Ottawa to extend eligibility criteria for Yazidi refugees: Mendicino

Good:

Ottawa is adopting a new policy to help more Yazidis and other survivors of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant reunite with their families in Canada, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Tuesday.

Mendicino said it will allow more Yazidi refugees to join extended family members, including siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

The Yazidis and other groups who survived abuse, torture and even genocide at the hands of ISIL are among the most vulnerable refugees in the world, he said.

“Guided by compassion, we are now redoubling our efforts to reunite their families.”

The Immigration Department said the new policy will help Yazidis and members of other communities in Northern Iraq to start new lives in Canada.

These refugees were victims of threats or acts including sexual slavery, general enslavement, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, family separation and forced displacement, the department said.

Canada has welcomed more than 1,400 survivors of ISIL from Northern Iraq since 2017.

This includes 1,356 government-assisted refugees and 94 privately sponsored ones. Women and girls comprise the vast majority.

The Yazidi newcomers have been primarily resettled to Toronto, London, Ont., Winnipeg and Calgary where Yazidi communities existed and adequate support, including medical, social and interpretation services, was in place.

Source: Ottawa to extend eligibility criteria for Yazidi refugees: Mendicino

A Radical German Program Promised a Fresh Start to Yazidi Survivors of ISIS Captivity. But Some Women Are Still Longing for Help

Interesting and somewhat dispiriting, given the mixed results of the program, long read:

When Hanan escaped from Islamic State captivity, there wasn’t much to come back to.

She and her five children had survived a year in a living nightmare. After her husband finally managed to arrange their rescue in the summer of 2015, they joined him in a dusty camp in Iraq where he lived in a tent. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controlled the territory they called home, and they were unsure if they could ever go back. And Hanan was unsure if she could ever escape the darkness she felt inside.

So when, in the fall of 2015, Germany offered her the promise of safety and a chance to heal from her trauma, it wasn’t a difficult decision. Accepting a place in a groundbreaking program for women and children survivors of ISIS captivity did mean leaving her husband behind in the camp, but she was told he could join her after two years. So she and her children boarded the first flight of their lives, out of Iraq and away from their tight-knit community, in search of safety and treatment for what still haunted them.

Hanan, now 34, was one of 1,100 women and children brought to Germany in an unprecedented effort to aid those most affected by ISIS’s systematic campaign to kill and enslave the ancient Yazidi religious minority. (TIME is identifying Hanan by her first name only for her safety.) Launched by the German state of Baden Württemberg in October 2014, the program aimed to help survivors of captivity receive much-needed mental-health treatment and support. In Iraq, there had been a rash of suicides among the heavily-traumatized survivors, who had minimal access to mental-health care and faced an uncertain future. In Germany, far from the site of their suffering, state officials hoped the women and children could find healing and a fresh start.

But for Hanan, those promises remain unfulfilled. German officials never granted visas to any of the women’s husbands, leaving families, including Hanan’s, indefinitely torn apart. Like most of the women, she’s not undergoing promised trauma therapy. She often thinks about killing herself. The only thing stopping her, she says, is her children.

Not all the women are desperate. Some are thriving in Germany, and others have become global advocates for their community, like 2018 Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad. She is the most prominent face of a program that was so ambitious and well-intentioned it inspired other countries, like Canada and France, to follow suit. But Hanan’s experience illustrates how parts of the program failed to live up to their full potential, and shows how difficult it is for refugees to gain access to mental health services, even in a program designed for just that. Michael Blume, the state official who led the program, sees it as a “great success” overall. But he is troubled by the state’s failure to bring the women’s husbands to Germany. “A great humanitarian program should not be sabotaged by bureaucracy,” he says. “But that’s what is taking place.”

Before she left Iraq, Hanan said she was given a piece of paper with information about what awaited her in Germany. “I wish I could find that paper now,” she says, “because the promises they gave us, they didn’t keep all of them.”

By the time ISIS swept across Sinjar, the area in northwest Iraq that is home to most of the world’s Yazidis, Hanan had already endured more than her share of hardship. Her parents were murdered in front of her when she was six. She and her two siblings went to live with their grandfather and his wife, where they were beaten, starved, and forced to work instead of going to school. Her baby sister died soon after.

In her early twenties, she escaped the torturous conditions at home by marrying Hadi. It was the first good fortune of her life, she says; they loved each other. Over the course of about seven years, they had four daughters and then a son, who was just a few months old in August 2014, when ISIS captured Sinjar and unleashed its systematic campaign to wipe out the Yazidis.

In conquered Yazidi towns, fighters executed the men and elderly women. Boys were sent off for indoctrination and forced military training. Women and girls weresold into slavery, traded among fighters like property and repeatedly raped. Hanan and her children were among more than 6,000 people kidnapped. Hadi, who was working as a laborer in a city beyond the reach of ISIS when their village was captured, was frantic when he learned his family was gone.

Within days, President Barack Obama launched U.S. airstrikes on ISIS militants, and U.S. forces delivered food and water to besieged Yazidis trapped on Sinjar mountain. In the following months, as Yazidi women and children started emerging from captivity—some escaped, while others were rescued by a secret network of activists—with tales of horror, Yazidis pleaded for more international action. Former captives were severely traumatized. Mental-health care in Iraq was limited. And because the Yazidi faith doesn’t accept converts or marriage outside the religion, the women raped and forcibly converted to Islam by ISIS members feared they were no longer welcome in the community.

In Germany, home to the largest Yazidi population outside of Iraq, officials in Baden Württemberg decided to act. In October 2014, state premier Winfried Kretschmann decided to issue 1,000 humanitarian visas and earmark €95 million ($107 million) for what became known as the Special Quota Project for Especially Vulnerable Women and Children from Northern Iraq. The state recruited 21 cities and towns across the southwestern state to host the refugees, agreeing to pay municipalities €42,000 ($50,000) per person for housing and other costs, while the state would cover the cost of their healthcare. Two other states agreed to take an additional 100 people.

Program officials interviewed survivors of ISIS captivity in Iraq, selecting those with medical or psychological disorders as a result of their captivity who could benefit from treatment in Germany. The project was not restricted to Yazidis, and a small number of Christians and Muslims also were chosen. That was when the officials told each woman that after two years, immediate family members like husbands could apply for a visa under German rules for family unification.

The program was groundbreaking. No German state had ever administered its own humanitarian admission program. And instead of waiting for asylum-seekers to make dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean, officials were seeking out the most vulnerable and bringing them to safety. The first plane arrived in March 2015. The last of the flights—including the one carrying Hanan—landed in January 2016.

Hanan, along with 111 others, was sent to a pleasant hilltop town of about 25,000 people at the edge of the Black Forest. (Officials asked that the town not be named to protect the survivors, whom they fear could be targeted by ISIS members.) For the first three years, she lived with about half of the group in an old hospital in the town center that had been converted into a communal residence.

Hanan and her five children occupied two rooms off a central corridor—one they used for sleeping, and the other, with a sink along one wall and a worn leather sofa along another, as a living room. They shared a bathroom and a kitchen with a large family next door.

“The neighbors are worse than Daesh,” she joked with a grimace, using a pejorative name for ISIS. It was May 2017, more than a year after her arrival. She sat on the floor to breastfeed her youngest child, Saber. At three, he was small for his age, but Hanan was small too. Her long dark hair was pulled back, and she wore a long blue skirt and a dark hoodie. Her next youngest, Sheelan, climbed into a wardrobe in the corner, peeking out from underneath thick black bangs. Haneya, her oldest at 10, and Hanadi and Berivan, eight and seven, were fighting with the neighbor’s children, their shrieks competing with the Kurdish music videos blaring from the television. Hanan yelled at them to stop.

