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Canada Struggles as It Opens Its Arms to Victims of ISIS


“I am always in pain,” said Adiba, a Yazidi who was captured by ISIS and sold six times before escaping. “I’m never comfortable.” Credit Tara Walton for The New York Times

CALGARY, Alberta — As leader of one of Canada’s largest refugee agencies, Fariborz Birjandian, a refugee himself, has years of experience welcoming the world’s most vulnerable — Kosovar Albanians fleeing ethnic cleansing, Burmese Karens evicted from Thai refugee camps and Syrians escaping the civil war.

Nothing prepared him for the Yazidis.

Recently, he entered an English-language classroom in his agency’s building near downtown Calgary, just after a 28-year-old woman had finished describing the screams of a young girl being raped by an Islamic State soldier. Suddenly, the woman fell unconscious.

Her eyes rolled into the back of their sockets, her back arched on the floor and she began to hyperventilate, her voice a rising octave until it emerged as a yelp. She grabbed fistfuls of her hair and snapped her teeth at her forearms.

“Don’t let her bite herself,” said Kheriya Khidir, an interpreter, settling down to hold one of the woman’s arms and stroke her face lovingly. Mr. Birjandian raced off to call an ambulance. Then, he slipped into a stairwell to collect his shaken emotions.

The woman, Jihan, is one of almost 1,200, mostly women and children, victims of the Islamic State who have been brought to Canada as part of a special refugee program set up particularly for Yazidis, members of a tiny religious minority from Northern Iraq that the militants set out to decimate in August 2014.

Canada’s immigration minister — who is also a former refugee — assured Canadians the program would address the “unimaginable trauma, both physical and emotional” that most of the victims carried with them.

But a little over a year later, the Yazidis have proved a steep challenge to the country’s celebrated refugee settlement system, and to those who work in it like Mr. Birjandian.

While safety and a new routine helped most other refugees recover, the Yazidis need more and different treatments; workers say they are the most traumatized group yet to be admitted. Counselors, doctors and other workers are hearing such upsetting stories that they themselves need treatment.

“It’s never been this extreme,” said Dr. Annalee Coakley, the lead physician of Calgary’s Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic, explaining that many Yazidis in her clinic showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — flashbacks, night terrors, anxiety, surges of anger.

In some places, efforts to help the refugees seem to be working. In others, they are stumbling.

“The services have been disparate and not coordinated,” said Michelle Rempel, the opposition member of parliament who has championed the Yazidi cause. “I don’t understand why the government has not put more emphasis on it.”

Government officials say that the program is the most elaborate in the country’s history, and that any hiccups stem from the levels of trauma, not poor planning.

“It’s not perfect, but we are fairly good at this,” said David Manicom, the immigration department’s assistant deputy minister for settlement and integration.

As documented by United Nations investigators, when militants of the Islamic State, or ISIS, descended onto Yazidi villages across arid Sinjar Mountain, they rounded up the men, either forcing them to convert to Islam or be killed. The Yazidis’ ancient faith made them apostates in the eyes of the militants.

Women and girls — some as young as 9 — were cataloged and sold into a codified system of sex slavery.

Jihan was sold so many times, she lost count. Like others interviewed for this article, she asked The New York Times to use her first name only to protect family members still held by ISIS.

She and a few other women in Calgary have had seizure-like attacks in which they drop to the ground and seem to relive their rapes.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Margaret Styczynska, manager of Calgary Catholic Immigration Society’s resettlement center, where arriving refugees spend their first few weeks.

“They were suffocating themselves,” she continued. “They screamed like you are killing an animal. Some lasted 15 minutes or longer.”

As staff members called ambulance after ambulance — requesting female paramedics — they realized they needed to introduce trauma counseling into their work.

“We are not trained for that, but we learned how to do it,” Ms. Styczynska said.

The Canadian government oversees the country’s refugee resettlement program from a distance, funding specialized nongovernmental agencies to do the hands-on work.

Traditionally, counselors help arriving refugees set up the practicalities of their new life — finding housing, enrolling in school and language classes, setting up a bank account. For the minority whose mental health symptoms don’t go away, the family doctor is supposed to step in.

Even before they came, it was clear the Yazidis would need more. However, the government left it up to agencies to draft their own specialized programs. In some places, that has happened. In others, it did not.

“Where is the Canadian government?” said Melkaya, 27, who arrived to the suburbs of Toronto last July with her young son, and spends most of her days in their basement apartment, reliving moments from her 28 months in captivity.

“They told us they would help us with psychologist,” she said. “We haven’t see anything from them. Aren’t we human?”

