He smoked one cigarette after the other, loved to drink a lot and joke around: a quality, the latter, that the young Shaheen, a survivor of the genocide of his people, the Yazidi minority, had not lost even in the midst of the bloodiest episodes of the war in Iraq. He wrote poems that he published on social media, because – as told by those who knew him – he had not lost the strength to dream, despite the horror he had witnessed. And, at the same time, he had never lost the courage to love and spend himself for others, to the point of risking his life, several times, in rescue operations for civilians that few, very few, would have had the courage to undertake. In one of these, after rescuing a Muslim child surrounded by bodies and under fire from ISIS snipers, Shaheen was seriously wounded and, after two operations and ten days of hospitalization, died of an infection on May 14, 2017. A documentary, Free Burma Rangers, directed by Brent Gudgel and Chris Sinclair, tells and witnesses his rescue action, which occurred during the battle of Mosul.
After working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army and other non-governmental organizations, Shaheen decided to work for David Eubank, Texan founder and director of the Free Burma Rangers, an atypical and courageous organization specialized in medical assistance and rescue of civilians in war zones. So many people owe him their lives, it doesn't matter if they are Yazidi or Muslim – this young man’s ability to love too prematurely passed away knew no boundaries.
In 2015 he began his work for Yazda, the NGO that Nadia Murad was part of before winning the Nobel Peace Prize, providing food and assistance to the Yazidis of Mount Sinjar, still caught in the grip of the Islamic State. So many traumas and wounds for him, who came from that tormented land, to which he returned for the first time after the genocide; yet, he worked tirelessly in the most extreme situations to make a contribution to the security and peace of the population. In those months, when aid was very limited and the refugees often ended up taking it out on volunteers like Shaheen, he worked night and day, many times even for free, for various local organizations lacking means and funds. But the hardest part, for Shaheen’s work, was yet to come.
The battle rages for Mosul, reduced to a pile of rubble, and for the ISIS-occupied areas in the Nineveh Governorate. Almost all the NGOs, following their protocols, refused to intervene: too many were the risks of a battle that, among snipers, landmines, and incessant fire, had reached unprecedented violence. Thousands of people were displaced, while civilians, more and more frequently, were the object of deliberate attacks by Daesh.
Another aspect not to be overlooked, for a Yazidi like him: in this situation, it was a question of risking everything to also help Muslim men and women, like those who had exterminated, only a few months earlier, his people because of their religious faith. Shaheen – urged on by his colleagues – did not shy away from his mission, despite the psychological hesitation of the first months. One event, however, recounted by scholar and activist Matthew Travis Barber, seems to confirm Shaheen in his choice of courage. On January 28, 2017, the Iraqi army and the Free Burma Rangers found near Mosul a six years old Yazidi child, Ayman, who had been adopted and then rescued, by a Sunni Arab couple after being kidnapped by the Islamic State.
Sad and terrible was the fate of many Yazidi children, during and after the genocide: enslaved and used as soldiers and suicide bombers after having been forbidden to speak their language, Kurdish, and even to remember their religion and culture. Different, fortunately, the fate of little Ayman, bought by the couple from ISIS militiamen to save him. Their compassion deeply touches Shaheen, who finds new courage and vigor to sacrifice himself.
A few months later, on May 4, Shaheen will launch, succeeding, into a desperate rescue operation to save a little girl shot in the face, surrounded by corpses and a few survivors, who came under fire from ISIS snipers. The operation was too risky, and Shaheen was too intelligent and well-formed not to understand what he was doing: a face to face with death, to save – he, a Yazidi, persecuted for centuries by Islam – a family of Muslims and a little girl, to whom he gave the future that he, unfortunately, could no longer know.
There have been many messages and expressions of affection that an extraordinary boy like Shaheen has left behind. A playground has been dedicated to him in Mosul, in the meantime liberated, just a few steps away from where he saved the little girl.
Simone Zoppellaro, journalist