Caring for her five children alone was wearing Hanan out. She was often sick, but found it difficult to go to the doctor because she didn’t have help with childcare. She complained about painful and unresolved gynecological issues from being repeatedly raped. She wanted to go back to the doctor, but she relied on social workers to make appointments for her and said they were blowing off her requests. And most days, she suffered debilitating headaches.

A trauma therapist came once a week to the shelter for a group session with the women, but Hanan usually wasn’t able to attend because of the children. And she didn’t want to talk about her experiences in front of the other women. When she slept, nightmares came. One night she dreamed she was back in captivity and an ISIS fighter was trying to take her oldest daughter, Haneya. Hanan woke herself and the children up with her screams. The older girls talked about their time in captivity often and sometimes had nightmares too. “They’re not like normal kids,” Hanan said. “When it’s nighttime, they ask me, ‘Mama, do you think Daesh is going to come to get us?’”

A year earlier, around six months after her arrival, that nightmare had become reality. She was out shopping for food when she spotted him. He had trimmed his hair and beard, and exchanged his tunic for a blue T-shirt. But it was him—the ISIS member who had been her captor for a month.

She stared, frozen in place. He saw her, too: His eyes widened in recognition and surprise. Panic shot through her and then her feet were moving, carrying her out of the store and around the corner. By the time she went to the police, he was gone. She said they treated her as if she had mistaken a random refugee for her former tormenter. But she knew what she saw. “How could I forget the face of the man who raped me?”

Germany was supposed to be a sanctuary. Now, inside the old hospital walls was the only place Hanan felt safe. She rarely ventured out, remembering threats from her captors that they would find her if she ran away.

She worried the man she’d spotted might come back to harm them. The only identifying information she could give police was his nom de guerre. And though police were stationed outside the shelter for some time after she made the report, Markus Burger, head of the department for refugees and resettlement in the town’s social office, said his office eventually received a report stating there was no direct threat. The police referred questions about the incident to the federal public prosecutor, and a spokesman for the prosecutor said the office was aware of the incident but could not comment further. At least one other woman in the programsaw her own captor in Germany, and she later returned to Iraq because she no longer felt safe.

Hanan couldn’t understand why the police couldn’t find the man. She began to see threats anywhere she went. Muslim people speaking Arabic terrified her. Once at a park with her children, a bearded man on a bench called out to her. Though she had never seen him before, she was afraid. She gathered the children and rushed back to the shelter.

Yazidis are no strangers to trauma. The religious minority has endured centuries of persecution and attacks, from the Ottoman empire to Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda. Jan Kizilhan, an expert in psychotraumatology and transcultural psychotherapy who was the program’s chief psychologist, was born to a Yazidi family in Turkey and immigrated to Germany as a child. Survivors of ISIS captivity are dealing not only with their own individual trauma from the violence and family separation they endured, he said, but also the historical trauma borne by their people, and the collective trauma from ISIS’s attempted genocide.

But after the women arrived in Germany as part of the program, trauma therapy wasn’t a top priority. At first, most of the refugees were focused on adjusting to life in Germany, said Kizilhan. They were also following the situation back home, where a multinational coalition was wrestling territory away from ISIS. With every victory, Yazidi families waited for news of their missing relatives, hoping they would not be among the bodies discovered in mass graves. Most had family members in camps, and others still in captivity. They weren’t ready to work through past trauma in therapy, because it was still part of their present.

There was another, more basic, obstacle to treatment: Most of the women were unfamiliar with the concept of psychotherapy. “To even help them understand why they would need this or how it would help, it takes time,” said Kizilhan. In many Middle Eastern cultures, including the Yazidi community, psychological trauma is often expressed somatically, he explained — many women complained of a burning liver, headaches, or stomachaches when the root was a psychological, rather than physiological, problem.

In 2017 and 2018, Tübingen University Hospital and the University of Freiburg, which were also involved in psychotherapeutic care for program participants, carried out surveys of 116 of the women in the program. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder during the first survey, and the number remained the same a year later. That makes the fact that just 40% of the women have received trauma therapy, years after their arrival, striking.

But Kizilhan insists the figure does not represent a failure. Some women simply don’t want therapy, he says, and it can’t be forced. He expects that an additional third of the women will be ready for therapy in the coming years. “And then we will be there to help them,” he says. “Each person is individual, different, and needs different timing.” The state decided to cover the cost of the womens’ healthcare indefinitely—initial plans were to foot the bill for three years—after it spent only €60 million ($71 million) of the allocated €95 million ($113 million) on the program.

Kizilhan acknowledges the challenges, including finding enough therapists and translators to work with the women. Kizilhan and Blume, who led the Special Quota project, say the program was an emergency intervention, and that a more long-term solution is building capacity for mental health care in Iraq. The state of Baden Württemberg has put resources toward that, too—donating €1.3 million ($1.5 million) to help establish the first master’s program for psychotherapy in Iraq, started by Kizilhan at the University of Duhok in 2017.

Kizilhan and Blume say the program in Germany has been successful despite the challenges. In the Tübingen University study, 91% of the women surveyed said they were satisfied to be in Germany, and 85% said they were satisfied with the program. When asked if they were satisfied with the psychosocial care, the number who said yes dropped to 72%. Hanan was among those who found it lacking.

Her struggle to access medical care and therapy were two of the ways she felt let down by the program. For her first three years in Germany, Hanan received minimal therapy, even though she wanted it. She rarely attended the group sessions, both because she found them unhelpful and because of the ongoing childcare issues. She said she was not offered individual sessions. Burger said when social workers saw some women were unhappy with group sessions, they arranged for individual therapy, and Hanan began talking with a therapist every few weeks. She said it helped a little, but she felt the same after each session.

***

On a Wednesday in July 2018, Hanan left German class early to shop for food. Before leaving home, she pulled on a fitted black blazer over her beige shirt and leggings. The clothes were new; she had recently cast aside the long, dark skirts and sweaters that she had worn ever since her escape for a more modern wardrobe. Friends had urged her to make the switch, teasing her that she dressed like she was still living under ISIS. Hanan walked to the store, passing traditional timber-frame buildings and window boxes overflowing with geraniums and petunias. She spotted a friend outside the supermarket and stopped to chat before buying chicken legs and vegetables. Managing the family’s budget alone—something she had never done in Iraq—was challenging. Sometimes she didn’t have enough money at the end of the month.

Two years on from encountering her former captor, the town was beginning to feel less threatening, though Hanan still didn’t like going out at night. She attended German language class four mornings a week. She’d never learned how to read or write as a child, so learning German was doubly hard, but she was making slow progress. She was also making a few German friends, and she’d found a way to decipher their text messages even though she couldn’t read. When she received a message, she’d paste it into the Google Translate app and press the audio button. A robotic voice would read it aloud and she’d reply via voice note.

Back at home, she put a pot of rice on the stove and began browning the chicken, preoccupied by the logistics of her upcoming trip to Iraq to visit her husband, Hadi. She’d learned through her social worker that her stipend would be paused while she was away, and Hanan wasn’t sure how she would make it through the month without the money.

It would be the second time she had to travel to see Hadi. (The women were admitted as humanitarian refugees, rather than asylum seekers, which spared them the process of applying for asylum and meant they were allowed to return to visit family in Iraq, unlike asylum holders.) Saber, now four, had spent most of his life separated from his father, and didn’t recognize him. The girls no longer even missed him. He was becoming a faraway memory.

