Freed from ISIS, Yazidi Women Remain Trapped by Trauma

Some of those working with Yazidi former slaves say they have never before seen such severe psychological trauma. As part of our “Women and Jihad” series, experts tell us there are not enough resources to provide long-term care to all of the survivors, who could take a lifetime to recover.

by Alexandra Bradford, News Deeply, March 14, 2017

Clothing that had been worn by a Yazidi girl who was enslaved by ISIS militants. Healthcare professionals who speak with former captives of the jihadist group say the trauma those women and girls suffer is “on a different level” from other trauma cases. AP/Maya Alleruzzo

Last January, Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, arrived at the Dohuk camp for displaced people near the Kurdish region of

Iraq. Wheeler was there to interview Yazidi women and girls who had been kidnapped from their homes in Sinjar and held as sex slaves by the terror group known as the Islamic State (ISIS).

Wheeler, who interviewed 22 Yazidi women and girls, has spent her career documenting war crimes against women. Yet she says the accounts of sexual violence she heard from the Yazidi survivors continue to haunt her.

“It is some of the most distressing work I have ever done, and my colleagues who have also interviewed the survivors say that same thing,” she says.

Wheeler says the abuse inflicted on Yazidi women and girls “is on a different level” from other cases she has documented. The women she met had been kidnapped and sold in slave markets to ISIS soldiers who then raped them, often multiple times a day. In some cases, the women would be resold to another fighter who would continue the sexual abuse. Wheeler spoke with four women who were sold at least four times before they managed to escape.

“It’s just horrible, [ISIS] treat people like animals,” she says. “All the women we spoke to were exhibiting some type of symptoms from the trauma they suffered.”

Those symptoms include severe depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, insomnia and, when they finally do sleep, nightmares in which they relive their sexual abuse.

In February 2015, the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg offered to help by agreeing to take in 1,100 refugees, including hundreds of the most traumatized Yazidi women and girls. The program, which runs for three years and will cost the German government a total of $107 million, provides Yazidi survivors with specialized psychological care and German residency for two years.

But the program is now at full capacity, which means hundreds of Yazidi women and girls who didn’t make it into the program and those who have only recently escaped from ISIS remain in the internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, where treatment for mental health is severely lacking.

We have seen many women who feel that they can’t live with the aftermath of what happened to them, they think the only way to escape is through killing themselves.

Psychotherapist Salah Ahmad has been working with trauma victims in Iraq since 2005, when he established the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights to provide mental health care to Iraqis who were tortured by the Ba’athist party. Ahmad has spent much of the last two years traveling between IDP camps in Dohuk Kurdistan to help treat Yazidi women and girls.

Ahmad says they display some of the worst cases of post-traumatic stress disorder he has ever seen. “To be sold, to be enslaved, to be raped many times … they can’t accept all this violence,” he says.

Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon.

“We have seen many women who feel that they can’t live with the aftermath of what happened to them; they think the only way to escape is through killing themselves,” says Ahmad.

In November 2015, Ahmad established the Jiyan Clinic, a psychosomatic trauma clinic solely for Yazidi women and children in Iraqi Kurdistan. He found many trauma survivors were hesitant to recount their abuse to other men, especially Muslim men, so he employs an all-female staff.

The patients spend at least three months living in the clinic, where they undergo daily treatment, which includes individual and group therapy, and EMDR – or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy – a technique designed to alter the way the brain stores and recollects traumatic memories. The women can also take part in therapeutic activities like yoga and gardening.

Since its opening, the clinic has treated 80 female Yazidi survivors of ISIS, but Ahmad says he doesn’t have the resources to provide treatment for all the Yazidi women who need help.

Ali Muthanna, regional director in Iraq for the AMAR Foundation, is also struggling to provide support to all the women who need it. He spends the majority of his time at Khanke Camp, an IDP camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he treats the 18,500 Yazidis who have been living there since the ISIS attack in 2014 forced an estimated half a million Yazidis to flee their homes. Among Muthanna’s patients are also around 500 Yazidi women who escaped ISIS.

Lamiya Aji Bashar, an 18-year-old Yazidi girl who escaped her ISIS captors, talks to the press in northern Iraq in May 2016. Healthcare experts and human rights advocates say there are not nearly enough resources to help all the Yazidi women and girls who have been enslaved, tortured and raped by ISIS fighters. (AP/Balint Szlanko)

Through its Escaping Darkness project, AMAR is working to establish a network of 10 mental health facilities to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder Yazidi women grapple with. The foundation is also working with psychiatrists to train local GPs in psychological care, showing them how to spot and manage psychiatric issues.

