• Distributions in Mosul: Women and children trapped at the front lines receive food and clothing from HERA. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Inside ISIS territory, throughout Iraq and Syria, there's a non-profit that’s rescuing women and children from capture. The organisation is Heraion Foundation. This is how aid is currently being provided to innocent victims of war, caught on the front lines.
By
Elli Jacobs

23 Jan 2017 - 9:15 AM  UPDATED 23 Jan 2017 - 12:30 PM

Meet Davey Gibian: a man responsible for saving some of the women and children captured by Islamic State terrorists and providing them with a new life thereafter.

The New York-based Gibian works for Heraion Foundation (HERA), a non-profit operating in Iraq and Syria dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to victims of war, caught on the front lines. He also spends his work day helping to rescue women and children held captive by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

“We were contacted by two brides of ISIS caliphate fighters who had gathered together seven young Yazidi children, to assist them escape, which we did successfully on Christmas Eve of 2016,” co-founder and president of Heraion Foundation (HERA), Davey Gibian, tells SBS.

“It’s moments like these when I realise our organisation has become a vehicle for change, providing notions of freedom to a trapped society [of women and children].”

Such acts of bringing people out from captivity are not uncommon for Gibian and the HERA team, while on the ground working in Syria.

“But once we realised those two boys were being groomed as suicide bombers, whose mission would be to enter the flow of refugees and blow themselves up to kill others, we just had to get them out."

Gibian shares another escape story of success: how one of HERA’s riskiest rescues unfolded.

Early one morning in the spring of 2016, he says, HERA received a call from Kori, a woman inside the ISIS capital of al-Raqqa, Syria, saying she wanted to escape with her two young boys, ages eight and 10.

“Our immediate reaction was: 'that’s impossible', as she was right inside the 'belly of the beast',” he says.

“But once we realised those two boys were being groomed as suicide bombers, whose mission would be to enter the flow of refugees and blow themselves up to kill others, we just had to get them out.

“Over two weeks, we were able to coordinate their movements around the caliphate to a point where our team was able to go past the Kurdish lines and escort them safely to freedom.”

Gibian believes when women are trapped inside ISIS territory, many may exercise the courage needed to use the capabilities of HERA to effectively stage their own escape.

"These people held captive are told by ISIS it’s impossible to escape. But by having smugglers take people out this is proving not to be true.”

Gibian says all three [mother and her two sons] are now living in a safe-house: one of the boys is attending school and the mother is receiving job training through a HERA program.  

Unfortunately, Kori’s husband was one of the thousands of men executed in the genocide killings of the Yazidi population by ISIS.

"These people held captive are told by ISIS it’s impossible to escape. But by having smugglers take people out this is proving not to be true.”

Kori tells SBS about the ordeal. "We were captured by ISIS, and we spent two years with Da’ash (ISIS in Arabic),” Kori says.

“They took our husbands. We don’t know where they took them [our husbands]. The women and girls, they took to Syria. It’s just me and my two boys now. They need your help. HERA and their partners were the only people who could help.”

An escort to freedom

HERA was co-founded in 2014 by retired U.S. and U.K. veterans, to reemploy military skillsets towards safeguarding vulnerable women and children from ill-health and violence.  

It was soon after ISIS - the extremist organisation perpetrating acts of terrorism and genocide in Iraq and Syria - rose to notoriety in early 2014 that Gibian, a conflict and stability specialist involved in the Syrian crisis, noticed how military specialists (not traditional humanitarian organisations) were driving most of the aid efforts into besieged Aleppo, Syria.

“The nature of conflict has changed [in Syria]: it’s now more slow burn and long-term. We realised how this curtailed the ability for traditional NGOs to actively rescue people and provide food, clothing and medical assistance at the front lines,” Gibian says.

So in early 2015, the non-profit expanded its humanitarian efforts and military expertise.

It set up smuggling networks and escort services to rescue women and young children from extremist ideologies, sexual slavery and gender-based violence, from right inside ISIS capital territory.

Currently, through HERA fundraising efforts, about 1,000 people unable to flee conflict are being fed and around 5,000 pieces of clothing are being delivered to people trapped inside active battle spaces on a daily basis.

"We make sure there's life beyond ISIS," Gibian says. 

“But to prevent the next generation of extremism means we don’t just stop once we’re able to escort people to freedom.

“Where there’s economic progress and high education that’s where you see extremism have a much harder time take hold. So, in order to prevent extremism tomorrow we use a holistic approach to dissolve its root causes by establishing informed and prosperous communities.”

He adds that HERA also works to reconnect rescued people with family members, if they have them. People who don’t and stay with them, are provided with the opportunity to rebuild their lives and this is where their holistic approach begins.

Life beyond capture

According to findings by Amnesty International, younger Yazidi women and girls, abducted by ISIS in August 2014, some as young as 12, were sold, given as gifts or forced to marry ISIS fighters. As a way to pressure them to convert to Islam many were subjected to torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence.

“Because of the intense sexual trauma women have experienced, we provide them with physical and mental care. To help ease the psychological burden we surround them with people who’ve had similar experiences. This sense of community aims to hopefully reintegrate them back into society and erase the sexual stigma,” he says.

Kids are enrolled in one of the schools created by HERA, whose goal is to support them overcome the extremist religious notions of Islam they were taught by ISIS. Currently in Erbil, Iraq, there are 43 Yazidi kids who are learning English, Kurdish, Arabic, math and other traditional subjects.

For the 100 women rescued, HERA operates a network of flexible job training program - textile production, sewing, management classes, teaching and recently taxi driving classes.

“Culturally, women don’t ride in a car with just one man, so by training women to drive cabs, we’re creating well-paid jobs and also allowing women to access more health care and other government initiatives,” Gibian says.

“Our short-term goals are to keep rescuing women and children until there are no more captives and we keep providing food and clothing to those at the front-lines.”

“In the long-term I hope we’re able to turn our capabilities over to the Kurdish regional government and have them run the schools and job trainings.”

“What I view as success is when HERA shuts down because we are no longer needed. That would make me happy.”

HERA accepts monetary donations online, clothing and medical donations and you can volunteer by contacting them.

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