Two and a half years had now gone by since she left Iraq, well past the two years after which Hadi had been promised he could apply for a visa. Hanan’s social worker helped her file papers related to his visa application. But whenever Hanan asked what was happening, she was given the same answer: Not yet.

What she didn’t know was that Germany’s position toward refugees had shifted. The welcoming stance the country adopted when more than a million people poured into the country seeking asylum in 2015 had hardened amid a backlashfueled by far-right anti-immigration parties. When he interviewed the women in 2015, and told them their husbands could apply for a visa after two years, Kizilhan was in line with the rules at the time. But now laws governing refugees and family unification visas were tightened. German courts even began ruling against Yazidiswho requested asylum, saying it was safe for them to go back to Iraq.

To date, no husbands of women in the Special Quota Project have received visas. It’s hard to know how many are waiting: Kizilhan says he has identified 18. According to the study, 28 percent of the women surveyed had husbands in Iraq.

A spokesman for the Baden Württemberg Ministry of Interior, Digitalization and Migration said that “special rules” apply to family reunifications for those granted humanitarian admission, and may only be allowed “for reasons of human rights, on humanitarian grounds or to protect political interests.” The special rules “must be considered on a case by case basis,” he said, and added the federal authorities are responsible for issuing visas, not the state.

Kizilhan said the ministry could intervene to make sure the family members are issued visas. But the political will behind the creation of the Special Quota Project has evaporated. In January, Kizilhan said he had recently met with state interior ministry officials to ask that they find a way to bring the husbands to Germany, but that they told him the change in federal law made it difficult to do so. “This is ridiculous,” Kizilhan says. “If you can take 1,100 with the special quota, you can take 18 people in one day.”

On trips back to Iraq, Kizilhan said he’s been confronted by husbands demanding answers, and is distressed that the state has not followed through. He notes that bringing the women’s immediate family to Germany would improve their psychological health—the goal of the program—by helping to reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms and easing their integration into society. Hanan often spoke of waiting for Hadi’s arrival to move into an apartment on her own. She was fearful of handling all the responsibilities of living in a new country without him. And she desperately needed help caring for the children, help she thought would be provided in the program. They’d spent a year separated from Hadi in captivity. Now, they were once again separated, once again waiting for their family to be reunited.

After Hanan’s visit to Iraq, months went by with no news about Hadi’s visa. They both began to despair that it would ever materialize, their frustration compounded by a dearth of information about the delay.

In the spring of 2019, after waiting three years, Hadi decided he could wait no longer. He borrowed money and set out for Germany along irregular migration routes. It took him eight months—he was detained in Greece on the way—but eventually he made it to Hanan. Their reunion, though, was far from perfect. After his arrival in Germany, the once-happy couple separated. Hanan would not discuss the details of their estrangement except to say that it took root because of their physical separation and left her distraught. He is now in a relationship with another woman and Hanan said he is not in touch with his children. His future in Germany is uncertain, too—it is unclear whether he will be permitted to stay.

Last summer Hanan moved into a light-filled two-bedroom furnished flat rented for her by the municipality in a quiet residential neighborhood. It’s decorated brightly in orange—a peach wall, tangerine dining chairs, an ochre shag carpet, and a sofa the color of carrots. While there’s a bunk bed in the kids’ room, they usually end up sleeping in Hanan’s king-size bed every night, a tangle of arms and legs. She was finally able to see a doctor to resolve her lingering gynecological health problem, although the daily headaches are still there. She’s no longer afraid of going out at night.

On a Sunday morning in January, she awoke late, groggy from hosting friends the night before. Saber, now six, and Sheelan, seven, plopped on the sofa to watch Tom and Jerry on the television as Hanan made bread in the kitchen. Squeezing small lumps off the dough, she quickly slapped each one from hand to hand, stretching it into a thin disc. In Iraq, she would have baked the loaves in an outdoor clay oven. Here, she used a small metal box oven, heated with an electric coil, placed on the countertop. She placed each loaf on top to let it brown, then baked it inside the oven before stacking the finished loaves on the windowsill.

When she was done, the children gathered at the table, scooping up fried eggs, yogurt, tahini, and cheese with the fresh bread. They chattered together in German; they rarely spoke Kurdish with one another anymore. Saber, impish and sensitive, speaks German with a near flawless accent. After breakfast, the three older girls clear the table, wash the dishes, and sweep the floor unbidden. Hanadi, now 11, and Berivan, now 10, both with round cheeks like their mother, are learning how to swim at school. Haneya, now 13, reads and translates the mail and types messages in German for her mother.

“Sometimes I look at my kids and think ‘OK, I’m all right.’ But I just feel bad,” Hanan said, lowering herself onto the sofa. “It’s a bad feeling inside of me, I don’t know how to explain it. Sometimes I want to hit myself, because of this bad feeling inside, and I don’t know how to deal with it. Many times I thought about killing myself, but then I remember my kids, that they need me.”

The situation with Hadi has her so upset she doesn’t think about ISIS anymore, Hanan said, adding that she doesn’t know what to do or where to turn. She’s spent hours crying with a Yazidi friend, another survivor, who lives nearby. That’s the closest she gets to therapy now.

After Hanan moved into the apartment, her therapy sessions ended. A few months later, social workers took her to an appointment at a new therapist’s office, but she hadn’t gone back. She said the appointment time of 7 p.m. was impossible as there was no one to watch the children at home. But she knows she needs help. “It’s too much for me,” she said. “I can’t hold all these problems alone.”

Burger, of the town’s department for refugees and resettlement, said that as more of the women moved into private apartments last year—all but 10 now live on their own—it became harder to arrange therapy sessions. Some therapists have waiting lists, and there is always the problem of timing, he said. “It’s difficult finding a time when the trauma therapist and the translator both are available, and also when someone can take care for the children, and when the German classes aren’t at the same time. But we are working on it.” He could not give a number for how many of the women in the town were undergoing therapy, saying it was constantly changing, but said therapy was available to all who wanted it. “We can only offer it,” he said. “In the end it is the decision of the women if they want to take part in the programs, and we don’t want to and can’t force anyone to take part.”

Hanan knows it was right to come to Germany. She’s better off than she would be in Iraq, where despite the territorial defeat of ISIS, most Yazidis are still displaced, and their future is uncertain. She feels safe now in Germany, and she can see bright futures for her children here.

But she can’t muster any of that hope for herself, not after losing Hadi. The darkness she had hoped to escape never went away. “Maybe I’m going to go crazy, or I’m going to kill myself. Maybe I won’t find a solution for myself except to die,” she said. “Now I’m 34, and I didn’t see any hope in my entire life. And for the future also, I don’t have any hope. Only God knows.”

Source: A Radical German Program Promised a Fresh Start to Yazidi Survivors of ISIS Captivity. But Some Women Are Still Longing for Help

Tracking Missing Yazidis Increasingly Harder Six Years After IS Genocide

Of note:

The Yazidi minority this week marked six years since the Islamic State (IS) attacked their homeland in northern Iraq. Their nightmare continues.

Even after their territories were recaptured and IS was defeated, activists of the religious community say they are still looking for thousands of their members who went missing during the genocidal campaign that began on August 3, 2014.

One of the activists, Ali Hussein al-Khansouri, told VOA that many of the missing Yazidis must be “bought” from their kidnappers who demand amounts that continue to increase. He said that locating and smuggling out the missing Yazidis is becoming more difficult, especially as they seem to be scattered across conflict areas of Syria to as far as Turkey.