But AMAR faces huge challenges, not least the fact that Iraq’s medical infrastructure has been decimated by years of conflict.

“There is a severe shortage of financial resources, the drop in oil prices has created a situation where the government is unable to provide medical requirements to cover the needs of IDPs,” Muthanna says.

And the longer women go without medication and treatment, the worse their condition can become.

“Those suffering from psychological disorders need long-term treatment,” Muthanna says, adding that drugs for treating symptoms of stress, depression and trauma need to be taken continuously to work.

“The magnitude of the problem is beyond the capacity of the U.N. agencies and Iraqi and Kurdistan governments to respond to.”

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According to the New England Journal of Medicine, rape is about four times more likely to result in diagnosable PTSD than combat. I don't think most people know or believe that. If they do, they are still more likely to demand services for military vets than for rape victims. And more likely to believe that vets deserve services and women don't.

Please read this article, here are two quotes:
"According to the New England Journal of Medicine, rape is about four times more likely to result in diagnosable PTSD than combat"...
"And because there are currently no enduring cultural narratives that allow women to look upon their survival as somehow heroic or honorable, the potential for enduring damage is even greater."

The Brett Kavanaugh case shows we still blame women for the sins of men
Rebecca Solnit, 21 Sep 2018

From Anita Hill to the victims of Cosby and Weinstein, women are disbelieved, powerful men excused. When will we learn?

We have been here before. We have been here over and over in an endless, Groundhog Day loop about how rape and sexual abuse happen: offering the same explanations, hearing the same kind of stories from wave after wave of survivors, hearing the same excuses and refusals to comprehend from people who are not so sure that women are endowed with inalienable rights and matter as much as men – or, categorically, have as much credibility. We are, with the case of Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s nominee for the US supreme court, who has been accused of sexual assault, revisiting ground worn down from years of pacing. Kavanaugh denies Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he forcibly held her down and assaulted her when both were at high school. We have only the accounts of the participants, and these, it seems, will always contradict each other. The allegation and the denial put us back in a familiar scenario.

The last five years have been an exhaustive and exhausting crash course in how abusers and rapists (and attempted rapists) and their victims behave, and how they are perceived and treated, but the learning curve of the wilfully oblivious resembles the period at the end of this sentence.

We know that there is virtually nothing that a straight white man can do to discredit himself

We know why victims don’t report rapes. We know that a minority of rapes are reported; and of those, a small percentage result in arrests; and of those arrests, a small percentage result in prosecutions. Only a very small percentage result in convictions and sentences. We know that the woman who accused the basketball player Kobe Bryant of rape years ago received death threats and extensive character assassination, as did some of Judge Roy Moore’s accusers, one of whom had her house burned down after she spoke up.

We know that women have been portrayed, ever since Eve offered Adam an apple, as temptresses, more responsible for men’s acts than men themselves are, and that various religions still inculcate this view, and in recent times various judges and journalists have acceded to it, even blaming female children for “seducing” their adult abuser.

We know that we – well, some of us – are just beginning to emerge from an era of women being routinely discredited, shamed, blamed, and disbelieved when they speak up about sexual assault. We are, of course, seeing it again with Professor Ford. Her credibility and character were being preemptively attacked even before we knew who she was; she was promptly doxxed when the Washington Post revealed her identity. We know why the more than 60 women who say Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them, from the 1960s through recent years, mostly didn’t speak up before 2014, and how those who did were disbelieved and punished while Cosby’s career sailed on. We know why Harvey Weinstein’s alleged victims didn’t speak up, and how a whole apparatus existed – of threats, lawyers, spies – to keep them silent. We know that the teenage victims of the gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar who spoke up were, for the most part, not believed by the school, by the police or even by their parents. We know that a groundswell of feminism made it possible for many women to be heard for the first time, starting last October with the cataclysm of testimony we call #MeToo. Why should we now expect an ordinary schoolgirl to have succeeded where Olympic athletes and Hollywood actors failed to get a hearing or justice?

We have seen this all before. We saw it 27 years ago with the discrediting and harassment of Anita Hill. Hill was called “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” for testifying against the supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas, and that one of the ways she was smeared was as a fantasist: “Do you think it a possibility that Professor Hill imagined or fantasised Judge Thomas saying those things she has charged him with?” said Senator Arlen Specter. “Her story’s too contrived. It’s so slick it doesn’t compute,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, blaming her for being coherent, as he would have undoubtedly done for being incoherent, and then he offered some truly loopy reasons why he thought she fabricated her reluctantly told tale. Some of the same people – notably Hatch – are now gearing up to attack Ford.

We know that the worst things that happen to us can be among the most indelible, so the argument that the accuser can’t possibly remember events from the early 1980s doesn’t hold up. In the late 1990s, I knew a Marine lieutenant colonel who was haunted by the civilian he had, under direct orders from a general, shot during the Korean war more than 40 years before, in circumstances he described in detail to me. A few years ago, a woman in her 60s, moved by the feminist conversation we’re having now, wrote to me in detail of her rape in the 1960s – the first time she had unpacked the trauma she couldn’t escape.

I asked David J Morris, the Marine corps veteran and author of The Evil Hours, a powerful book on PTSD, about trauma and memory, and he replied: “Most men have no idea how truly traumatic sexual assault is. The science on the subject is pretty clear: according to the New England Journal of Medicine, rape is about four times more likely to result in diagnosable PTSD than combat. Think about that for a moment – being raped is four times more psychologically disturbing than going off to a war and being shot at and blown up. And because there are currently no enduring cultural narratives that allow women to look upon their survival as somehow heroic or honorable, the potential for enduring damage is even greater. A traumatic event like the one Christine Blasey Ford is alleging fractures the self, destroys one’s sense of time and place in the universe and generally changes a person completely. It is literally an encounter with death. To suggest that she wouldn’t remember it flies in the face of reason. No sane person would suggest that someone wouldn’t remember the time they were in an airplane crash. From a neuroscientific standpoint, being raped is more traumatic than war, not to mention plane crashes.” Ford reports fearing she might be killed in the conflict.

We know that as a society we hold people responsible for “youthful indiscretions”. The same Republican politicians who have been trying to dismiss an allegation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh as boys-will-be-boys stuff support a president who, in 1989, placed full-page ads in four newspapers calling for the death penalty for the five non-white boys – two of them 15, one 14 – falsely convicted of the 1989 Central Park jogger rape and beating. (Donald Trump even asserted they were guilty in 2016, long after their exoneration.) We treat many juveniles accused of crimes as adults, sentence some to life without parole, and saddle them with felony convictions and/or put them on registers of sex offenders for life. We do not excuse them for being drunk or high. The infamous Stanford rapist Brock Turner was 19 when he was arrested for felony sexual assault, banned from the Stanford campus, and given a six-month sentence and a lifetime on the sex offenders registry.

We know that too many men are full of empathy – for perpetrators, not victims – when stories such as Kavanaugh’s emerge, and that apparently they cannot imagine what it is like to be a woman who has been assaulted, because they’ve never tried. We know that Kavanaugh is not facing punishment for a crime, just consideration of whether he deserves not only a reward but power over the lives of all Americans. This week in the Atlantic, the writer Caitlin Flanagan told of her own near-rape. It was an exceptional story – in that the perpetrator approached her to apologise wholeheartedly when they were both still young. Her story was about an incident in the late 1970s that she remembers with painful clarity – and she says that she believes Professor Ford. I believe in redemption and forgiveness – as things that must come after atonement and transformation.

Kavanaugh accuser willing to testify if terms 'ensure her safety'

We know who lies about rape, routinely, regularly: rapists. Criminals tend to deny their crimes. Which doesn’t mean everyone accused is guilty, only that claiming innocence is a habit of the innocent and guilty alike, so it doesn’t tell us much. We know that, on the other hand, false rape accusations are extremely rare (and that they are often lurid stories about recent events, not about a fumbling attempt decades ago). We know this witness was reluctant to come forward and that she was essentially forced out by the journalists pursuing her after details of her letter emerged. We know multiple people vouch that she told the story long before Kavanaugh’s nomination.

We know there is virtually nothing a straight white man can do to discredit himself, especially if he has elevated status. We routinely see plagiarists, domestic violence perpetrators, liars, thieves, inappropriate masturbators, gropers, and incompetent men put forward as reliable sources and respectable citizens. Ken Starr took sexual assault very seriously when he let the Whitewater investigation into Bill Clinton veer over into Clinton’s sexual misconduct. Yet he overlooked sexual assault when, as president of Baylor University, he was responsible for protecting female students. In 2016 the university fired him after an independent report showed a “fundamental failure” to respond to student sexual assault allegations. Now, on Kavanaugh, Starr is treated as a credible source. He told a news site: “I’ve known him since 1994. I’ve worked alongside him – this is so wildly out of character.”

We’ve heard men testify like this before – for example, in 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s pal Bernard-Henri Lévy asserted, “the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster” his victim described. Other women came forward to report being sexually assaulted by the monster Lévy had not met. We have been here before.