The head of the settlement agency in Toronto, Mario Calla, said that it had been relying on family doctors to find psychological help for their refugee patients, and that the organization was introducing a support group now.

In Calgary, refugee workers put extra money toward rent so that they could find Yazidis apartments close to one another, for community. In one case, 45 live on one snow-swept street in the city’s southwest quadrant. The workers put on Yazidi-only English classes for the refugees’ comfort.

Still, none of this was enough. So, in August a mental health therapist began a “wellness” program, tailor-made for the Yazidis. The women are taught basic coping strategies, like smelling essential oils and cross-body exercises, said to connect the two sides of the brain.

Canada Letter

In November, the organization hired a third crisis counselor to offer one-on-one therapy. Few, however, have taken her up on it — not even Jihan.

“We all have mental issues,” said Jihan, over dinner with five Yazidi neighbors. The names of seven loved ones — all taken by ISIS — are crudely tattooed across her chest, arms and hands.

For her, the tattooing was an act of resistance, which she did while imprisoned in Raqqa, using a sewing needle, ash and another inmate’s breast milk. “We all think a lot about what happened to us,” she said.

Jihan was diagnosed with conversion disorder, a catchall description for neurological symptoms not explained by medical causes.

Since she arrived in Canada last June, and began taking anxiety medication, her seizure-like attacks have been greatly reduced — from four a day that each might last hours, to one every couple months. She doesn’t want therapy.

A lack of interpreters who speak Kurmanji — the Yazidi dialect of Kurdish — has proved a hindrance too. A year ago, before the arrival of the Islamic State victims, there were only 1,000 to 1,500 Yazidis in Canada, according to government estimates. Sixteen Kurmanji-speaking interpreters have been hired, but that’s not enough.

Many Yazidis refuse to speak Arabic or use translation services offered by Muslim Kurds who speak Badini, a similar dialect of Kurdish.

“My heart won’t let me tell a Muslim person what happened to me,” said Kamo, another Yazidi refugee, who survived more than slavery.

Her husband and four of her seven children were pried from her and she doesn’t know their fate. The memory of the last time she saw her eldest daughter, Suzan, brings her to tears. The 14-year-old girl was screaming as ISIS soldiers surrounded her and stripped off her clothing, she said.

“I escaped from these people two years ago, but I still feel captured,” said Kamo, 38. “My heart is not with me. It is with my kids.”

Stories like this are why the Mosaic clinic introduced workshops on something called vicarious trauma for its own staff who work with Yazidi refugees.

“I’ve never heard such depravity,” said Dr. Coaklee of the clinic. “Trying to reconcile your worldview with what you are hearing, you have to change your worldview. There is no justice and life isn’t fair.”

Mr. Birjandian, the chief executive officer of the Calgary immigration society, is among a crescendo of refugee workers calling on the government to expand the Yazidi resettlement program by bringing over not only spouses and dependent children of refugees but extended family members.

“Our fear is the government will be scared of this population and won’t want to touch them,” he said. “But really, this is the population we should help — if we call what we are doing a humanitarian effort.”

“They are the most traumatized,” he added, “and the most resilient.”

Across the country in Toronto, a small group of Yazidi women and teenagers gathered on a Saturday in January for their group therapy session run by One Free World International, a nonprofit human rights organization that stepped in when it saw the local settlement agency wasn’t offering trauma counseling.

“I am always in pain,” said Adiba, a Yazidi who was captured by ISIS and sold six times before escaping. “I’m never comfortable.” She is often in tears. She contemplates suicide.

“Wherever I go, my life will be hard,” said Adiba, 28. “What I saw, it wasn’t something small or simple.”

Adiba’s family calms her down when she has seizures.

Since she escaped, she has suffered seizure-like attacks. Normally, her family surrounds her, massaging her hands and holding her body until she calms. “We all start crying until we feel better, all together,” said her sister, Shirin.

But last September, a family friend rushed her to the nearby Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital where she was treated as a suicidal patient and restrained — her ankles and wrists bound to the hospital gurney.

“It was the lack of understanding of how to deal with sex slaves and victims of ISIS,” said Majed El Shafie, One Free World’s founder. “They were doing exactly what ISIS did before raping her. That really broke my heart.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 17, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: ISIS Victims Strain Largess Of Canadians.

Kurdish women call for a global women’s movement
Kurdish women call on women around the world to come together to build a radical movement for women's liberation

March 5, 2018

To the women of the world:

Let us turn the 21st century into the era of women’s freedom!

