The Clock is Ticking: The Urgent Situation Unfolding for the Yazidi
One World Refugee Film Festival, Dec 12, 2020
A virtual round table discussion with Senator Mobina Jaffer, Lloyd Axworthy, Rev. Majed El Shafie, Dr. Jan Kizilhan, Dr. Leora Kuttner, and Aveen, a Yazidi survivor of a previous genocide. (For discussion panelists’ bios, click here.)
On August 3, 2014, ISIS terrorists began a campaign of genocide against the Yazidi, a religious minority in Northern Iraq. They murdered the men, forced the boys into ISIS military training camps, and enslaved the women and girls subjecting them to torture and rape in a fate that Yazidi survivor and Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad described as “worse than death.”
Hundreds of thousands of Yazidi people were displaced into refugee camps in Iraq as they ran for their lives to escape the 2014 genocide by ISIS. Since the pandemic, the international funds supporting the refugee camps dried up and there is pressure for the Yazidi to leave the camps. Beginning in June 2020, over a hundred thousand have left the camps to return home to Sinjar, a land destroyed by ISIS.
The Yazidi in Sinjar today
Aveen described for us the situation in Sinjar:
“The information I have on current conditions is from direct conversations with my trusted friends, doctors and humanitarian activists who live in Iraq.
“Nearly 120,000 Yazidi have returned to Sinjar, many are living in damaged, abandoned homes; their original homes were bombed and ISIS planted hundreds of thousands of landmines. There are no utilities, such as no electricity, no drinking water. The water is very bad. The poor cannot afford to buy water; they are drinking from the wells which cause stomach infections. Many can’t afford to buy food because of the poverty crisis taking place in Sinjar. There are no clinics, no hospitals, and very few doctors. Many Yazidi have died because of COVID-19. They would have to travel to Duhok or to the hospital in Mosul to get treatment, but they can’t because the military checkpoints are very risky. There are no governments, no NGOs to help the Yazidi in Sinjar. They are in despair.
“Dr. Rasho said over 240 suicide cases were recorded this year. Committing suicide has become very common among the Yazidi people, especially in the younger generation. Every week we hear a Yazidi has committed suicide. Either he or she is an ISIS survivor or is struggling through too many hardships in life. Many have given up on humanity. A boy about 23 years old, posted on his Facebook page his farewell to his family and friends about his decision to commit suicide. His father was murdered during the genocide. Half of his relatives were either killed or are still missing. He was left all alone to take care of his siblings, but there is no work and no money so he couldn’t take care of them. So he killed himself.” (1)
The discussion panel recommends the government of Canada take action:
• Make plans now with the International Community to hold a funding conference to rebuild Sinjar, so that when the pandemic ends we have a plan in place, ready to go.
• Bring together a round table of governments to build the Yazidi homes and villages that were destroyed by ISIS.
• Create an effective form of direct involvement by the International Community to provide both proper inquiry and assessment as to what’s going on, and to bring forward the need for action on infrastructure, homes, schools, serious treatment of the traumas, as well as cleaning up the landmines and providing the Yazidi with prevention and protection from violence.
• Organize internationally to first get an Inquiry going. We have a track record in this country of being able to organize international political agreements and cooperation to make changes internationally. To make it effective, include Yazidis on the ground.
• Offer refuge to the women and girl survivors of ISIS slavery. They cannot survive and heal in Iraq.
• Create projects with the Yazidi to create independence so that they are not vulnerable to the Kurdish government or to the Iraqi government, governments that are taking advantage of them.
• Give the Yazidi in the refugee camps the opportunity to return to their settlement areas and rebuild. They need political, social, religious and legal status with rights as a distinct group in order to rebuild their country and have hope that they can live in Iraq. (1)
• Recommend political solutions to Iraq and the International Community. The Yazidi in Sinjar need political autonomy within Iraq like the province of Quebec has within Canada.
• Work with Yazidi women in Iraq. Include them in all stages of development and roll-out of projects. They are on the ground and know in a very practical way what is needed.
• Find a way to help the Yazidi women who were raped by ISIS and became pregnant with children that are now being taken away from them, regardless of their wishes.