We are going to go there again, when the case goes to a Senate hearing. Let us proceed to that drama with what we have learned.

'They raped us; they killed our men': Psychologist helps Yazidi women recover from trauma of ISIS captivity

Yazidi women and families are finding security and therapy in Germany
Nahlah Ayed · CBC News · Posted: Jan 09, 2017

Farida Khalaf, 20, lost her father, older brother, friends and the quiet life she knew in village in northern Iraq to ISIS. She was enslaved by the Islamist militants along with hundreds of other women and girls. Her four-month odyssey in the hands of several ISIS operatives took her to the heart of their territory: Raqqa, Syria. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Lodged in the memory of psychologist Dr. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan are the stories of 1,400 girls and women who were once enslaved by ISIS.

The German trauma expert personally interviewed each of them, hearing countless stories of torture and rape. It was, by any measure, a grim and daunting undertaking.

All were Yazidis, a long-persecuted minority. One of the youngest was just eight years old.

"She was, for 10 months, in the hands of the [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and was raped hundreds of times," said Kizilhan, 51, a German psychologist and professor with Kurdish roots.

But he couldn't help all the women.

His agonizing task was to assist German officials who travelled with him to northern Iraq to choose which of the women would have the life-altering opportunity to move to Germany for treatment.

Psychotherapy means to give the feeling "yes, we have some cruel, evil persons, but the world is not all evil."
- Dr. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan

Even as the rest of Germany grappled with accommodating a million asylum seekers in 2015, the government of Baden-Wurttemberg state had unilaterally committed to bringing traumatized Yazidi women and providing them with therapy and housing.

Under a special program, several hundred women and their families — 1,100 people in all — were ultimately airlifted over a year for a rare chance at recovery from hellish post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

They live in more than 20 secret shelters across the state.
German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan travelled to camps in northern Iraq to choose which victims of torture and rape would have the life-altering opportunity to move to Germany for treatment. 'In Germany, they have security. We can give them orientation and stabilization,' he says. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

As he's taken on the role of therapist to many of them now, Kizilhan's task has only grown: not just helping them overcome deep trauma but also restoring the women's faith in humanity.

"In this case," he explained, "people lost their trust in humanity, and psychotherapy means to give the feeling 'yes, we have some cruel, evil persons, but the world is not all evil.'"

Unsurprisingly, that is a hard sell among the women.

Ask Farida Khalaf. She was a schoolgirl when ISIS fighters descended on her village on Aug. 15, 2013. They killed the men and took the women away, the younger among them to be bought and sold and appallingly abused.

In the process Khalaf lost her father, older brother, friends, and the quiet life she knew. Her four-month odyssey in the hands of several ISIS operatives took her to the heart of their territory: Raqqa, Syria. Where, despite repeatedly resisting, she was raped.
Khalaf has the name of her village, Kocho, tattooed on her hand. The village no longer exists. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"We used to wash their clothes and do everything for them. We were slaves for them," she said.

She often refused their demands and suffered for it — once beaten so badly she lost sight in one eye and couldn't walk for two months. After several attempts to escape, she made it back to northern Iraq where most of her village's survivors — including, it turned out, her little brother — were then living in refugee camps.

Khalaf, now 20, was among the women chosen to settle in Baden-Wurttemburg, with her mother and brother. They live in a secret shelter on a quiet street, embedded among other nondescript German homes.

No longer exists

When we visited (on condition its location be kept secret), the home was buzzing with the sounds of lunch preparations and children playing.

Khalaf's clinical retelling of a story that involved several attempts at suicide is devoid of emotion — until she speaks of home, a village that no longer exists.

Its name, Kocho, is tattooed on her hand.

"Even now when I try, I can't smile with my whole heart," she said in an interview.

"They raped us, they killed our men, and did all that only because we are Yazidis."
Demanded conversion

Yazidis are ethnic Kurds living mostly in northern Iraq. Their religion borrows elements of Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism.

ISIS extremists saw Yazidis as devil worshippers, and when they invaded, they demanded the Yazidis convert. The Yazidis refused. Thousands were killed and displaced, prompting an international bombing campaign that has yet to entirely stamp out ISIS.

In acts of symbolic support, the UN and recently Canada, declared the events acts of genocide. Canada committed to taking in some of the traumatized women, but Ottawa has yet to announce details.
Khalaf's keeps photos of family and friends, many of whom she has lost. 'Even now when I try, I can't smile with my whole heart,' she says. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

There are estimates that as many as 3,400 Yazidi women remain in ISIS captivity. Hundreds more languish in refugee camps with the stigma of having been enslaved — and without psychological treatment.