From the mountains of Kurdistan, in the lands where society developed with the leadership of women, we salute you with our great freedom, passion, ambition, and unbreakable struggle. From Rojava’s neighborhoods to South America’s forests, from Europe’s streets to Africa’s plains, from the Middle East’s valleys to North America’s plazas, from Asia’s mountains to Australia’s plateaus; with our love which knows no borders and with our most revolutionary feelings, we embrace all women who intensify the struggle for freedom and equality.

On the occasion of 8th March 2018, International Women’s Struggle Day, we commemorate all women, who have given their lives in the quest for freedom, in the resistance against enslavement, exploitation, and occupation. From Rosa Luxemburg to Sakine Cansız, from Kittur Rani Chennamma to Berta Caceres, from Ella Baker to Henan from Raqqa, from Djamila Bouhired, from Palestinian Sana’a Mehaidli to Nadia Anjuman, we are ever grateful to the immortal warriors of the women’s liberation struggle. Their light rips through the darkness imposed on us; on the path that they have illuminated before us, we march towards freedom. Along with them, we commemorate all women, who have been murdered over the course of a five thousand year old patriarchal order, through all sorts of male violence, wars, state terror, colonialist occupations, religiously masked powers, men’s gangs, husbands, and so-called lovers. It is their memory which raises our unbreakable determination to put an end to feminicide, which constitutes the longest war in the world.

Dear women, comrades, sisters,

We are in the midst of a historic process. The patriarchal system, as the age peer of statist civilization, is undergoing a deep structural crisis. As women, we must diagnose this systemic crisis with its causes and consequences, establish strong analyses and develop perspectives that will accelerate our struggle. For, just as the system’s structural crisis constitutes great threats to women around the world, this situation also offers opportunities to guarantee women’s freedom, opportunities which perhaps only come once in a century. We even say: we can turn the 21st century into the era of women’s liberation! This is not a dream or a utopia. It is a reality. But in order for it to come true, we must create a women’s liberation program for the 21st century.

For this, we must first of all fully grasp in their entirety the fundamental contradictions and attributes of the era we live in. What possibilities and risks do these contradictions and attributes constitute from the perspective of women’s liberation? What sort of responsibilities must we shoulder in this regard, as global women’s organizations and movements?

The world system entered the 21st century in a deep crisis, using terms such as “New World Order”.

In the quest to re-organize itself as a way out of the crisis, capitalist modernity first attempted to apply this new order in the Middle East under the name of “Great Middle East Project”. We name the process which started with the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, continued with the Arab Spring in North Africa and intensified in the last years in Syria, Iraq, and Kurdistan “Third World War”. Whilst the nation-state regimes in the Middle East, which were created by Western states one hundred years ago to permanently reproduce chaos and crisis, try to protect the status quo, the foreign powers attempt to divide the region among themselves anew.

Our labelling of the current period of the Middle East as “Third World War” is not only an attempt to emphasize the involvement of international powers. More than that, it is clear that capitalist modernity’s re-building of itself in the Middle East will have consequences on a global scale. Indeed, the contemporary world system or capitalist modernity is not a phenomenon of the last 500 years, as in fact, its seed took root in the form of the first state 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia and has ever since undergone different transformations to sustain itself until today.

For this reason, defending the Democratic Confederal Solution as the “Third Way” against the regional states’ status quo-ism and foreign powers’ re-designed interventionism constitutes a fundamental responsibility to all of us, and it exceeds the borders of Syria and the Middle East. The system of Democratic Autonomy that is currently being built up with the leadership of women in Rojava and northern Syria in the conditions of war and resistance is the sole solution model that has the potential to end the crises, chaos, contradictions, and conflicts that have been systematically reproducing themselves in the region for the last century. Not only did the nation-states that were created together with artificially drawn borders after World War I not reflect the region’s ethnic, cultural, religious, and societal make-up, they also aimed at blasting our millennia-old culture of common life. Today in northern Syria, for the first time, a system is being constructed which is based on women’s equal and free participation, ethnic and religious pluralism, and participatory democracy. As a democratic alternative, this model poses a solution to the obsolete issues of the Middle East, against the masculine, sexist, monistic, nationalist, sectarian regimes, which have been fueled by the global system for decades.