• We have to win the hearts of the children, because those children are the future of the next generation in Iraq. Security, education, and justice are essential to healing the children.
• Genocide survivors require reparations and comprehensive trauma care, which must include the transcultural psychotherapy developed by Dr. Kizilhan and others in Germany.
• The Western world can make a shared agreement to offer refuge to the women and girl survivors of ISIS slavery.
• The Canadian people must write letters to parliament urging Canada to take action in Sinjar. Change starts with the people, and letter writing is effective.
It is possible for us to give the Yazidi in Sinjar a much needed sense of future.
The Honourable Mobina S.B. Jaffer, Senate of Canada
“Even as there is a pandemic we can prepare. We can prepare to bring more Yazidi women and children here. But I always think that bringing people here is just part of the answer. What is more important, which is something that our government can do now, is to help build what’s been destroyed in Sinjar. We can bring together a round table of governments to build the Yazidi homes and villages that were destroyed by ISIS.
“We must urge Canadians to write letters to the Prime Minister, Immigration Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Now is the time to act to protect the Yazidi people. I can assure you, letters make a difference. Let’s inspire our government by holding a campaign that will get across to each member the importance of bringing to Canada Yazidis who are in desperate need.”
The Honourable Lloyd Axworthy, World Refugee & Migration Council
“The situation of the Yazidis is not going to change until and unless there is an effective form of direct involvement by the International Community to provide both proper inquiry and assessment as to what’s going on, and to bring to the front table and the agenda, the need for actions. Whether it is infrastructure, homes, schools, whether it is serious treatment of the traumas we talked about, as well as cleaning up the landmines, and providing prevention and protection.
“We should be asking the Canadian government to take the lead, to get an international initiative and inquiry going. And to really make it effective, you’re going to have to have the voices of Yazidis on the ground themselves. To do this, there is an interesting emergence of a new form of grassroots democracy through a digital venue. I’m quite prepared to work with this; there are members of our Council who can help frame and design this kind of effort. You have to put a candle on the table. Also I think it’s possible that Canada could draw in the United States under the Biden administration.
“I want to leave you with this thought. To really come to grips with the variety and multitude of pressures and problems being faced by the Yazidi as they return to Sinjar, you’re going to have to have some form of international action. My first response will be, let’s see if we can get some kind of Inquiry. And if it doesn’t come directly through the UN, then maybe as Canadians we have to work up our own network and get some other sort of mandate, as we did in Kosovo and the international landmine treaty. We have a track record in this country, of being able to organize international political agreements and cooperation to make changes internationally. Please put me down as a recruit.”
Rev. Majed El Shafie, One Free World International
The Canadian government can bring more than just 1,200 Yazidi refugees. The Canadian government can take a stronger stand. I believe that this is would be number one. Many of these girls cannot stay in Iraq because of the stigma around them making life much harder.
The second issue is Canada can lead the international community to take action on the ground in Sinjar. For example, right now, nobody and nothing is protecting the Yazidi community in Iraq. There could be another clash. There could be another genocide. We don’t know what will happen five years from now. I think the International Community, especially the UN and the EU, can do more to protect the minorities in Iraq by creating green zones, (creating an International Zone, a buffer) or whatever needs to be done. And they must help the Yazidis to help themselves by empowering them.
If we just give them a fish, they will eat and they will be hungry tomorrow. It’s important that we create a project with them to create independence, make them not vulnerable to the Kurdish government or to the Iraqi government, that are taking advantage of them.
So, in order to see what the Canadian government can do that they didn’t do, health care, especially the mental health care issue, they could do a better job than just bringing them here and throwing them under the bus. (Canada did not provide adequate trauma care for Yazidi refugees here.)
Canada can lead the world. Canada is a Beacon of Hope around the world when we’re talking about human rights. We can do more. But it’s never only about the government, I can assure you of that. It’s always about Canadians, it’s always about Canadians pushing their government to do the right thing. And I need to tell you, without the pressure of the International Community and Canadians in Canada, the 1,200 Yazidis (brought here as refugees) wouldn’t be here today. I can assure you of this 100%. So, it’s about you, the people that are listening to us right now. And I would echo what the Senator said, send letters every day, send emails and so on. Just do the right thing.
Dr. Jan Kizilhan, world expert on Yazidi trauma care
It is possible for Canada and Europe to give the Yazidi a sense of future in their Sinjar homeland. However, in Iraq we have the Iraqi, the Sunni Shia, and the Kurds, and none of them are interested in the minorities. And yet, it’s very clear to me as a scientist, that the criteria for talking about what makes a democracy is how it treats a minority. If the minorities have no rights, we cannot talk about democracy in Iraq or elsewhere. Minority rights are basic to give people trust and confidence.
The Yazidi in Sinjar need political autonomy, like the province of Quebec has within Canada. For Yazidis to be part of the administration of this area of the world (Sinjar) is the best way; Yazidi administration, security, with a plan for reconstruction. In part, these should be under the control of the Yazidis.
On August 3, 2014, the aim of the IS was not just to take some girls and kill some people. This is very clear. They wanted to destroy the Yazidi society because they are not Muslims. They call them Infidels. Every Yazidi was confronted by this genocide, it is a collective trauma. And, at the same time, it is an individual trauma. Each of them has their own trauma, nightmares, sleeping disorders, fears, issues. And given their history of genocides, the Yazidis have a different kind of idiom of stress, which means they react differently. Sometimes this makes it very difficult for the doctors in Canada, even in Germany, to treat them because they don’t understand the way to explain and exploit their symptoms.
I have talked to children in refugee camps in Iraq. I will never forget a nine year old girl who was 10 months in the hands of ISIS and raped hundreds of times. She asked me every time, ‘Why are people so evil?’ I found a boy there that didn’t talk with his mother for three months because he said, ‘You left me alone’. The children have lost confidence and trust in humanity. We have to win the hearts of the children, because those children are the future of the next generation in Iraq. I can promise you, if you don’t take care of the children, the child soldiers and the other children, you will have in the next generation a new group of terrorists who will be more evil than the Islamic State.
The psychological treatment that my students and I provide in Iraq is called transcultural treatment or transcultural psychotherapy. During treatment we must and should adapt and transfer the culture as well as other resources. Fostering resilience is the modern approach to psychotherapy. The modern approach is good, it is evidence based. We also learn from our patients in the camps. We are talking about 22 refugee camps with about 350,000 Yazidis who are still in camps. If you really want to help them, besides the psychotherapy techniques, they are asking us for justice and we have to give them a future. If they don’t have a future they will remain in trauma. And, based on what I have heard from my patients in the refugee camps, the trauma is something that you or I cannot even imagine.
The issue of children of war is a very hot issue. We are also talking about Yazidi women who were raped repeatedly and have born children. And the Iraqi government wants to re-process the children as Muslims, and take them away from their mothers. Also, the Yazidi communities have difficulty accepting these children. Please, to those listening, try to also take care of this group. Nobody wants these babies and these mothers. Currently, we have 12 women who are under treatment in Northern Iraq with our students. And I myself saw all 12 women. They were forced to leave their children. They left their children in Syria in Al-Hawl or in Mosul. And they say, ‘Yes, I know the children are from the perpetrators, but at the same time, they’re my children. I miss them’. Every day they are crying and miss the children. But the community and government in Iraq and Baghdad have no solution. And this is a big issue that requires action, otherwise they are lost. And they will commit suicide as Aveen mentioned, some of them have committed suicide. It is very important to help them.
I get the most power and energy from my patients. For example there is Rinda, who was nine years old. I talked with her in Northern Iraq and asked, ‘Do you want to come to Germany?’ She asked me, ‘Do you have schools?’ I said yes, we have schools in Germany. ‘Why are you asking for schools?’ She indicated my chair, ‘I want to one day sit on your chair. I want to be a doctor and come back and help my people.’ And if Rinda didn’t give up and she has still hope, why should we give up?
I am so impressed by the women who are standing up, like Nadia Murad. I met her in 2015 and took her to Germany. She is now one of the most prominent personalities in the world. Other Yazidis are now writing books and speaking out. They say, ‘We are standing up, there’s no reason to be ashamed’. The people who should be ashamed are their perpetrators, their terrorists. The survivors say, ‘We are women, and we want to be a voice for our people.’
Dr. Leora Kuttner, pediatric pain specialist
In my 40 years of practice, I’ve come to appreciate that when a person is traumatized, a profound breach of trust and of well-being has occurred. This trauma requires thoughtful, compassionate, systematic and long term intervention. What Dr. Kizilhan has created in Germany and in Iraq is impressive and a long-term investment in changing the Yazidis’ multi-generational trauma. By training people who are embedded in the culture, can speak the language, they are then able to provide culturally sensitive long-term essential therapy. I have come to understand that the Yazidi people, so deeply traumatized by genocidal actions by ISIS and many genocides over centuries, require a healing that is community focused. This is group-based therapy– not the traditional European one-on-one. It calls for a different kind of system.
We know that trauma curtails the capacity to adjust to a new life. It freezes the ability to adapt and learn because of frequent flashbacks, ongoing fears and nightmares. And these can persist for years. What is clear to me is that, although Canada did a wonderful thing, bringing families of Yazidi survivors here as refugees, our responsibility doesn’t stop there. Canada has a duty to care and develop the type of psychological services for these families in our country, that Germany has developed. This principle of “Duty to Care”, which is a well-established medical and psychological principle of our professions, requires an obligation to develop specialized group-focused psychotherapy, ongoing, so that they can heal, integrate and become part of our Canadian community.
I am deeply moved by what Dr. Kizilhan has said about the children of war; the intransigence of some Yazidi leaders, who condemn women and children, victims of ISIS terror, spurn them, casting them out. We’re presently in an extraordinary time of change that has been going on for a some years, and will continue. These contraventions of fundamental human rights, of not accepting people as people and re-traumatizing them is horrifying. A child is a child. Whether born of a Muslim ISIS father, raised by a Yazidi mother, or raised in another culture — this child needs to be accepted to become a useful and a meaningful part of society. Religious dogma cannot dictate societies’ practices in the 21st Century. We must look at the human needs of communities to heal and restore themselves. Education needs to be a determined thrust in the years ahead, and the pains of the children of war are an aching cry for us to address this need.
Aveen, Yazidi artist and humanitarian activist
Dr. Rasho, my contact in Iraq, says the women and girls survivors of ISIS slavery are suffering severe trauma from torture. They suffered more than any anyone else in the war. They cannot survive and heal in Iraq. It’s impossible. He wants the survivors to be able to leave Iraq. He asks Canada to reactivate their refugee program. He wants more Yazidi survivors in Europe and the Western world.
ISIS tortured the Yazidi women and girls in the old hospital in Sinjar and the hospital in Mosul. These hospitals are still damaged by ISIS. Dr. Rasho said one of his patients went crazy when he brought her to the old hospital. He wants to work with the International Community to build a new hospital.
Women Refugees Advocacy Project
Please join us in writing letters to Parliament urging the Canadian government to act now to aid the Yazidi as they return to their destroyed homeland. Canada should also step up and bring more Yazidi survivors here. Responding strongly to genocide is essential for the sake of all our humanity.
Canada, Europe and the Western world can offer refuge to the women and girls survivors of ISIS slavery who continue to suffer severe trauma from torture. Dr. Rasho says, ‘They suffered more than any anyone else in the war. They cannot survive and heal in Iraq. It’s impossible.’ Rev. El Shafie adds that there are also survivors who must relocate because of the social stigma against them, and this time Canada should provide comprehensive trauma care.
- Yazidi campaigners call for suicide strategy in Iraq after 11 found dead in 10 days
Psychologist [Dr. Kizilhan] laments ‘a cry for help that is not being heard’
… “The entire Yazidi population is experiencing mental trauma caused by the acts of genocide, and some are displaying severe psychological difficulties,” … “Among those at heightened risk are the women and girls who experienced systemic sexual violence, and the boys who were forcibly recruited by ISIS…”
by Nicky Harley, The National News, January 19, 2021
Header image: Photograph by Marwan Alrassam, Sinjar, Iraq