By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Dr. Widad Akreyi was a young child living in southern Kurdistan when she survived the Iraqi government offensive against the Kurds in the mid-1970s. That experience shaped her life’s work as a human rights advocate now based in Norway. Her response to injustice and her peace advocacy efforts inspired a Davenport-based interfaith coalition to choose her for the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
Bishop Thomas Zinkula will present the award to her during a ceremony that begins at 2 p.m. Oct. 22 in St. Ambrose University’s Christ the King Chapel in Davenport. In addition, Nora Dvorak, a longtime social justice advocate in the Davenport Diocese, will be honored with the first “One Among Us Justice Award.” All are welcome to this public celebration.
“Dr. Widad is an incredible addition to the list of Pacem Award winners,” said Kent Ferris, the Davenport Diocese’s Social Action director who oversees the interfaith coalition. “She became involved early in her life in responding to human rights violations that were happening around her, courageously chronicling the atrocities. And even after obtaining her PhD in global health and cancer epidemiology as a young adult, her life work remains focused on human rights.
“She is younger than many of the recent award recipients. I think this is based partly on her life experiences. And I also strongly believe that Dr. Widad is part of an emerging cohort group that is responding to the great injustices of our present day.”
An eyewitness to Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks and a deadly campaign officially recognized as genocide against the Kurds in 1988, Widad has referred to those atrocities “as the worst time of my life.” (widad.org/about-widad-akreyi/)
Her peace activism and political affiliations have come with a cost. She sought political asylum in 1991 in Denmark. Continuing her studies, she eventually earned a PhD in global health and cancer epidemiology. Even as she worked long hours researching inherited diseases at a leading university hospital, she carved out time to protect and promote human rights. She spent much of her time volunteering for Amnesty International, according to her official website.
Her advocacy efforts included blogging for Arabic and Kurdish print and online newspapers. She gave seminars and took part in panel discussions on human rights issues. One such topic: the duality of peace and war. Later, she mobilized civil society activists, leading to increased participation in politics and human rights dialogues. With Widad’s help, Amnesty International developed a blog with the aim of highlighting the importance of having an effective and legally binding arms trade treaty.
Concern for human rights has led her to strive to ensure that victims of war and human rights violations receive the kind of treatment and care that every human being deserves. As a result, she has served as a volunteer and board member with a variety of national and international organizations. In 2007, she co-founded Defend International, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that responds to grave violations of human rights. Among the many ways to respond, is to conduct research that aims to improve health standards of communities.
Three years ago she publicly denounced the slaughtering of civilians and the enslavement of Yazidi women and girls when ISIS militants attacked the Kurdistan region of Iraq. They had targeted Yazidis, Christians and other minorities.
She told The Catholic Messenger that she had alternately been called an infidel and a terrorist for her defense of the downtrodden. But human rights and peace organizations affirm her efforts. She has received The Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Award and also a Special Prize from the National Organization for Future Generations for bridging the gap between cultures.
The Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award is a great honor, Widad said, and she is accepting it for two reasons. “First, the Pacem in Terris encyclical is a pioneering document, and the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award is part of the legacy of His Holiness Pope John XXIII,” she said.
“The encyclical provided a blueprint for a fresh Catholic perspective on justice and peace intended to bring about a new vision for humanity….one of its pillars is its universality. It does not address one or two or three groups of people, but all people of good will.”
The late pontiff, now St. John XXIII, “put the power and pride in building peace and justice in the hands of the people by articulating that each of us is responsible to create the conditions, in which peace can prevail and justice and liberty can flourish.
“… His encyclical became a platform that opened the gates of public discussions on topics like women’s rights, the right to self-determination, religious freedom, international security, global responsibility and our shared humanity.”
She noted that St. John XXIII called the encyclical his Easter gift. “We now know that it is his gift to all of humanity — a gift to the forces working to foster and consolidate a more peaceful and a more prosperous international environment.”
Her second reason for accepting the award has to do with the composition of the Pacem in Terris Coalition. She said the coalition “enables the people to listen to their inner voice to create balance in a chaotic world…. It connects people to their communities through charity work and social activity. It helps vulnerable groups that are going through adversity, be it disasters, sickness, old age, unemployment or any other distress.”
One of the main points. Widad hopes to convey during the award ceremony is “that we have to recognize past and current genocides in order to be able to prevent new ones. My message is one of hope and aspiration, a message of unity in a time of uncertainty.”
(Look for a Q&A with Widad on world issues in a future issue of The Catholic Messenger.)
Pacem in Terris Coalition membership
The coalition’s members and award co-sponsors are the Diocese of Davenport, The Catholic Messenger, St. Ambrose University, The Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.; Churches United of the Quad City Area; Islamic Center of Quad Cities; Quad Cities Interfaith; Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities; Muslim Community of the Quad Cities; Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Sisters of St. Benedict; Sisters of St. Francis, Dubuque, Iowa; and Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton.