One Nonprofit Is Proving Empathy Could Be The Key To Defeating ISIS

“If you want to defend against the next generation of extremists, you need education”

When I first try calling Davey Gibian for our scheduled interview, he asks if I can call him back an hour later and apologizes, explaining that he’s busy putting out fires in Kurdistan. And unlike other working millennials, for whom “putting out fires” typically means clarifying a misunderstood tweet, for all I know Gibian could be putting out literal fires. At his job battling religious extremism, problems like these are par for the course.


In the fight to defeat ISIS, the extremist sect perpetrating acts of terrorism and genocide in the Middle East, there are a couple of ways it is traditionally approached. There’s the U.S. Army’s approach that stresses military force, while human rights attorneys like Amal Clooney attempt to take ISIS leaders to trial. Davey Gibian, on the other hand, has found a strikingly nuanced approach. As a co-founder and board member on the Heraion Foundation (HERA), Gibian tackles extremism from both the front lines and his Brooklyn apartment with a focus on comprehensive solutions.

Soon after ISIS rose to infamy in early 2014, the nonprofit teamed up with retired U.S. and U.K. veterans to protect the most vulnerable communities on the front lines, serving both immediate needs like aid and recovery while also providing job training, education, and social reintegration. Founded in 2015, HERA uses this holistic method to understand and ultimately dissolve the root causes of extremism that perpetuate a vicious cycle of fear and violence.

HERA Co-Founder Davey Gibian

There are many components to HERA’s strategy, but its primary project is rescuing women and children held captive by ISIS. In the perilous days and weeks following their rescue, the HERA team assesses their immediate health concerns at safe houses they operate in Iraq and parts of Northern Syria. From there, they provide additional security and support in the form of schooling for the children and job training for the adult women and men who’ve managed to escape. All of this is part of a feedback loop, Gibian says, to combat the underlying causes and create a safer world, not just in the imminent future but in the long run as well. As he explains,

“It’s not just enough to rescue people on the front lines. If you want to defend against the next generation of extremists, you need education. And then it’s not just enough to be educated, you need economic support, you need a job. … Freedom isn’t just freedom alone. We live in far too networked a world for that and they do need additional support.”

When not working on the ground in Iraq, Gibian operates out of his apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Before joining HERA, Gibian spent several years working on Wall Street where he developed the geopolitical skills that have proven so necessary to the nonprofit’s operations. He stresses the importance of looking at the big picture, saying,

“There’s always something that goes wrong and there’s never enough time. Most of the day, I’d say, is 50 percent putting out fires and 50 percent thinking critically about what are we providing and really making sure we, as a veterans-run organization … don’t get too cocky in thinking that we can do everything.”

For Gibian, that means drawing upon the professional skills of psychologists, educators, and leaders from a variety of backgrounds to ensure they’re putting their best foot forward. This way they’re able to be dynamic and flexible with their strategies in a way an organization as big as the U.S. Army might have trouble pulling off.

When I ask Gibian specifically what the difference is between HERA’s approach and the military’s approach, he says his team focuses solely on humanitarian aid. Naturally, the U.S. military’s goal is to protect strategic interests that an independent nonprofit simply doesn’t have to consider. By taking the skills they learned on the front lines and applying them to humanitarian aid, HERA members can keep an eye on the long-term goals while seeing the short-term benefits firsthand. Gibian highlights the fact that the U.S. government’s goal is to fight the most pressing issues with precise military force, not to rebuild communities. “They’re not there to fight tomorrow’s war, they’re there to fight today’s and they do that very, very well,” he says, “We’re there as humanitarians to fill a gap.”

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Putting too much emphasis on a militarized solution creates a blind spot that prevents us from understanding extremism’s network effects.[/quote]

That gap HERA hopes to bridge exists between the limited resources local governments can offer and the holes in aid caused by extremist conflict. Though unequivocally separate from the U.S. military, Gibian says the government still supports HERA’s efforts. “We’ve met with many congressional offices,” he says, “who’ve expressed support for what we do and ask if they can help. And our answer is always no, we don’t want your help, but thank you.” As an independent entity, HERA is able to work closely with the Kurdish regional government and dodge the locals’ palpable level of distrust of the United States. Having no politically driven mandate empowers HERA members to really listen and be tactically flexible.

HERA's job training facility in Northern Iraq

And so far, they’ve been wildly successful with their approach. In the past year alone, HERA has rescued 103 people from ISIS captivity. Their newest safe house will provide 50 to 60 people a safe place to sleep and recover, while the new school will educate 20 children in addition to the 39 currently enrolled. The nonprofit is also busy building new medical and mental health clinics as well as job training centers. Currently, 41 women work out of their existing factory, though they’re looking to provide jobs for the hundreds of women who want to apply.

In conjunction with these programs, HERA has been tremendously active delivering food, clothing, and aid to those living on the front lines, “literally going in just an hour or two after ISIS leaves,” says Gibian, when “the situation is still quite dynamic.” In this way, they’ve managed to feed hundreds of defenseless people who rarely have access to supplies as basic as rice, flour, and powdered milk. All of this they’ve accomplished with very few resources and limited funding.

While listening to Gibian, it struck me as odd that, despite proof of this holistic strategy working, few governments deem it as a practical option. Obviously, a threat as serious as ISIS demands a military response. That being said, it seems we as a country have lost sight of the confluence of factors contributing to this threat that demand our attention as well. Putting too much emphasis on a militarized solution, Gibian concurs, creates a blind spot that prevents us from understanding extremism’s network effects. To put it plainly, it’s like throwing a bucket of water on a forest fire. You might solve one part of the problem, but without a comprehensive plan in place, it will continue to adapt and evolve.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Questioning shouldn’t be seen as a weakness but a necessary component of wartime strategy.[/quote]

Even so, how are you supposed to know when a project is complete? At what point do you decide your job is finished and it’s time to pack up and leave?

“You don’t. I don’t think any of these will ever be really completed. Just like I don’t think education reform in the United States will ever be fully completed or economic development in disenfranchised populations. Globally, we always face challenges, and I think the only thing we can do operating in an environment like the front lines of an extremist conflict against ISIS is really to always be questioning whether we are doing the right thing.”

And it’s the questioning that seems crucial to formulating effective solutions. If we’re going to build on what we’ve started in the name of fostering a better society worldwide, it’s on us to admit wholeheartedly when the original plan requires improvement or needs to be scrapped altogether. Questioning shouldn’t be seen as a weakness, but as a necessary component of wartime strategy. Questioning, it seems, should be rebranded as a strength. However difficult that may be to accomplish as an organization increases in scale, it’s a new mode of thinking that could be immensely powerful.

So, how do you become part of the solution? Donate. “Unfortunately that’s the easiest way,” says Gibian. That being said, if donating money isn’t your thing, giving time can be equally beneficial. If you have skills and want to know how to apply them, Gibian guarantees they can find a place for you. Whatever skills you have—whether they be in social media, photography, art, or specialized psychological services for survivors of trauma—can all be applied to HERA’s expanding mission. And if all you can do is practice empathy, that’s worth something too.

All photos courtesy of The Heraion Foundation

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