Nadia Murad

Commencement Address at Pitzer College - May 13, 2023

Nadia Murad
May 13, 2023— Claremont, California
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Good morning, class of 2023. Good morning, parents, teachers and everyone here who has supported these students through kindergarten, classroom, and finally to commencement. What an achievement.

I am delighted and honored to be giving the address today. I hope that over the next few minutes I can offer you some words of advice and encouragement as you wave goodbye to college and head out onto life's open road.

People often ask me what it takes to be an activist, young people in particular—people like you with passion, with convictions, with hope. They ask what does it take to change the world. It is something I have thought about hard over the last eight years.

My path to activism was through pain and trauma. That is not something that I wish for anyone. Instead, I think there are two tools you need as you work for justice and peace—community and determination.

Many of you know my story, what happened to me and other Yazidis at the hands of the Islamic States almost a decade ago. I have talked about the details of that trauma more times than I can remember. Sometimes I tell the story like I'm fighting in a war. Sometimes the story becomes a manifesto. Other times I almost can't control it. My story pours out of me. It is pure emotion.

To be honest, I have not always wanted to talk about that part of my story in my life, particularly as I get older and those horrible days become thankfully more distant. I'm married now and I am soon to be a college graduate. [cheers and applause]

Although I know healing myself, my family, and my community is an ongoing process, there is still trauma. But there's also still happiness. There is also hope.

Telling my story of abuse and assault has also changed the way I view the world. It has connected me to thousands of survivors from all around the world—people of all genders, speaking different languages, from different backgrounds, every age, people who have their own stories of making it through dark times. Other survivors—there are so many of us.

My sadness and trauma has given me a community. It is one of many communities I consider myself a part of now. Some I made for myself and some I have been invited into.

The Islamic State tried to eradicate my first community—the Yazidis—that I had grown up with and expected to live with for the rest of my life, happily—more than happily, ecstatically—at home. ISIS wanted to defeat us through murder, violence, rape, and eventually through displacement.

At first it seemed like they might succeed. Even those of us who escaped feel defeated, crammed together in refugee camps or flown away to whatever country was kind enough to take us.

But there are some things not even genocide can break. The bond I feel with my Yazidi community and other communities in Iraq, like the bond I feel with other survivors—it is in my bones, it cannot be destroyed.

The people who aim to destroy us didn't count on that bond. They didn't count on our trauma intensifying that bond. They didn't count on their crimes making our community stronger. They could not have imagined what every survivor knows—that our determination to change ourselves and the world grows from their determination to stop us.

What does it take for me to be an activist? There was never any other option.

For the past eight years I have worked with other survivors to rebuild our homeland. Many people supported us, but just as many tried to stop us. Countless people told me that rebuilding the Yazidi homeland was a foolish mission. They laughed at me. They closed the door on me. They refused to take my calls.

“Yazidis need to give up on Sinjar,” they said. “There is still a threat. It is not safe. It is not worth.”

“We understand,” they said, “that the camps are difficult but surely it is better to live as a displaced person or a refugee than live in a place like Sinjar.”

“Why do you even want to return?” they would ask me. “What is there? There's no oil in Sinjar. There is no money. There are barely roads. There is barely life. It is a lost cause,” they said.

But let me tell you—when you are in a room with people who think they have power over you, whether it is because they are older or you are a woman or you are Iraqi or for countless reasons, there is always a reason.

They are telling you to give up for one reason—they don't want you to try.

These people with the so-called power—they're scared of you because you have determination, because you can see a future that they cannot, because you have a plan.

Everyone here today studied for a reason. You woke up early and went to sleep late with books on your laps for a reason. I know that feeling myself very well. You feel strongly about something. You want to be a part of a better world. You want to know how to change the world.

Knock on the senator's door. Protest at the billionaire's house. Travel far away and document the injustice you see, no matter who tells you to stop.

People in power will use any tool to get you to stop. They will laugh at you. They will tell you that you are too young, that your idealism and determination will fade with time, that you are impractical, that you are rude. It won't matter if you get older. It won't even matter if you win the Nobel Prize.

Years ago I was a young Yazidi woman, demanding meetings with the highest-ranking officials in Iraq and around the world. Those who cared about the future of Iraq and survivors of sexual assault let me in. They listened to me, and very often they helped.

But some of the so-called authorities only saw me as a challenge to their own power. They did everything to show me that I was out of my depth. My achievements and my history meant nothing to these people. To them I was just a young woman from a religious minority with no business being in their office and demanding their time. And beautiful Sinjar—my Sinjar and the Sinjar of my family, my ancestors, the center of our holy places—was a lost cause.

I didn't listen. I didn't give up. I was persistent. I was young. I knew what I was doing.

And years later, Sinjar is in its way of being reborn. We have a hospital and schools. We are building centers for women, not only Yazidi women but any women who want to visit. My hometown, Kocho, is being transformed into a genocide museum. Homes for my family and our neighbors are being rebuilt nearby.

They said we couldn't do it. They said no, or they said nothing. They threatened us. They insulted us. But we didn't give up.

While world leaders are failing to take action, my broader survivor community works to make sure that sexual violence cannot be used as a weapon of war. My greater refugee community works to make sure that refugees’ rights are respected. My Yazidi community works to rebuild Sinjar.

So for me, it helps to remember when I give a speech, when I'm in a meeting, when I visit the UN, that there are these groups of people as determined and as impassioned as I am behind me as I am behind them.

Remember that when you fight for what you believe in. Find your tribe, find your community. Your family, your college—that is a community. People sitting next to you right now.

But I would encourage you to think of community beyond just where you grew up and where you went to school. Think like refugees—people who lose their homes and are flung to the four corners of the Earth have much to teach us.

Reach your hands out beyond the borders of race and religion. Build your communities and invite others in. Show them there is strength in numbers. Hold those people who share your mission in a tight embrace.

But even if you are alone, do not give up. One thing I know for sure after years of activism is that you have the power—young people, people with vision, people who don't take no for an answer, people with open minds, people who work hard, who are curious, people who ask questions, people who stand up to those who wish to intimidate them.

You have the power to change things.

If a girl like me who was raised on a small farm by a single mother in a remote village can make a change, I know you can, too. How you do that is up to you, but I have faith that you will figure it out.

Thank you and congratulations, class of 2023. [applause]

Nadia’s Initiative. “Nadia Murad Commencement Speech at Pitzer College.” YouTube video, 13:46. May 18, 2023.

Pitzer College. “Pitzer College's Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2023.” YouTube video, 1:46:42. May 13, 2023.