DUHOK, IRAQ — Rojin* closes her eyes. She knows it’s coming. Suddenly, she’s shoved sideways. She responds with force, laying down powerful punches with her palms out as her attacker absorbs the blows. She numbers the strikes in Kurmanji: “Yek, du, sê, çar!” she shouts. Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack.
“Good,” says her instructor, 37-year-old Cassie Rhodes, moving down the line to the next student.
It’s late August, and we’re in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq that we will not name for security reasons. Rojin, 17, is learning Krav Maga, a self-defense system developed by Jewish athlete Imre Lichtenfeld, in 1930s Czechoslovakia as a way to help his neighbors protect themselves amid widespread anti-Semitic riots. Today, the Israeli Defense Forces trains all of its soldiers in the discipline.
“They were beating me, raping me, doing everything bad.”
Rojin, an ethnic Yazidi, also knows what it’s like to be targeted for her religion. At 14, she was abducted, along with seven of her sisters, by ISIS fighters who had laid siege to her hometown of Sinjar. It was the beginning of a three-and-a-half-year ordeal.
“They were beating me, raping me, doing everything bad,” she told me, as we stood outside the training tent, at a distance from her classmates. She looked away timidly, speaking through a translator. Asked about the day ISIS arrived, she demurred. “I don’t want to remember that. I just want to forget some things that happened.”
Rojin repeatedly attempted to escape, without success, and was punished severely by her captors. “They beat me so badly,” she recalled. “I have to be stronger. I have to be able to fight back if they come for us again.”
It’s the first day of training, and 20 young pupils are lined up in a massive tent with plywood floors. Ten Iranian-made air-conditioning units are scattered around the back of the room. None are plugged in. Outside, the heat peaks at 110 degrees. Inside, with no ventilation, it’s sweltering.
Retired U.S. Army Green Beret Jeremy Moore makes his way around the room holding a tombstone-shaped strike pad, absorbing punch after punch from Rojin’s classmates.
“Nice!” he says, shoving the pad at each girl in turn. “Again!”
They don’t speak English, but they get the point.
This is not Moore’s first time in Iraq. Between 2003 and 2014, he deployed here five times, conducting special operations throughout the country before retiring in 2016. “We’ve lost a lot of friends here,” he says. Now on a mission of his own, he has brought a team of Krav Maga instructors, including Cassie Rhodes and his 16-year-old son, Joshua, on a two-week trip, instructing Rojin and hundreds of other Yazidi women and girls on skills like escaping a chokehold and kneeing someone in the groin.
Rojin is sweating, but she looks delighted, a seemingly happy teenager, smiling and snapping selfies with her classmates.
“I feel powerful,” she tells me during a water break. “The main reason why I want to learn is for the future. If someone wants to enter inside my tent with a knife to kill us, we can defend ourselves.”