WARNING: The following story contains language which may distress some readers.
When Shelan Khodedah moved to Wagga in 2018, she barely spoke a word of English.
Today, the Yazidi refugee is a published author, having overcome her linguistic barriers to pen an inspiring book of unwavering hope in her adopted language.
Shelan’s first book, The Woman Who Escaped ISIS Hell, follows the harrowing abduction of fellow migrant Hayam Mihi by ISIS in 2014.
“At midnight a new group of ISIS men came … and took the girls they wanted. They touched their bodies and took the girls away to rape them. The girls could be heard crying and screaming and begging … I was crying and screaming as I watched the horrifying act of the ISIS men play out” – (extract from The Woman Who Escaped ISIS Hell).
The Wagga author spent more than a year and a half writing about Hayam’s confronting ordeal as an ISIS captive, her escape and her reunion with her family.
” [At 16] Hayam was pregnant when she was kidnapped and was raped twice,” Shelan said.
“She escaped from ISIS and later found her husband. In 2018 she moved to Wagga and asked me to write her story.”
The writing process was not easy for Shelan, who had spent hours recording Hayam’s emotional journey, and she was in tears while writing her story.
“Some words and sentences are difficult to describe,” she said.
“When you have a couple of languages in your head it’s pretty much translating from Kurdish Kumanji to English.
“It was hard and challenging but my younger sister also helped me with the translation.”
While Shelan had some experience writing short stories, she lacked the confidence to write longer pieces. However, with the support and encouragement of her family, she took on the challenge of writing her first book.
Shelan told Region she felt proud of herself for how far she had come in telling Hayam’s story.
“I received a lot of feedback. People were encouraging and said they couldn’t stop reading until they finished the book.”
Shelan’s own journey to Australia from Iraq was a difficult one.
One night in January 2014, then 16-year-old Shelan woke to the sounds of bombs hitting and the ground shaking.
“I told my family I’m scared to live in this country,” Shelan said. “I told them I wanted to leave.”
“Before the genocide started, I knew if ISIS could take over a big city, then they could easily take my little town as well.
“I asked my family about moving before something happened. They agreed with me but not everyone. It’s hard to leave your country, friends and relatives.”
Eight months before ISIS launched the genocide against the Yazidi people in Iraq, Shelan and her family moved to Turkey. She later found out ISIS had attacked her village.
“I had anxiety, and even though I wasn’t there, I was traumatised.”
Shelan and her family were granted refugee visas to Australia in 2016 and now call Wagga home.
“When I arrived, I couldn’t speak much English … just a few words,” Shelan said.
“Everything was so strange for me. The fashion and food. It was a culture shock.”
Shelan completed business administration studies at TAFE, a community service traineeship and started working at the Multicultural Council of Wagga Wagga.
Her writing journey began in 2020 with short stories and little experience.
“I like to write,” Shelan said.
“I didn’t have the confidence in myself to write, but my family and friends supported me and are now proud of me.”
One of her short stories from 2020, on the bushfires and COVID, was published in Eastern Riverina Art’s Ash Dust Air anthology.
Her short story on her war journey from Iraq to Turkey to Australia was published in Mona Magazine in 2023.
Shelan hopes to continue writing and to tell stories from life.
“People know about the 2014 [Yazidi] genocide but there’s not much out there to read about it,” Shelan said.
“The stories need to be told. We don’t have to keep silent. We have to speak out and hear the voices of the women.”
The young author also plans to study further and complete a course in translation.
Shelan received $5000 in funding from Wagga Wagga City Council to publish her book.