"I myself documented about 60 cases of women who committed suicide," said Kizilhan, who spent 20 years researching in Northern Iraq.

"We shouldn't forget they belong to a patriarchal society: cases of honour and dishonour, and they will not have the feeling [of being] accepted by this society."

Despite that, several survivors now in Germany, including Khalaf, are telling their stories publicly in an effort to help save some of those left behind.
Nadia Murad has called on Canada to take in as many women and families possible. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Nadia Murad, one of the most outspoken, called on Canada to take in as many women and families possible, to help build a sustainable community.

"It is unacceptable for a woman to be rescued from captivity from ISIS to come and not have a place to live, to be put in refugee camps," she said in an interview.

Those refugee camps are where Kizilhan's original, agonizing interviews took place.

The women had to meet three criteria:

They had once been held by ISIS.
They suffered psychological and medical consequences.
The state had the know-how to treat them.

Part of the state's plan included training psychologists and interpreters. But how can anyone overcome such deep trauma? Are the women treatable?

Kizilhan says yes — but only if they can leave the camps of northern Iraq behind.
Kizilhan interviews a Yazidi refugee. 'They should know that they are not alone,' he says. (Courtesy Sonderkontingent Baden-Württemberg)

"In Germany they have security. We can give them orientation and stabilization … and if you don't have that, you can't start treatment.

"The main idea of treatment is not to [teach] them how to forget it. It's a part of their lives."

But they can be taught to overcome their trauma, he says, perhaps in as little as two to three years.

Kizilhan says they are making progress.

Khalaf is recovering and has written a book. She has learned to tell her story in German.

There hasn't been a single case of suicide among the women.

"They are motivated to survive," says Kizilhan, because they've been rescued.

"This for me, also as a psychotherapist, is very important. They should know that they are not alone … we will stand behind them."

Traumatized Yazidi women face nightmarish healing process. Here's what Canadians can do to help.
By Jenny Uechi in News | October 5th 2018

This morning, Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from Iraq who was forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State, won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Congolese gynecologist and surgeon Denis Mukwege for "their efforts to end use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict."

It was a profound moment of recognition for the sexual violence perpetrated against Iraq's Yazidi minority. Over 6,000 women and girls were taken captive by Daesh (Islamic State) fighters, and many remain in captivity. They were forced into domestic and sexual servitude, passed from owner to owner like chattel across Iraq and Syria. Some, he said, were as young as nine and were raped up to 20 times daily.

The Yazidi women were described as "the most traumatized group yet to be admitted" to Canada.

In Canada, Rev. Majed El Shafie, a former Egyptian refugee and human rights advocate, has been working to aid Yazidi women by lobbying Ottawa resettle them in Canada, getting support from MPs across party lines, including Conservative Michelle Rempel and NDP MP Jenny Kwan.
Photo of Rev. Majeed El Shafie in Vancouver on September 28, 2018, by Jenny Uechi

His organization, the Toronto-based One Free World International, has also worked to free female Yazidi captives directly by bartering to help women escape from captors into safe havens. The organization also helps victims of IS overcome trauma once they arrive in Canada.

"These women are survivors — not just victims," said El Shafie, speaking at the Vancouver General Hospital to a room full of doctors and nurses who had gathered for a talk organized by the Vancouver-based Women Refugees Advocacy Project on September 28.

Although the Canadian government resettled 1,300 Yazidis who were former captives of Islamic State, settlement workers have struggled in the face of the extreme suffering they suffered before coming here. El Shafie stressed that when it comes to Yazidi women and children, mental health support is as urgent and essential as providing shelter.

Flashbacks and nightmares

As El Shafie spoke, a thin, long-haired woman in a brown leather jacket wiped away tears. Adiba, a Yazidi woman who was in IS captivity and sold roughly six times over the course of a year by different male captors, arrived in Canada in 2016, and was still dealing with the psychological damage of sexual violence.

Her experiences were a prime example of how Yazidi women struggled in Canada due to misunderstandings.

Several months after arriving, Adiba had a breakdown at home and was taken to the Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital in Ontario. El Shafie remembers rushing to the hospital after calls for help, and was horrified to find Adiba being restrained to a bed, surrounded by male security guards.

"They'd tied Adiba's hands and feet to the bed," El Shafie said. "Each hand was tied, each leg was tied, with 10 men around. That's exactly what ISIS used to do before they raped her."

