From humanitarian aid worker to leading Yazidi actress

Dejin Jamil, Iraq's first Yazidi actress. Supplied photo
Dejin Jamil, Iraq’s first Yazidi actress. Photo from Dejin Jamil

Part 3: As the U.S.-led coalition continues its push to drive ISIS from Mosul, Yahoo Canada News has launched a five-part series about the battle to retake the Iraqi city gripped by terror.

Many Hollywood actors have embraced humanitarian work — Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, and George Clooney come to mind — but you don’t often hear of an aid worker who moonlights as an actor.

Enter Dejin Jamil, an Iraqi Yazidi actress and a World Vision International (WVI) employee. The 27-year-old, who lives in Duhok in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, coordinates education projects that help the country’s displaced children recover from the trauma of war. She’s busy. While Iraqi coalition forces battle ISIS in Mosul, Jamil, who is ethnically Kurdish, works in a new camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing the battle, as well as in two older IDP camps occupied by Yazidis since 2014. And sometimes she steps into an alternative universe to face the lights, camera, action.

From war zone to the red carpet

Jamil made her debut this year in The Swallow, a Swiss film by Kurdish-Syrian director Mano Khalil, renowned for his 2015 documentary, The Beekeeper, about a Kurdish refugee who at 64, tried to start his life over by beekeeping and making honey in Switzerland. Jamil is not an actor by trade and landed the role after a friend referred her to the director, who was searching to find someone who could speak Kurdish and English fluently.

With The Swallow, director Khalil explores Iraq’s current day problems. “It’s about terrorism, war crimes in Iraq and love,” Khalil told the Guardian newspaper. The film, which premiered at the Solothurn Film Festival in Switzerland, wrapped just days before ISIS took over Mosul in 2014. It’s now making the rounds at international film festivals. This September it screened at the Duhok International Festival where it won The Duhok City Award for best Kurdish film.

In it Jamil plays Leyla, a Kurdish woman mourning the death of her father. Her brother wants revenge for the murder. When Mira, a young Swiss woman whose family is connected to the death, arrives in Kurdistan, Leyla’s brother agrees to chauffeur her around.

Lively and thoughtful, Jamil explains her own motives, namely that she was determined to showcase Iraqi issues on the red carpet. “At Solothurn, it was really important for me to show the reality of our country and to get support from everywhere, including from artists,” she said. “I want to help my country however I can.”

After the film’s premiere she returned to her humanitarian worker job where new arrivals awaited her help at IDP camps. Some of those women and children ran to her with excitement saying they recognized her from newspaper and TV interviews. “Yazidi people were so excited, ‘Finally a female actress!” she said.

Aid worker Dejin Jamil. Photo supplied by World Vision
Aid worker Dejin Jamil. Photo supplied by World Vision

The Yazidi community received more good news after the government of Iraq nominated Nadia Murad for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mourad, a Yazidi woman who escaped ISIS, now lobbies for the rights of women kidnapped and enslaved by the militant group. She and fellow activist Lamia Haji Bashar were also awarded a peace prize by the European Union. won a top peace prize

Jamil’s voice quivers while discussing the kidnappings and genocide. “It hurts the heart,” she said. In August 2014, ISIS massacred 5,000 Yazidi men, and some 50,000 Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar where they were trapped without food, water, and medical care. It took more than 10 days for humanitarian aid to arrive. Scores of Yazidi girls were abducted by ISIS and are still being held as sex slaves. Now more than an estimated 300,000 Yazidis are displaced from their homes and live in tattered tents in IDP camps.

Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is representing Yazidi victims and her goal is to see ISIS fighters charged with genocide at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. Because Iraq is not a member state of the ICC however, the Court cannot investigate current events in northern Iraq without a United Nations Security Council referral. At the moment Clooney and Murad are trying to gather support and to persuade the international community to start gathering evidence via interviewing survivors and excavating mass graves.

Jamil, who studied English literature at university, was inspired to face the crisis her country was facing after the Syrian war broke out and refugees began streaming into Iraq. After graduation, she applied for and landed a job as a child protection officer with the International Rescue Committee. She’s excited about the prospect of Iraqi stories reaching international audiences and hopes her cinematic work and humanitarian aid might inspire someone. Best of all, she says is knowing that, “My parents are so proud.”

A fighter’s story

During the last two weeks of November, Jamil took leave from her World Vision post in order to finish filming scenes for her second film, A Dream Before Dying. This time she’s working with Kurdish director Fekri Baroshi and she plays the wife of a peshmerga fighter. Her character and her on-screen husband are stressed looking after their sick child; at the same time he has to go fight to defend Kurdistan’s borders. In this story line fiction follows facts, oil prices have plunged, and the government in Baghdad can no longer pay its employees, which includes peshmerga. “It shows the reality of the fighters’ lives,” Jamil said. “It shows the reality of Iraq. But really it’s about family struggles. Anyone can relate to that.”

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