US First Lady Melania Trump presents a 2018 International Women of Courage Award to Aliyah Khalaf Saleh (R) of Iraq during the Award Ceremony at the State Department in Washington, DC, on Friday. — AFP

WASHINGTON: Aliyah Khalaf Saleh had already lost a husband, a son and a nephew to the terror that engulfed northern Iraq in 2014. But when a group of military cadets fled to her community near Tikrit to escape killers from the Islamic State group, she risked all to save them. In June 2014, the jihadists slaughtered hundreds of mainly Shiite Muslim recruits from the nearby Speicher military base.

A smaller group of young men tried to escape by crossing a river but Aliyah, now 62 and known at home as Umm Qusay, stepped in. "They were moving from Camp Speicher to Baghdad" when they came upon IS killing their comrades, she told AFP. The young men retreated 20 kilometers to an area where Umm Qusay's neighbors were clashing with the militants, and she took them in.

"There were Kurds and Iraqis, Muslims, Yezidis and Christians," she recalled. "I got them to my home." She gave women's clothes to some of the young men and hid them in the women's quarters on her farm. Others dug holes in a forest. IS fighters were hunting for the recruits, so Umm Qusay obtained university identity cards for some of them, giving them local names.

She taught those who were Shiite how to say their prayers like a Sunni to protect them from sectarian suspicions. And, over five months, she smuggled them to safety in Kurdish-held Kirkuk, hiding them in trucks surrounded by female relatives. "At first, the terrorists did not bother women," she said. In all she got 58 young men to safety before the Islamic State group's spies got wind of what she had done and she had to flee. Her family-her surviving sons plus their wives and children, 25 people in all-fled on foot through the night, she said.

Beacon of hope

They remained displaced, living in a single room, for a year before Iraqi government forces recaptured their home and they could return. Now, the government is triumphant, the Islamic State group is on the run and Umm Qusay's bravery and love has made her a beacon of hope. A Sunni, she has received a high Shiite religious honor and a national medal, but that is not her greatest satisfaction. "God took my husband, my son, and my nephew but he has given me in return these young men to console me," she said of the recruits. After the fighting, many of the young men returned to thank their savior, and to tell her story to a nation in need of hope. "They come to visit me, I come to visit them. Whenever there's a conference in Baghdad, they come with me," she said.

"Two of them got married, I attended their weddings. I was the happiest person there," she said, blinking back tears. Umm Qusay was honored again on Friday at the US State Department in Washington, where she was named an International Woman of Courage. Alongside nine other brave women, each with a story of their own, she received her award from First Lady Melania Trump.

"In recognizing the International Women of Courage, we stand for what is right," Trump told the guests. "In telling their stories, we can teach young women and girls all over the world what it means to have courage and to be a hero." It was a long way from the life of an Iraqi woman who married at 13 and lived through dictatorship, occupation and terror. But, as the women gathered for their group photo, Umm Qusay led them all in laughter, gesticulating to bridge the language divide.

"I was reluctant to come at the beginning. I was also so tired, but I feel much better now," she said before the ceremony. "People smile at me in the street. It's like the smile regenerates you and makes you feel safe and secure," she explained. "People in Iraq have not been able to smile for many years now. All we do is cry and feel sad." - AFP