This is the reason why the Turkish state, which has the second largest army in NATO, launched an operation against Rojava/northern Syria’s Afrin canton on January 20, 2018 with all its force. This is also the reason why foreign powers such as the USA, Russia, and the EU are not obstructing the military attacks on Afrin. Because in Afrin, a democratic society model with a core of women’s liberation is being constructed. The resistance of Afrin is women’s uprising against capitalist modernist life. The city and surrounding villages of Afrin resist fascism, misogyny, the uprooting of nature and cultural values, and animosity between peoples. It is clear that it is not only the Turkish state and their recruited Islamist gang allies clashing with the Women’s and People’s Defense Units in Afrin. In essence, in a tiny piece of geography like Afrin, two world systems, two ideologies, two future projects are clashing on a colossal lever. While one is based on women’s liberation, ecology, and pluralism, the other is made of misogyny, male power, monism, domination, and exploitation. One shines with all the colours of life, while the other represents darkness. Therefore, it is vitally important and meaningful for women of the world to claim and defend the rising resistance against fascism in Afrin. Because what is under attack there and what is being defended there are universal values of women’s freedom. On this occasion, as KJK, we salute and congratulate the freedom fighters who shoulder the leadership of the Afrin resistance, as well as the people of Afrin, who heroically defend their lands against the invaders. Women and unity will win. Fascism will lose.

The ongoing process of revolution in Rojava and northern Syria shows this truth to all of us: true revolutions must be women’s revolutions. Revolutionary attempts that are not based on women’s liberation have no chance of succeeding. The fundamental reason for the inability of socialist and revolutionary movements of the 20th century to bring about desired aims despite their countless sacrifices, dedication, and strong programs is the fact that they have not put women’s liberation at the center of their battles. However, in fact, the women’s issue is not a side concern, but lies at the basis of all other issues. Women are the first oppressed, enslaved, exploited, colonized, and dominated class. All other forms of exploitation begin after the exploitation of women. For this reason, leading an effective struggle against the hegemonic system will only be possible within the framework of a strong liberation ideology and program, wherein autonomously and separately organizing women play an active role. Our 30-year-long ideological and practical struggle experience as the Kurdistan Women’s Freedom Movement shows us this.

Dear women, dear comrades,

Since the seed of the global system based on capitalist modernity lies in the Middle East, specifically in Mesopotamia, the present systemic crisis also shows itself more nakedly and more directly in this region. But as the crisis experienced by the patriarchal-capitalist world system has a global quality, there is no land spared from feeling this crisis, no lake, mountain, or river left untouched, no society that was not affected by attempts at domination. However, those most affected by the crisis are women. This in turn is directly connected to capitalist modernity’s sexist character. The system is trying to overcome its crisis by exploiting and abusing women ideologically, and materially even more forcefully. In fact, this is how it tries to secure and guarantee its existence.

Against common claims, liberalism, as one of the fundamental ideologies of the nation-state, has not made any positive contribution to women’s liberation and equality. On the contrary, especially in the era of liberalism, sexism has been developed and used as an ideological element. It is a big lie that liberalism liberates women. As a matter of fact, the commodification of woman in terms of her entire body, personality, and soul constitutes the most dangerous form of enslavement.

In this context, capitalist modernity constitutes the highest stage of the patriarchal system. At no point in the history of civilization have woman been subjected to exploitation to the degree that she has been in the era of capitalist modernity. From the perspective of women, there exists a colonization that has increased a thousand-fold in depth and scope. The sexism in the nation-state society, whilst assigning man maximum power, has turned society into the lowest colony in the personage of the woman. In this dimension, in civilization history in general and in capitalist modernity in particular, the woman is in the position of being the oldest and the newest colonized nation. From the perspective of the hegemonic system, one reason for the unsustainable crisis is the colonization of women.

Women and women’s liberation constitute the fundamental opposing power of the patriarchal capitalist world system. At the heart of all forms of power, hegemony, exploitation, looting, enslavement, violence, and oppression that the system creates itself upon relies on the domination of woman. The slavery and ownership imposed on women, step by step spread over society as a whole. That is the reason why the women’s liberation struggle, of all anti-system struggles, has the greatest power to shake the foundations of the male hegemonic system. And in fact, it is this dynamic which unveils the crisis that the system experiences. As women, we must see clearly the power that we possess and the effect that we create.

In this sense, the massive increase of violence and attacks against women worldwide is directly connected to this crisis situation and to the relationship between the patriarchal capitalist world system and women’s liberation. The sexist system, based on exploitation, attacks the woman, who poses the greatest challenge and danger to its power. In fact, we are talking about a systematic war of aggression. The form of this war of aggression may differ on the local level, but we are essentially facing a universal phenomenon. We must see the connections between gang rapes in Asia and gendered violence in the USA. In a holistic manner, we must examine the killings of women in Latin America, which have reached the level of massacre, as well as the kidnapping and enslavement of women and girls by religiously-masked gangs in Africa and in the Middle East. Together, we must analyse the rise of fascist, misogynist regimes and their seizure of the rights attained by women as a result of their struggles. And we have to be fully aware of the fact that this war, led by the patriarchal system on a global scale, is trying to suffocate the women’s liberation quest and struggle.