"I didn't think it was proper to do this with me, because of my experience," Adiba commented afterward, her eyes downcast. "They gave me injections that made it so that I couldn't stand up properly for a week." She and El Shafie felt that if she had been allowed to have her family in her room, and female nurses had approached her instead, she would not have panicked or feared for her life.

Eventually, El Shafie was able to get Adiba into weekly therapy sessions with three female psychologists, and has not had another meltdown since last year.

"Every week, I feel I'm getting better, I feel I'm getting stronger," Adiba said. She reiterated that she was comfortable speaking one-on-one with a female psychologist about her rape and captivity, but wouldn't feel the same with a male doctor.

When doctors asked El Shafie what they could have done differently, he said because her information sheet said she was a victim of war from Iraq, they could have considered the likelihood that she had been raped, and de-escalated the situation.

Although the federal government says refugees and asylum claimants have "basic coverage for mental health services" under the Interim Federal Health Program, getting Yazidi and other refugees mental health care is still a challenge. Yazidis are a minority whose language, Kurmanji Kurdish, is not spoken by many experts in Canada.

"Many survivors of Daesh have experienced significant mental and physical trauma," Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Shannon Ker told National Observer in an email. "To assist Service Provider Organizations with the settlement and integration needs of this population, the Department developed a Yazidi population profile detailing demographic, health and cultural considerations of this vulnerable population that was shared with the settlement organizers."

She said some government is working with settlement services to "meet the very acute needs of survivors of Daesh (IS)," with one group in Winnipeg, the Aurora Family Therapy Centre, developing a program specifically for the Yazidi program. According to a recent report, therapy sessions were arranged for Yazidi women and children in Toronto.

But Yazidi women often spend their first months in Canada without anyone ever introducing them to such help. El Shafie stressed that Yazidis aren't going to look up mental health clinics and knock on their door, given the challenges they face adjusting to a new country where they don't know the language.

Children often recover faster than adult women, even though it may take years. Dilveen, a Yazidi girl who courageously escaped her captor by mixing sleeping pills in his drink, now goes to school in Toronto. She speaks English, goes to school and is adjusting well to her surroundings.

Video documentary by CBC on Dilveen, an 11-year-old former Yazidi captive who now lives as a refugee with her family in Canada
The unique problem of sexual slavery

Much has been written about the struggle of Yazidi refugees to resettle.

A March 16 New York Times article about the Yazidi refugees included a quote from a Calgary-based refugee worker, who was a refugee himself and had spent years working to settle vulnerable newcomers. He'd worked with people from Kosovar Albanians to Burmese Karens to Thai refugee camps and Syrians displaced by the civil war.

But "nothing prepared him for the Yazidis," it said. Stories about what the Yazidis went through were so disturbing for resettlement workers that some are forced to seek treatment themselves to cope with vicarious trauma. The Yazidi women were described as "the most traumatized group yet to be admitted" to Canada.

El Shafie pointed to a three-pronged problem which he saw as unique to the Yazidi experience.

"The problem is the act of rape itself. Sex slavery means being sold 16, 17, 18 times. Some of the girls will be used as prostitutes," El Shafie said. "They will be forced to have sex with men around 20 times a night. Many of these girls will commit suicide. They will not be able to function without proper mental health care."

He said another, troubling problem is the lack of support and understanding from society. He remembers being infuriated by some people from the local community asking him why he is helping "ISIS hookers," as though the women had voluntarily agreed to sexual slavery.

The last problem, he said, was so-called "honour-killing," in which family members who bring shame to a family are killed — in the vast majority of cases, female victims are killed by a male family member. "Before we return the girls to their families, we have to really test the family to see if they would accept the girl back or not," El Shafie said.

He recalls a story of finding a young Yazidi woman captured by IS, and calling her brother, the lone survivor in her family, to ask if how he would react if he learned she were alive. The brother told him he would have to kill his sister, to restore the family's honour. El Shafie was indignant. "I told him, as a man, if you were the one who was taken as a sex slave, would you say the same thing?" Because of her brother's reaction, he had to take the woman to a safe home, rather than reunite her with her family.

"In many cases, the survivors come back with children. We had a woman in Canada who was pregnant from ISIS fighters, and she wanted to keep her child. People told her it was the son of the devil. But children don't carry the sins of the father. We can't blame the child. If the mother chose to get an abortion or take him to adoption, that would be completely her choice, but she wanted keep the child," El Shafie said. "We had to intervene because the community completely isolated her."
Yazidi women's extreme trauma and urgent need for mental health care

Part of the process of healing, El Shafie said, was to acknowledge the problem of rape suffered by Yazidi women, and to deal with it properly so that they could move forward in life.