Al-Khansouri, 34, who survived IS captivity, has rescued 43 kidnapped Yazidis across Iraq and Syria. His first mission in 2017 involved freeing an 8-year-old Yazidi girl from northwestern Syria under the al-Qaida offshoot the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group.

“I never imagined that I will be engaged in finding the missing Yazidis,” said al-Khansouri, who in his quest is also hoping to track 46 people from his extended family and relatives.

“As time passed by and thousands of Yazidis remained missing, and because of the network of people I know, I was compelled to take action,” he said.

According to the Kidnapped Yazidis Rescue Office in Duhok, Kurdistan Region, 3,543 kidnapped Yazidis have been rescued, with 2,800 still missing.

IS rampaged across Iraq and Syria in 2014 to establish its so-called Islamic caliphate. In August of that year, the jihadist group attacked Iraq’s Sinjar town and district where about 400,000 Yazidis lived. It killed thousands of Yazidi men and kidnapped the women and young boys. The women and young girls were reportedly used as sex slaves while the young boys were trained to become IS fighters and suicide bombers.

The United Nations has called the attacks a campaign of genocide.

Al-Khansouri was a Kurdish language teacher and a wedding photographer in Khana Sor village, north of Sinjar Mountain, when IS attacked. He was hiding with 34 members of his family at his uncle’s house when the terror group found them and transferred them with other captured Yazidis to Tal al-Shaer school near al-Shaddadi in Deir el-Zour governorate in eastern Syria.

“They told us that they were waiting for the Caliph orders to determine our fate. After a few days, they told us that the orders came and they will not kill us if we convert to Islam and perform the Islamic worship and rituals. We agreed because we wanted to live,” he said.

After spending one week in Syria, he was taken with a group of Yazidi men and boys over 9 years old in a bus back to Iraq where they were placed in Tal Banat village near Sinjar, close to an IS training camp. While at the training site, he and four other men escaped when a fighter jet targeted the group.

“We reached Kabara village in southern Sinjar where hundreds of Yazidis had fled to. There was a force of armed Yazidis defending the fleeing families,” he said.

Now in safety at Sharia camp in Kurdistan Region’s Duhok province, al-Khansouri said his community lives with the trauma they experienced during the IS conflict.

“Yazidi families just want to know if their loved ones are still alive or dead,” he said.

Finding closure    

Iraqi and Kurdish officials say they are doing their best to help the Yazidi community reunite with their missing members.

Nineveh governorate authorities say they have found 83 mass graves, consisting mostly of Yazidis in Sinjar.

The search for mass graves and the exhumation of victims’ remains comes as part of a joint effort between a national team of Iraqi officials and the United Nations Investigative Team to promote accountability for crimes committed by IS in Iraq and Syria.

But some Yazidis say that the efforts to identify the victims must be accelerated.

“More than 70 mass graves were discovered, and until now these graves are open, and documenting the identities of the victims is going in a very slow pace,” Tahsen Shikh Kalo, a Yazidi journalist, told VOA.

Kalo lost his 32-year-old sister, Sarah, when IS attacked their village of al-Adnaniah in 2014.

He said his sister and her 6-year-old daughter were separated from the Kalo family and fled IS with neighbors. They were caught by the militants when the neighbor’s car broke down in the middle of the road to safety.

A few months into the kidnapping of Sarah and her daughter, the Kalos in a phone call were informed she was killed. Her daughter was rescued in April 2015 by another fleeing Yazidi family in Tal Afar, Iraq.

“Till now we don’t know where my sister is buried. My sister has no grave,” lamented Kalo.

Persistent insecurity  

Tracking the missing family members and identifying bodies in mass graves are not the only causes of anguish for the religious minority, however.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis in Iraq are living under harsh conditions in refugee camps where they lack access to basic services. Those who wish to return to their homes in Sinjar are unable to because of mass destruction from war and persistent insecurity.

Kalo said that his village is contaminated by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by IS. The struggle of demining teams to clear the village, the existence of different armed militias who are competing to control the area after IS, and Turkish ongoing airstrikes mean the locals have no hope they could return in months to come.

“We need protection, and we want to live in peace. Sinjar is free now, but till now Sinjar is considered a disputed area under article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which makes life hard for the Yazidis living there,” Kalo said.

Disputed areas in northern Iraq are defined by article 140 of the Iraqi constitution as regions inhabited by a mix of religions and ethnicities that went through demographic change and Arabization under the Baath regime. Both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil claim those lands.

Supporting Yazidi community    

While Iraqi and Kurdish authorities continue to bicker over who should rule in the area, Yazidi representatives are questioning how long it will take before they can see some progress in the reconstruction of their areas and the provision of services.

“Yazidis are part of the Iraqi nation, and the Iraqi government must allocate funds to support local projects, rebuild the infrastructure in Sinjar, and compensate the families who lost their homes and businesses,” Dawood Jundi Shikh-Kalo, a Yazidi leader and member of the leadership council of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told VOA.

Shikh-Kalo, who led Sinjar Protection Units during the battle against IS, said different parties in the country need to support local initiatives from the Yazidi community to help it stand on its feet.

Iraqi President Barham Salih in March 2019 referred the Yazidi Female Survivors Bill to the Iraqi parliament, which could address many social issues agonizing the Yazidis, including helping them find their missing members. The law is still waiting an approval vote by the Iraqi parliament.

Source: Tracking Missing Yazidis Increasingly Harder Six Years After IS Genocide

Prosecuting IS returnees in Germany requires the law’s longest arm

Interesting account of some of the challenges involved:

Taha A.-J.*, an Iraqi man believed to have belonged to the “Islamic State” (IS), has been standing trial in Frankfurt since late April on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. At the center of his trial is the death of a 5-year-old girl belonging to the Yazidi minority group.

The charges are based on statements by his wife, Jennifer W.*, a staunch IS supporter who lived with him in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. In 2018, she told a police informant that during her first stay in IS territory in 2015 she saw Taha A.-J. punish the girl, purchased as a slave, for wetting the bed. Jennifer W. alleged that he had chained the girl to a window in the scorching sun, where she died an agonizing death.

Jennifer W. has been on trial herself since April 2019, as she did nothing to save the girl. In that case, the girl’s mother — also a slave in the same household — testified that she was forced to watch her daughter die.

Unprecedented case

Taha A.-J. was arrested in Greece in May 2019 under a German arrest warrant and was transferred to Germany in October. His ongoing trial — the first against a former IS militant to deal with the IS genocide of the Yazidi — has attracted international attention.

Genocide is the most serious crime under international criminal law. But according to Alexander Schwarz, a Leipzig-based lawyer who specializes in international law, “the difficulty lies in proving that the individual perpetrators were actually determined to destroy an entire ethnic group.”

Schwarz told DW that Taha A.-J.’s trial is unprecedented. “For the first time, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office is pursuing a purely international offense,” he said, pointing out that the alleged act was not committed in Germany, that neither perpetrators nor victims are German citizens, and that the accused wasn’t even on German territory at the time of his arrest.

International criminal law is becoming an increasingly important part of the work done by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office. When the trial of the 35-year-old IS returnee Omaima A.* began in Hamburg on May 4, charges against her also included crimes against humanity. Omaima A., the widow of IS jihadi Denis Cuspert, who was killed in Syria in 2018, is also said to have kept a 13-year-old Yazidi girl as a slave.

