daughter would not fall prey to the militants as she made her way to Mount Sinjar, the elder Isaac touches her chest.
“In my heart,” she replies in a whisper.
Yvette wanted to accompany her daughter to Mount Sinjar that first time. “But I had to stay with the team we brought to [to Iraq] counsel the girls who escaped or who got rescued from ISIS.”
Both Isaac women made it to Sinjar in March — their third visit to Iraq in six months. Devout nondenominational Christians, Yvette and daughter Jacqueline have fallen in love with the Yazidis, an ancient sect of about 500,000 non-Christian, non-Muslim Kurdish people who are sometimes called “the original Kurds.” Notably, most Kurds are either Muslim or Christian — not Yazidi.
The Isaacs believe the Yazidis, whose dwindling population is concentrated on and around the Sinjar mountain range in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, must be protected from Islamic State butchery. “The Kurdish government is very protective of the Yazidi girls and all of the survivors of ISIS,” says Jacqueline. “We were trusted by local officials to help these precious and beautiful souls who are very young girls in some cases. I will cherish the opportunity we were given to counsel and console them for the rest of my life.”
Being Arabic-speaking Americans of Middle Eastern descent has informed what might be called the Isaacs’ humanitarian bedside manner. Their unique perspective and multicultural acumen may also have helped them get access where others have been denied. “It’s important to show appreciation and respect to local people when you’re a foreigner, even if you’re there to help — especially if you’re there to help.”
In late June, Jacqueline and Yvette Isaac spoke at United Nations headquarters in New York as part of a conference for correspondents who cover the U.N. Not surprisingly, they told international reporters gathered for the conference about the unsustainable situation faced by Iraq’s religious minorities. That was a few weeks after Jacqueline Isaac testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in May about the plight of Yazidi women and girls.
“Although ISIS intended to destroy [them] through enslavement and torture, they could not capture their souls,” Isaac told the Committee. “These resilient girls are using their newfound hope and dreams to display to the world that light can still radiate and break through darkness.”
IRAQ" A Documentary Short (Part 1)
A nation rebuilding. After decades of war. But a threat emerges.
Presented by Victor Marx and All Things Possible; directed by Dave Macintosh.
A short film by San Diego–based filmmaker, Dave Macintosh, titled Iraq 2015, documents some of the Isaacs’ trip, as well as the work done by a rapid-response counseling team they shepherded through Iraq. The team counseled about 70 of the 550 or so young female Yazidi and Christian survivors of Islamic State attacks and captivity.
A young Yazidi girl can be seen at the film’s one-minute mark. Her name is Bessima.
“The first time time I saw Bessima in the [United Nations internally displaced persons] camp, there was an instant connection,” says Jacqueline Isaac. “She was so scared; but we bonded. I told her I would come back and that I would find her. I knew I would, but I didn’t know how.”
Refugee (cross-border) and internally displaced persons camps are by their very nature, extremely transient places. Yet when Isaac returned to the neatly maintained yet stark and barren U.N. camp months later, she was able to immediately zero in on Bessima amid dozens of rows of several hundred tents each.
“We took her shopping,” Isaac says. “It was the happiest day of her life, she told me. We went into town and went to the open-air market and we spoiled her with gifts. I want to bring Bessima to the U.S. where she can be safe and get an education.”
Now the Isaacs are planning another trip to Mount Sinjar and to the nearby camp. But it’s doubtful they’ll be bringing Bessima to San Diego this time. Then again, the Isaacs are a mother-and-daughter humanitarian team that’s famous for pulling off “miracles.”
“Of course, we never have enough finances,” Yvette says, “but God always seems to supply our needs.”