One day several years ago in Iraqi Kurdistan, El Shafie was in a room with recently freed Yazidi captives. He was struck by the young age of one of the ex-captives, who said she was just nine years old and repeatedly raped by adults. El Shafie was asked by her mother not to get too close to her, because the girl was would start screaming if any male figure approached.

Shaken by the sight of the girl, El Shafie went outside to clear his thoughts. When he came back inside, he went on his knees in front of the women and apologized on behalf of his gender, for the abuse that had been inflicted on them by other men.

"Afterward, I felt a little hand on my back. It was this nine-year-old girl," El Shafie recalled. "All she needed to hear was [for a man to say] 'I'm sorry' to start the healing process."

In the years since, he has tried to stress the importance of psychological care for refugees, to help remove the stigma of sexual assault and of mental health treatment.

"We have to reassure the women and re-educate them that there is no shame in talking about this," he said. "There are 45 Yazidi families in Canada. We sat down with some of them and talked about the importance of mental health care. We told them, 'if you get hurt in your arm, why would you go to the doctor? When your soul gets hurt, where do you go?' Same concept."

"We can't expect government to do everything," he said. "Many people will tell you the Canadian government has let the Yazidi community down. Maybe that's true. But not the Canadian people. I saw the bus driver who took a Yazidi refugee family for their first ride and refused to take payment. I saw the cab driver, the babysitter, the neighbour who went and brought food. I saw people who gave them clothes and furniture. I saw the psychologists who took their time to see the women. I saw nurses who just finished a long shift —like 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — and yet they still come to see the Yazidi women to make sure they are fine."

But he says Canada must deal with the mental health wellness of its Yazidi refugees today if they are to live full lives contributing to society tomorrow. "If the government is smart enough, let's deal with the issue today," he said. "So we don't spend millions in the future. Solving the problem right now will resolve it in the future."

Trauma survivors 'can change society,' says psychologist helping Yazidi survivors of ISIS
Western society does not understand trauma, says Dr. Jan Kizilhan
CBC Radio · November 5, 2018

Dr. Jan Kizilhan has helped more than 1,000 Yazidi women resettle in Germany after escaping sexual slavery while in ISIS captivity. (Submitted by Jan Kizilhan)


Read Story Transcript

Warning: this story contains graphic details readers may find disturbing.

Survivors of trauma have the resilience to change our society for the better, according to a Kurdish-German psychologist who helps Yazidi survivors of ISIS sexual slavery.

Dr. Jan Kizilhan has visited dozens of refugee camps in Iraq on behalf of the German government, hand-picking the most vulnerable women to be relocated to Europe.

He told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about Randa, an 8-year-old girl whose father and grandfather had been killed by ISIS in front of her. She was then raped by the militants for eight months before escaping captivity.

When he offered to take her to Germany, she asked him if the country had schools.

'I know the Yazidis are going through hell': ISIS survivors in Canada plead for help for family left behind

He asked why, "and she said: 'I want to be one day like you, a doctor, and to help my own people.'"

"Trauma don't mean they are just sick and have to be in a bed," Kizilhan told Tremonti.

"[It] is also a chance to learn and to ... change the society."
When ISIS targetted Yazidi villages in northern Iraq in 2014, thousands of men were killed, while women and girls were sold into sexual slavery. Thousands more were displaced. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking, religious minority in Iraq. In August 2014, ISIS militants killed thousands of Yazidi men in northern Iraqi villages, sold women and girls into sexual slavery and took boys to raise as child soldiers.

Last year, the federal government pledged to resettle 1,200 ISIS survivors in Canada, with an emphasis on Yazidi families. A petition tabled in the House of Commons last week called on the government to provide more psychological support for those women.

In June, one of those new arrivals to Canada told The Current about the trauma she still suffered, knowing she had left family and friends behind.

Government must do more to help Yazidi refugees, says advocate

"I came to Canada, to safety, but I'm not at peace," said Basema, a Yazidi woman who escaped ISIS in 2017 and now lives in Toronto. "I know the Yazidis are going through hell."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Produced by Pacinthe Mattar.

Trauma survivors 'can change society,' says psychologist helping Yazidi survivors of ISIS

Guests: Jan Kizilhan

AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current. It is almost impossible to imagine the ordeal that Yazidi women are emerging from, after being brutalized by ISIS in their homeland in Iraq. Last season, we brought you a documentary, it was called, "So They Can Rest A Little," and it featured two such women, Adiba and Basema, who are living in Canada now. This is a little bit of what they've lived through in their own words and a warning, what they describe is troubling.