After Omaima A. returned from the Syrian war zone in 2016, she lived a peaceful life in her hometown of Hamburg for three years. It wasn’t until investigative journalist Jenan Moussa, reporting for Arab television network Al-Aan TV, uncovered the necessary evidence against her that charges could be filed.

With thousands of photos and videos found on the phone Omaima A. used while living in Syria, Moussa was able to retrace her life in IS territory in great detail, eventually producing a documentary about the German IS supporter.

Not just housewives and mothers?

The photos shown in the documentary — introduced as evidence at Omaima A.’s trial — show her alone and with children, posing with an AK-47 assault rifle and other weapons. Moussa’s work also uncovered chat conversations with several men. These documents show that the perception of female IS supporters as passive, easily influenced victims needs to be reconsidered, said Schwarz, the lawyer from Leipzig. “Numerous returnees — female IS fighters — were armed, with automatic weapons, AK-47 rifles or pistols,” he said.

Many women also worked for the so-called morality police, controlling how other women dressed, behaved and lived under IS rule. According to Schwarz, the practice of keeping slaves was “an act that can be attributed to the female fighters, and was even predominantly practiced by them.”

In order to issue an arrest warrant and charges, Germany’s top judges have said that evidence of explicit support for IS, or proof that a person directly fought for the militant group, is necessary. Without this proof, suspects could go unpunished. It’s exactly for this reason that many IS returnees have repeatedly claimed they were only responsible for taking care of the household and the children, and that they had no knowledge of reported atrocities.

Slave ownership has featured in other cases against IS returnees, including that of Sarah O.*. Details of her trial, which has been ongoing since October, have been kept from the public, as she was said to have been a minor when she allegedly committed the crimes she’s been charged with. According to investigators, the now 21-year-old decided to move to IS territory in Syria at the age of 15.

In addition to slave ownership, Sarah O. has also been accused of having lived with her husband and children in apartments assigned to them by IS forces. That may sound harmless. Legally, however, this is considered a form of looting: if IS assigned jihadis to live in an apartment,  that meant the previous residents must have been expelled or killed. This is defined as looting, or pillaging — and is thus a violation of article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Targeting female jihadis

This interpretation of the law was first used in the trial against Sabine S.* in 2019. She was sentenced to five years in prison for war crimes, mainly for taking possession of two apartments. Since last year, Germany’s federal prosecutors have accused IS returnees of eight violations of the Rome Statute, with the looting charge particularly being used to prosecute female jihadis.

Lawyer Serkan Alkan, however, has been critical of the court’s reliance on this charge. Alkan has represented several IS supporters in German courts, and told DW that women had no say under IS rule. “The idea that you could stand there, as a woman, and say, ‘No, I will not take this house because it’s a violation of international criminal law’ — that’s a rather utopian perspective,” he said.

But federal prosecutors have been successful with this approach. Sibel H.*, from Aschaffenburg near Frankfurt, twice made the journey to IS territory, the first time in 2013. She returned to Germany the following year after her husband was killed, only to remarry an IS supporter and head back to the Middle East, where they had two children before she was captured. In spring 2018, she was transferred from a Kurdish prison in northern Iraq to Germany, where she was eventually arrested and charged with the looting offense under international criminal law. On April 29, 2020, she was sentenced to three years in prison in Munich, where she is taking part in a reintegration program.

In the past five years, 122 IS supporters have returned to Germany from Syria or Iraq, according to government figures reported in late 2019. Of those returnees, 53 have been classified as a “potential threat,” and 18 are considered “relevant persons,” that is supporters or even leading figures within IS. Relying on international criminal law, Germany aims to make these people responsible for their actions.

*Editor’s note: DW follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.

Source: Prosecuting IS returnees in Germany requires the law’s longest arm

Farming project helps Yazidi refugees return to roots

Nice:

Adol Ilyas has farmed for as long as she can remember.

It’s how her family earned their living in northern Iraq, before ISIS swept through their village.

Now, the 52-year-old is getting the chance to return to those roots.

She’s part of a farming initiative launched by a Yazidi refugee resettlement group in Winnipeg, Operation Ezra. Dozens of synagogues, churches and schools are part of the group, which has sponsored a dozen Yazidi refugee families so far. It also works with government-assisted refugees.

The aim of the farming project is to unite the Yazidi community and help refugees who are struggling to meet their own food needs.

Michel Aziza, chair of Operation Ezra, says the farming project began about a year ago as a way to provide food assistance for government-assisted Yazidi refugees. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Nearly five years ago, ISIS militants launched attacks on the religious minority in northern Iraq, killing thousands of Yazidis and abducting and abusing many women and girls. The UN called it a genocide.

Ilyas and five of her children escaped, but her other five children, all adults, remain in refugee camps. Speaking through a translator, she said she worries about them constantly.

But getting the chance to farm has brought back good memories. It has helped her cope.

And she’s not alone.

The Yazidi farming project launched last year, yielding about 315 kilograms of potatoes on donated farmland near Portage la Prairie, Man. ( Pierre Verriere/Radio-Canada)

“This is probably one of the most successful projects that we’ve run,” said Michel Aziza, chair of Operation Ezra.

He said the farming initiative began as a pilot project last year after Operation Ezra realized that government-assisted refugees needed extra food support. Government financial assistance typically ends after a year.

Many of the Yazidi newcomers were farmers. So an idea sprouted for refugees and volunteers to farm potatoes on less than an acre of donated farmland near Portage la Prairie, an hour west of Winnipeg.

The project yielded about 315 kilograms of potatoes last fall.

The hope is that members of the Yazidi refugee community will also be able to sell extra produce at local farmers markets. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

This year, the initiative is much larger.

More than 50 families are farming approximately eight acres of land in nearby St. François Xavier. They’re expecting to harvest about 5,400 kilograms of potatoes, plus dozens of other crops — enough to feed about 250 people for months, and to sell what is left over at local farmers markets.

The goal is for the farming project near St. François Xavier to produce enough food to feed at least 250 people for months, including more than 50 Yazidi families. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

Bo Wohlers, president of Shelmerdine Nurseries, donated this year’s land. He’s a congregant of the Charleswood United Church, which is working with Operation Ezra.

“I thought they deserved a good start in Canada, so we offered the land,” he said.

Refugees can ‘come together as a community’

Aziza says in a world where government-assisted refugees face so many challenges, including language, banking and transportation, to name just a few, the farming project is where they can be themselves and work and socialize together as a community.

That sentiment rings true for Majid Haji, one of Operation Ezra’s privately sponsored refugees. He farmed for more than a decade back in Iraq.

He felt nostalgic when he got out in the field here, he said through a translator.

He was reminded of his home as soon as he touched the soil, he said — although the soil in Iraq was a ‘bit tougher.’

Yazidi refugee Majid Haji says he farmed for more than a decade back home in Iraq. (Warren Kay/CBC)

An official with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the government has resettled more than 1,400 ISIS survivors since 2016, with Yazidis making up more than 85 per cent of that group.

Aziza says Operation Ezra plans to sponsor even more families, and to keep growing the farming program as well.

He thinks the refugees and volunteers could work up to 20 acres next year.

Adol Ilyas says she isn’t thinking that far ahead. She’s still focused on this year’s harvest — and looking forward to harvesting the crops and feeding families.

Source: Farming project helps Yazidi refugees return to roots

Yazidi survivors of Isis sex slavery told to give up their children

A reminder that the victims of atrocities sometimes can in turn victimize others, and that a persecuted religion can also discriminate:

Yazidi women who survived Islamic State sex slavery have to choose between giving up the children born to them during captivity or expulsion from their ethnic and religious community.

The Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council has ruled children of these abused and traumatised women cannot join the community, countermanding an order issued last week by council head Hazem Tahsin.

He had called for “accepting all survivors [of Islamic State rapes] and considering what they went through to have been against their will”. His position was in line with a 2015 edict issued by Yazidi spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh, who welcomed the women back but did not take a decision on their children.

Bana Sheikh’s omission enabled the council to reverse its chairman’s ruling by issuing a clarification stating that the decree “does not include children born of rape, but refers to children born of two Yazidi parents”.

The children of Islamic State fighters are to be excluded because Yazidis who marry or procreate outside their community are excommunicated. The mainly Kurdish-speaking Yazidis belong to a distinct ethnic grouping and practice a monotheistic faith with roots in ancient Mesopotamian religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Popular misconceptions about their beliefs have caused them to be branded “devil worshippers” and subjected to discrimination and abuse.

Source: Yazidi survivors of Isis sex slavery told to give up their children

Islamic State women defiant in face of lost caliphate

More relevant reporting:

As the battle against the Islamic State (IS) group in eastern Syria enters its final stages, the BBC’s Jewan Abdi says the mood amongst many of the jihadists’ supporters who have left the area, including many women, remains defiant.

The encampment in the village of Baghuz is barely more than a few holes in the dirt covered with blankets. It is squalid and filthy.

But above it flies the black Islamic State flag, fresh and clean. IS fighters had raised it only the day before, an act of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.

“That’s a sign they will fight,” says a soldier belonging to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the front lines battling the jihadists.

Just 24 hours later the battle resumed. It was the end of a ceasefire that had seen more than 12,000 leave in the preceding few days.

One day last week in the early morning, more than 20 trucks led by Humvees armed with machine guns went inside the tiny IS enclave to evacuate jihadist fighters and their families.

I followed these vehicles on their return journey to the desert where they were checked, separated, and sent on to camps run by the SDF forces. One military commander told me the total number of people evacuated was about 7,000.

The hunger and anger was evident on their faces. As I walked among them with my camera, trying to talk to them and film, several IS women suddenly attacked me and threw stones, dust and cans.

“Go film the brothers, don’t come here. Go. Leave. Go film them, we’re the woman of the Islamic State, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar (God is greatest),” they said.

A few weeks ago, the SDF estimated the number of IS families and fighters left remaining in Baghuz to be between 1,500 and 2,000 people. But in just two days last week, 9,000 people emerged.

The final territory under IS’s control may be on its last legs in Syria, but the ideology remains strong among those who have left.

Many of the IS women I encountered threatened of violent jihad and raising their children to become jihadist fighters.

Two captors for one woman

Among the thousands of people turning up out of Baghuz, I also found victims of IS’s notorious brutality, including one Yazidi woman called Adiba.

A mother of two, Adiba was enslaved for five years after IS attacked her small village in Sinjar, northern Iraq, in 2014.

Her husband was one of the hundreds of Yazidi men killed by the jihadist group, and she – like thousands of Yazidi women – was forced to convert to Islam and was used as a sex slave.

She says she was enslaved by a Moroccan man who beat her constantly and raped her. He was the father of her two-year-old child.

“I had to marry him. When we were alone he wasn’t good to me, he was always angry with me, but in front of people he treated me well,” Adiba tells me.

After Adiba’s first captor died, she was taken by another Moroccan man named Ahmed – orders she says came from her first captor in the event of his death.

Ahmed, who surrendered to the SDF last week, has denied enslaving Adiba.

Most of the people evacuated from Baghuz recently, including many foreigners who travelled to Syria and Iraq to live under IS rule, have been transported to the SDF-controlled camp al-Hol, in the north-east of the country.

The camp was designed to accommodate 20,000 people but the UN says conditions there are dire as the numbers have risen to more than 66,000.

The global dream of an Islamic State caliphate – a state governed in accordance with Islamic law – is on the brink of collapse, with most of its leadership gone and many captured by the SDF and coalition forces.

Hundreds of IS fighters have surrendered. Separated from their families, they sit in long queues in an area inaccessible to journalists, where US Special Forces and SDF soldiers interrogate them and send them on to detention centres and prisons under Kurdish control.

After losing their self-proclaimed caliphate, a sense of sadness, anger and indignation was clear among these fighters who are stuck in the middle of the desert, waiting to be moved into detention camps, away from their wives and children.

Source: Islamic State women defiant in face of lost caliphate

Were the brides of Islamic State cloistered housewives or participants in atrocities?

More background on the women who joined or supported ISIS:

Thousands of foreign-born women left their homes and lives to join Islamic State and marry its fighters. But now that the militant group’s so-called caliphate is reduced to crumbled masonry and scorched rebar, many of them want to return home.

Shamima Begum was a teenage schoolgirl in east London when she left home to join Islamic State; Hoda Muthana, an Alabama-born college student; Kimberly Gwen Polman, a 46-year-old single mom in Canada studying to be a children’s advocate. Now they’re held in a Kurdish-controlled prison in the hinterlands of eastern Syria, asking to be let back into their home countries.

The women branded “ISIS brides,” using initials for the militant group, have become a focal point of fierce debate for governments worldwide: What are states’ responsibilities toward these women?

A central question in that debate is what exactly did the women do in the caliphate? Were they cloistered housewives largely ignorant of the group’s realities, or active participants in its genocidal acts?

Women initially did not join combat

When Islamic State declared the establishment of its caliphate in 2014, it called upon all able-bodied Muslims to emigrate and engage in jihad, or struggle, to further its cause.

Initially, for women, that didn’t include combat, said Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London.

“The role of the Muslim woman ideally was to be a wife and bear children,” he said in a phone interview, “and as a wife and a mother they were participating directly in jihad because they’re creating the next generation of fighters.”

While its militants were waging what Islamic State called “offensive jihad” — blitz campaigns that saw the group put a third of Iraq and Syria each under its dominion — women were to be “bases of support” for husbands, fathers and sons, one wife explained.

Hayat Boumeddiene, the widow of Amedy Coulibaly, the Paris gunman who killed five people in two January 2015 attacks, offered advice for fighters’ wives during a interview in an Islamic State magazine.

“Be advisors to them. They should find comfort and peace with you,” she said in an article in the February 2015 issue of Dabiq. “Do not make things difficult for them. Facilitate all matters for them.”

As a wife and a mother they were participating directly in jihad because they’re creating the next generation of fighters.

Boumeddiene, who like her husband was born in France, is still at large and being sought by French authorities.

Women did claim more operational roles in suicide attacks outside Islamic State territories, said Devorah Margolin, a senior research analyst at the War Studies Department of Kings College London.

But most women who traveled to the caliphate intent on reaching the battlefield were unable to do so.

That changed to a degree as the group began to lose territory and many of its fighters were killed. It began to wage “defensive jihad.”

“By 2017 and 2018 they were proactively calling for women to engage in combat as well,” said Winter.

But there is little evidence women did so in large numbers.

Winter said there had been rumors of women given explosives and weapons training, but Islamic State never confirmed these reports.

There had been predictions women would increasingly take part in suicide bombings, since they generally have an easier time passing through checkpoints and whose faces could remain hidden under their garments.

There was also precedence for their deployment: Abu Musab Zarqawi, the spiritual godfather of Islamic State, dispatched Sajida Rishawi with a suicide vest to the Hotel Radisson in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 2005. She failed to detonate her bomb but was caught by authorities after her husband’s device killed 38 people.

