Programs help Yazidi women cope with trauma, but more needs to be done by Iraq

By Alyssa Heisey

“How am I telling you this without crying? I tell you I ran out of tears,” says Ekhlas, a Yazidi girl who was captured by ISIS. Another girl named Ilham states, “Suicide would have been a blessing…What we went through is bigger than our age: incomprehensible.” One woman says that she tried to commit suicide by drinking poison when she had reason to believe she was about to be raped. Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad explains, “Women saw the roughest part of what ISIS was doing. The men were often killed but they made sure that women saw the most heartache and suffering. I have talked to many Yazidi women who would say they wish they had been killed like…the men.” These are just a few of the voices of Yazidi girls and women who have been effected by ISIS. 

According to the Yazidi Rescue Office of the Kurdistan Regional Government, there were 550,000 Yazidis within Iraq and Kurdistan before ISIS carried out genocide in 2014. There were 360,000 Yazidis who escaped and 6,417 who were kidnapped—4,476 have been rescued and 2,941 are still missing. Of those kidnapped, 3,548 were female, and 2,364 are still missing. 

Yazidi women and girls have both experienced and witnessed rape, sexual slavery, and forced marriage. This trauma is visible in both the body language and stories of kidnapped Yazidi women and girls. Three Yazidi girls, including Ilham, are asked,“Did they [ISIS militants] also want intercourse with you girls?” The girls do not respond—one girl tries to speak but ultimately looks away from the camera, another has a look of disgust on her face, and the third keeps her head and eyes down. 

When Ekhlas tells her story during an interview, it is very clear why she “ran out of tears.” She says, “I saw a man who was over 40 take a 10-year-old girl. The girl was screaming. I’ll never forget those screams, screaming for mum, ‘mama, mama.’ But we could do nothing… Every day for six months he [Ekhlas’ owner] raped me. I tried to kill myself.”

Many women also witnessed the murders of Yazidi men. Ekhlas tells a reporter, “They killed my father in front of my own eyes. I saw his blood on their hands.” Nadia says that nine of her brothers were taken when ISIS invaded Sinjar, and only three escaped with their lives. She was in a school with others when the men were taken to the edge of the village and shot at—those in the school witnessed the shootings. 

There are programs in place in certain countries, including in Germany and the United States, to help Yazidi women and girls effected by ISIS. In Germany, one such program is called the“Special Quotas Project,” in which 23 shelters throughout Baden-Württemberg provide women and girls with a safe environment, as well as psychological treatment. There have been 1,100 women and girls, mostly Yazidi, in the program. The founder, Dr. Jan Kizilhan, was very concerned when he was interviewing survivors prior to the program’s creation because many were suicidal, and some sadly committed suicide. Under the program, however, there have been no suicides. Kizilhan has also established a Psychotherapy school in Iraq so that there will be trained psychologists to assist traumatized people there. 

There are nearly 3,000 Yazidis settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, according to statistics from January 2018. Yazidis want to move to Nebraska partly because of community, but also because of the geographical landscape. One Yazidi man named Hasam Khalil says that the farmland reminds him of his home, Syria. The US Department of Health and Services funds the Yazidi Cultural Center (YCC) in Lincoln. Language classes are offered, as well as Legal Immigration assistance, as the Yazidi culture continues to be preserved. Academic tutoring for students is provided through Youth Academic Mentorship Program (YAMP). Director of YCC, Jolene McCulley, says, “right now our goal is to help them overcome the trauma and remember their culture, and carry on their culture, before we focus on integration.” This will not only help Yazidis overall, but also women experiencing trauma. 

Art has also been used as a way to help Yazidis cope with trauma, while telling their stories. British artist Hannah Rose Thomas teaches Yazidi women how to paint. The women create self-portraits, and Thomas also paints a portrait of each woman. These portraits have been placed side by side in Parliament, making the British government aware of the Yazidi women’s situation, and leaving the British government wanting to help the women. 

A Yazidi painter named Maryam Maruf paints pictures influenced by the stories of Yazidi women who were the victims of ISIS. One woman named Shahnaz says, “We would like our stories to be shown and not forgotten. We want our voices to reach the world through these paintings.” The paintings have been exhibited in Kurdistan, Japan, and the United States. 

While these programs and art therapies in different parts of the world appear to be helping Yazidi women and girls, the Iraqi government should be doing more to help. There have not been any prosecutions or convictions made against ISIS members for committing sexual slavery, rape, or forced marriage against Yazidi women and girls. Convictions need to be made. 

Ivana Waleed, a woman who had been captured by ISIS, saw her abuser online walking among civilians. She says, “I don’t want him to be summarily executed. I want to see justice. And I am willing to testify and tell the court what he did to me and to all of the other Yazidi girls.” A large fault in Iraq’s law is found in Article 398, in which charges of sexual assault can “be dropped if the assailant marries the victim.” (Human Rights Watch) Many women and girls were married while being held by ISIS, making it difficult for them to bring charges. 

The Yazidi community should also accept the children of women who were raped by ISIS militants into their community. In April, it was announced that the community would be “accepting all survivors [of ISIL crimes] and considering what they went through to have been against their will.” However, children whose parents are not both Yazidi, including those born of rape by ISIS militants, may not be welcomed back by families in the Yazidi community. As a result, some women are forced to give up their children.

While countries and individuals have programs in place to assist Yazidi women and girls, the Iraqi government needs to focus on changing laws. ISIS militants should be charged and convicted regardless of whether they married a Yazidi woman, and women should be able to live with their children.

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Alyssa Heisey

Alyssa Heisey is an intern with International Christian Concern, and a rising Senior at Liberty University where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations.

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