For, perhaps, the male dominated system has never before been so pressured in the history of civilization. Its foundations have never been shaken to such a degree. Likewise, from the perspective of women, the conditions for securing liberation have never been so ripe. The possibilities to realize the second great revolution of women have never reached this stage. That is why we are undergoing a historical period. Great opportunities are available, but the dangers are just as great.

If that is the case, what must we do, if we want to confront these dangers and effectively evaluate the possibilities to secure the liberation of women and through that, the liberation of all of society? How can we defend ourselves against the increasing attacks of the system? In this sense, self-defense is not to be understood as passive. Active self-defense is required. The greatest and most effective form of self-defense is creating free life and constricting the veins of the male-dominated system. We must make life unbearable to the system, not the other way around. But in order for this to happen, we must carry our struggle to a higher level. On a global scale, the women’s liberation struggle has created a strong foundation in terms of both theoretical and practical dimensions. But now is the time to make a move.

As the Kurdistan Women’s Freedom Movement, we have been engaged in a great struggle for more than 30 years to deepen the Women’s Liberation Ideology, to reveal women’s self-defense power and consciousness, to secure women’s equal and free participation in the political sphere, to overcome sexism in all spheres of life and to accelerate women’s freedom. On this path, we always understood the great importance and meaning of sharing our results and conclusions with all of the women in the world. And now, with great excitement, joy, and determination, in order to turn the 21st century into the era of the liberated woman, in order to bring about the second great woman’s revolution, we aim to live up to our mission in the universal women’s liberation movement.

Dear women,

It is absolutely essential that we organize on a universal level to create a women’s free and equal global system against the sexist, patriarchal, capitalist world system. One crucial tactic of the hegemonic system is division. Our power, however, derives from unity. Without rejecting the differences between us, while protecting our own particularities and colors, there is nothing that a – if not mosaic-like, then marble art-like – global women’s freedom struggle, cannot achieve. For this to happen, we must develop democratic women’s alliances. We must develop ways, methods, and perspectives appropriate to the conditions, features, and needs of the 21st century. Essentially, we must all together develop the 21st century women’s liberation program.

As the Kurdistan Women’s Freedom Movement, we owe our revolution’s development as a women’s revolution to our leader Abdullah Öcalan, who, 19 years ago, was kidnapped by the conspiracy of the man-state gang organization called NATO and is still held hostage under historically unprecedented isolation conditions in Turkey. It is Öcalan’s system analyses, his liberation perspectives, his personal transformation, his endless efforts for the development of the women’s freedom movement that make up the power behind this dynamic which now inspires people all around the world. His confinement on a prison island for the last 19 years and his complete isolation from the outside world for the past nearly 3 years are connected to the influence of his ideas. But thoughts cannot be isolated; free spirits cannot be held hostage.

The following excerpt from Öcalan’s perspectives, developed under isolation conditions in prison, are enlightening from the perspective of the universality of the women’s liberation struggle: “Without a doubt, the exposure of women’s status is one dimension of the issue. But what is more important concerns the issue of liberation. In other words, the solution of the issue carries far greater importance. It is often said that society’s general freedom level can be measured by the freedom of women. What is right and important to consider is how this statement can be filled. Women’s liberation and equality does not merely determine society’s freedom and equality. For this, the necessary theory, program, organization, and action plans are required. More importantly, it shows that there cannot be democratic politics without women and moreover, that in fact, class politics will remain inadequate, and that peace and nature cannot be developed and protected.”

As the Kurdistan Women’s Freedom Movement, on the occasion of 8th March, 2018, we call on the women of the world: let us come together and jointly develop the necessary theory, program, organization, and action plans for women’s liberation. With the consciousness that only an organized struggle can bring about results, let us increase our organization in all spheres of life. Let us collectivize our consciousness, power of analysis, experiences of struggle, and perspectives in order to create our democratic alliances. Let us not struggle separate from each other – let us struggle together. And in the course, let us turn the 21st century into the era of women’s liberation! Because this is exactly the right time! It is the time for women’s revolution!

Everywhere is Afrin, everywhere is resistance!

Long live the universal women’s freedom struggle!

Jin, Jiyan, Azadî!


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