Some carried guns in the religious police force

Islamic State’s religious police, known as the Hisbah, roamed its territory to ensure residents were complying with the caliphate’s harsh edicts. People found in violation faced imprisonment, whipping and amputation. An all-female police force known as the Khansaa Brigade was an integral part of the Hisbah.

“We saw women in the Hisbah. They were all armed,” said Saad Ubaidi, who owns a beauty salon with his wife in Mosul, Iraq.

“Iraqi women had guns, but the foreigners carried ghadaraat,” said Ubaidi, using the slang term for Uzi machine guns.

Women played a vital part in the propaganda war

Women may not have fought on the battlefield, but they helped Islamic State spread its message.

“They were very much part of the propaganda machine of this state-building process,” said Margolin, who is writing a report on women’s role in violent Islamist groups for George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Women were some of Islamic State’s most active recruiters online, she said.

Blogs and social media accounts ostensibly held by foreign-born female adherents advertised their lives as if they were in an Islamist utopia. They encouraged others to do hijrah, emigrate to the caliphate.

Some would provide a guide on how to avoid being identified as someone traveling to Syria to join Islamic State. Others would suggest what to pack for life in the caliphate (makeup and Islamic clothing, according to one blogger), or offer quotidian details on how the group assigned housing to fighters and women.

Others would cheer for the group’s barbarism and gruesome tactics.

Muthana, the Alabama-born student and daughter of a Yemeni diplomat who joined Islamic State in 2014, exhorted Americans to follow her lead.

“Soooo many Aussies and Brits here,” she tweeted from her now-suspended account. “But where are the Americans, wake up u cowards.”

She encouraged those who couldn’t travel to Islamic State territory to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S.

“Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc Day parades..go on drive by’s + spill all of their blood or rent a big truck n drive all over them. Kill them,” she tweeted.

Women took part in the enslavement of Yazidis

In August 2014, the extremists surrounded Mt. Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. They began to hunt the Yazidis, an ancient religious minority long persecuted for their beliefs, which include elements of Christianity and Judaism. Islamic State viewed them as devil-worshipers.

Thousands of Yazidi men were slaughtered; women and girls were kidnapped and driven away to be sold in markets or given as gifts. In their enslavement, the women and girls would be servants to the household’s wife and raped by the husband.

One wife of an Islamic State member with a Yazidi enslaved in her household defended the practice in an issue of Dabiq. Her article was entitled “Slave-girls or Prostitutes?”

The woman, who called herself Umm Sumayyah al Muhajirah, cited religious texts and the works of scholars to construct an argument for taking Yazidi women as concubines. And she dismissed reports of abuse, attributing them to “devious and wicked slave girls” who “made up lies and wrote false stories.”

And whereas sex with a Yazidi slave is permissible, she adds, prostitutes in the West “openly commit sin.”

“Leave us alone with your burping,” she wrote of people judging the slave practice.

Pinning down what each person did will be difficult

Investigators looking for clues to the individual actions of each woman, away from social media, will have a difficult time gathering evidence admissible in a court of law.

“In the U.S., we’ve had 16 people who returned that we know of, 13 have been prosecuted in federal courts, so there’s a system to do it,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

But most of those were people who admitted their actions, he added. For those who don’t, investigators using Islamic State documents, for example, have to have a rock-solid chain of evidence, which is difficult to establish in the chaotic environment of a war zone.

Witnesses, often intelligence or security personnel, are often reluctant to testify in open court, and identifying women dressed in three-layer niqabs, the de rigueur face covering, will be unreliable.

Even the social media presence these women maintained is being lost. Blogging sites like Tumblr or WordPress, and messaging platforms such as Telegram, have aggressively shut down the accounts of Islamic State-affiliated users.

In any case, said Margolin, the women probably weren’t lying when they said they had been mostly concerned with family matters, but that didn’t absolve them of responsibility.

“Yes, they were wives and mothers, but what that means isn’t like what we mean when we think of a housewife,” said Margolin.

As the bearers of the group’s ideology for the next generation of fighters, she said, they were pursuing a higher objective.

“They represented,” said Margolin, “the future and permanence of Islamic State.”

Source: Were the brides of Islamic State cloistered housewives or participants in atrocities?

For Yazidi survivors of Islamic State killings, the nightmares go on

Ongoing legacy of ISIS atrocities:

Ever since Islamic State visited death and destruction on their villages in northern Iraq nearly five years ago, Yazidis Daoud Ibrahim and Kocher Hassan have had trouble sleeping.

For Hassan, 39, who was captured, it is her three missing children, and three years of imprisonment at the hands of the jihadist group.

For Ibrahim, 42, who escaped, it is the mass grave that he returned to find on his ravaged land.

“They burnt one house down, blew up the other, they torched the olive trees two three times…There is nothing left,” the father of eight told Reuters.

More than 3,000 other members of their minority sect were killed in 2014 in an onslaught that the United Nations described as genocidal.

Ibrahim and Hassan lived to tell of their suffering, but like other survivors, they have not moved on.

She will never set foot in her village of Rambousi again. “My sons built that house. I can’t go back without them…Their school books are still there, their clothes,” she said.

‘THEY WANT TO BE BURIED’

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to announce the demise of the Islamist group in Syria and Iraq, U.N. data suggests many of those it displaced in the latter country have, like Hassan, not returned home.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim and his family live in a barn next to the pile of rubble that was once their home. He grows wheat because the olive trees will need years to grow again. No one is helping him rebuild, so he is doing it himself, brick by brick.

“Life is bad. There is no aid,” he said sitting on the edge of the collapsed roof which he frequently rummages under to find lost belongings. On this day, it was scarves, baby clothes and a photo album.

“Every day that I see this mass grave I get ten more gray hairs,” he said.

The grave, discovered in 2015 just outside nearby Sinjar city, contains the remains of more than 70 elderly women from the village of Kocho, residents say.

“I hear the cries of their spirits at the end of the night. They want to be buried, but the government won’t remove their remains.” They and their kin also want justice, Ibrahim adds.

When the militants came, thousands of Yazidis fled on foot towards Sinjar mountain. More than four years later, some 2,500 families – including Hassan and five of her daughters – still live in the tents that are scattered along the hills that weave their way towards the summit.

The grass is green on the meadows where children run after sheep and the women pick wild herbs.

But the peaceful setting masks deep-seated fears about the past and the future.

GRATEFUL FOR THE SUN

Until a year and a half ago, Hassan and five of her children were kept in an underground prison in Raqqa with little food and in constant fear of torture.

She doesn’t know why Islamic State freed her and the girls, then aged one to six, and hasn’t learnt the fate of the three remaining children: two boys Fares and Firas, who would be 23 and 19 now, and Aveen, a girl who would be 13.

There is no electricity or running water in the camp where they live today. She doesn’t remember when her children last ate fruit. “Life here is very difficult but I thank God that we are able to see the sun,” she said.

During the day, her children go to school and are happy, but at night “they are afraid of their own shadow”, and she herself has nightmares.

“Last night, I dreamt they were slaughtering my child,” she said.

Mahmoud Khalaf, her husband, says Islamic State not only destroyed their livelihoods. The group broke the trust between Yazidis and the communities of different faiths and ethnicities they had long lived alongside.

“There is no protection. Those who killed us and held us captive and tormented us have returned to their villages,” Khalaf, 40, said referring to the neighboring Sunni Arab villages who the Yazidis say conspired with the militants.

“We have no choice but to stay here…They are stronger than us.”

Source: For Yazidi survivors of Islamic State killings, the nightmares go on

A Yazidi Refugee Family In Canada: When Safe Harbour Isn’t Enough

Good long read by Naomi Buck on the needs of Yazidi refugees.

Bringing them to Canada by itself not enough given the ongoing effects of their trauma and consequent need for more supports. German model of particular interest:

….It’s tempting to assume that survivors of war and displaced persons’ camps would be grateful for the relative safety of a hotel room in Canada. But the Dasnis didn’t know they were safe. All they knew was what they didn’t know: where to find food, how to use the television, whether hotel staff could be trusted, who or what would come next.

“We cried for two days,” Adiba recalls. “It was worse than in the camps. Our cellphones didn’t work, we couldn’t communicate with anyone. My nephew stopped eating. I thought he was going to die.”

On the third day, there was a knock on the hotel room door. Adiba’s older sister, Hadiya, answered. The man introduced himself as Hayder Essw. He was the first person in Canada to speak to them in their native Kurdish dialect. Hadiya’s first words to him were: “Please take us back to Iraq.”

Essw was there to help, but he wasn’t a caseworker or government employee. He’s a member of the tight-knit Yazidi community in Toronto, a volunteer who, since the first Yazidi refugees began arriving in early 2017, has spent much of his time tracking newcomer arrivals.

Essw reassured the women that things were going to be all right. Now that they had been “discovered” by the community, help would begin to flow. And it did.

It came from the government, in the form of financial support and health care coverage, as it does for all government-assisted refugees. But the arduous process of the Dasni family’s settlement has fallen largely to volunteers. This kind of civic engagement reflects well on Canada, providing such volunteers exist and, importantly, have the newcomers’ best interests in mind. But it’s leaving a lot to chance. And it raises critical questions about the government’s ability to meet the needs of a brutally traumatized people. As Jan Kizilhan, a German expert on trauma and the Yazidi, puts it, “It’s not enough to just offer them a safe country.”

Yes, the Canadian government provides Yazidi refugees with free health care, but who finds them a doctor and shows them how to get there? Yes, ESL classes are free, but who helps them make sense of Canadian customs and culture? The government prides itself on taking in a “vulnerable population,” but who makes sure they are getting the help they need to come to terms with their past? Without that, they can’t begin to shape a future.

Over the course of several visits spanning four months, Adiba tells me her story. It’s hard, but she’s determined. She wants the Canadian government to do more for her people. She can’t let go of her relatives back in Iraq — in camps, in captivity or whereabouts unknown.

The family now lives in a randomly furnished bungalow — the lamps are still wrapped in cellophane, a Canadian flag hangs on the wall — on a quiet suburban street north of Toronto. Hadiya, the mother of six, runs the household; she is perpetually cleaning or cooking. There are two constants to our visits. One is her offer of sweet black tea or food from her busy kitchen. The other is Majed El Shafie.

El Shafie, a stocky 40-year-old with plump jowls and a quick smile, is the founder and director of the Toronto-based human rights organization One Free World International. With his bespoke suits and buffed leather shoes, he seems out of place in this modest suburban setting, but Adiba insists he be here for our meetings. “Without him, we would go back,” says Adiba, speaking through a translator. “He is the only one who is helping us with everything.”

…El Shafie prefers not to discuss the details of Adiba’s release in her presence, but he put up half of the US$15,000 price tag and has promised to compensate Adiba’s father in full. Sitting in the downtown office of One Free World International, he speaks openly about the bleak — and controversial — business his organization has entered: buying back ISIS slaves. “That was the going price at the time,” El Shafie says, referring to the ransom. “It keeps going up…. But we’re talking human lives here.”

For El Shafie, freedom of religion must be defended at any cost. According to its website, his organization is active in 28 countries around the world and he is drawn to extreme cases, like that of the Yazidi. The mission is personal. Born into a prominent Egyptian family, he was imprisoned and tortured in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt for publicly converting to Christianity and promoting the faith. After escaping to Israel, he came to Canada as a political refugee in 2002.

Since the 2014 massacre, El Shafie has been working with Kurdish partners on the ground in Iraq to help Yazidi families buy back their daughters, sisters and wives. He estimates that One Free World has helped to pay, in part or in whole, for the release of 600 women. The funds come from donations to his organization, from fees from his speaking engagements and out of his own pocket.

When he is not meeting with officials in Brussels or Washington, or visiting a war zone, El Shafie spends much of his time with the Dasnis and roughly 20 other Yazidi families newly arrived in Toronto. He sees himself as a kind of godfather to the Dasnis. Some of what he has provided might be considered frills: outings to Canada’s Wonderland, Niagara Falls and Toronto’s harbour, which the sisters cite as the highlights of their time in Canada. But he has also played, in practice if not on paper, the roles of settlement worker and social worker: finding the family a house, acting as guarantor on the rental agreement, providing cash infusions for several months until government benefits kicked in, sourcing doctors and specialists, intervening at the local school and attending to personal emergencies.

“Freeing them was one operation,” he says. “But what they face now is tremendously difficult: the stigma, the shame, the memories.” He has lobbied Ottawa forcefully, appearing before and making submissions to the House of Commons immigration committee, asking the government to boost aid to the camps, bring more Yazidi into Canada and provide better mental health support once they’re here.

Germany, home to the largest population of Yazidi outside of Iraq, was the first jurisdiction to focus an aid program on the women and children who had escaped sex slavery. Beginning in early 2015, a small German delegation travelled to camps in the region, screening former ISIS captives for the Special Quota Project, an unprecedented program that brought 1,100 women and children to the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, where they were given protected housing and intensive medical and psychological treatment. After three years, they can choose to stay in Germany or return to Iraq.

…It’s a question architects of refugee policy grapple with constantly: Who needs it most? And who decides what those people most need?

Jan Kizilhan has spent the last few years finding answers. As the chief psychologist on Germany’s Special Quota Project, the 51-year-old was tasked with selecting which 1,100 Yazidi women would come to Germany for treatment. He interviewed every single one of them and has supervised their therapy in Germany over the last three years.

“The Yazidi suffer intergenerational, secondary and collective traumata,” he says over the phone from his office at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University of Villingen-Schwenningen. “Their treatment requires a high degree of specialization.”

Kizilhan, the grandson of Yazidi killed by Kurdish Muslims in Turkey, emigrated to Germany in the 1970s. His expertise is unique, and Canada’s parliamentary immigration committee consulted with him via video conference in November 2016 while IRCC was formulating its plan for the Yazidi. Having been very clear about the importance of addressing their psychological needs, Kizilhan has been perplexed to hear from colleagues and friends in Canada that therapy is playing a minor role, if any, in their settlement. “If you don’t help these people with their health, they have no hope of integrating,” he says. “Mentally, they are not in Canada, they are still in Kurdistan, in Iraq.”

IRCC turned down a request for an interview for this article, but department spokespeople responded to questions by email. They emphasized that the Yazidi “are a very vulnerable population” and that the government is “conscious of not doing anything that may re-victimize or re-traumatize them.” They also stated that “all resettled refugees are linked to appropriate support services,” and that their health coverage, the Interim Federal Health Program, covers 10 hours of counselling sessions, with the possibility of more, if required. More recently, an IRCC spokesperson added that “the department is following families closely,” and that staff meet weekly to discuss how the families are adapting.

via A Yazidi Refugee Family In Canada: When Safe Harbour Isn’t Enough