VOICE 1: They killed the men of Kojo. And put them into mass graves. Every Yazidi village has a mass grave. Were we not created like other human beings? Why are we all victims?

VOICE 2: We didn't know what was happening, but we knew they were killing the men and taking the women. Then they said, you have to be Muslim. They beat us women, raped us, tortured us. We said, no matter what you do to us, we won't change our religion.

AMT: Adiba and Basema speaking in translation in that clip. They now live in a suburb, north of Toronto, they're trying to make a life for themselves. Despite not knowing about a lot of family members who were left behind, some are missing, others are dead, they are two of the more than 1300 members of the religious minority in Iraq, who have been resettled in Canada. There are concerns that Yazidi refugee women in Canada are not getting the help they were promised. A petition tabled in the House of Commons last week calls on the government to provide psychological support to them. That's something my next guest knows a lot about. When this country first set out to resettle Yazidis in 2016, one of the first people from whom they sought input, was Dr. Jan Kizilhan. He is a Kurdish-German psychologist. He heads the Department of Mental Health and Addiction at Baden-Wurttemberg Cooperative State University. He's also the head of a German state-funded effort, known as the Special Quota Project, which has brought more than a thousand Yazidis to Germany, in order to try to heal. Dr. Kizilhan visited some 24 refugee camps in Iraq to hand-pick some of the most vulnerable people there for resettlement. We reached him at his office in Villengen-Schwinningen, after one of his latest trips back from Iraq. Hello.

JAN KIZILHAN: Hi, Anna Maria.

AMT: How familiar do those stories, that little bit of story you just heard from Adiba and Basema, sound to you?

JK: Actually since 2014 I'm listening these stories every day maybe through calls when I'm in Iraq and of course we have 1100 Yazidi women and girls who were in IS captivity and now in Germany for medical treatment. And when I'm last week was in Iraq and was at some of the camps, these stories are the same. It's horrible, unbelievable. Nobody can imagine this horrific situation that they were, as they goes through. It's the last example just to give you, when I was two weeks ago in a camp, eight-years-old girl who was five years when she was in IS captivity. She is now for six months in a refugee camp and she was observed how her totally family was executed by IS and even this five or six-year-old girls were sexually abused and raped by IS fighters. This is stories where we face every day in Iraq and Syria.

AMT: It sounds so horrific the stories they tell of what happened to them. With a population that is so very vulnerable, how do you decide who needs the most help?

JK: Actually still there is no rational decision. Of course we do a lot of assessment and we talk to each one for example when we decided to bring 1100 women to Germany for medical treatment. We went to Iraq and I myself examined and talked to each one of about 1400 women. I will never forget this number. But the political decision was to bring 1100. And now we have about three to seven thousand woman and girls in the camps. We need urgent help. So the decision was to bring women and girls who were in the hands of IS. This was the first criteria. After they are released, they should have any medical and psychological disease like post-traumatic stress disorder and the third criteria was in Germany must be able to treat them with, just give you example is doesn't make any sense bring 80-years-old woman with dementia, where we are not able to help her. And one of the most criteria was we are very focused on women who are raped because we are talking about a patriarchal society, who try to refuse these women. We know about 40 to 50 suicide, committed suicide, by the women because they are ashamed. They believe they are raped, they are not and will not be accepted by society. So our project in Germany was focus on women and girls who were in IS captivity and raped by the IS fighters. The 1100 women and girls who were brought to Germany, 99 percent of them were tortured, were raped and lost a lot of family members.

AMT: What are the challenges you have encountered in getting mental health support for the Yazidi women once they are in Germany?

JK: Actually all of what we observed and I was positively surprised that German government, as well the Germans welcomed Yazidis, despite the discussion about refugees and unwelcomed foreigners, but in the case of the Yazidis it was different. Still it is different. There are two reasons maybe, through the media they recognize the horrifying and terror of the IS and the second, the Yazidis, we have to say this unfortunately very openly, they are not Muslims. That's the reason they are welcomed maybe more. I'm not sure if they will be Muslims, if they are welcomed by the German community, but the German government indeed started already in 2014 for supporting the Yazidis and the same time we are talking about 200,000 Yazidis who are living in Germany. So they have a good and great big community with support, all the Yazidi women and girls.

AMT: When the Canadian government consulted you about our own resettlement program in this country for the Yazidis, what did you tell them?

JK: Actually I told them about the difficult of trauma and treatment of trauma. We're talking about transcultural aspects, if you try to deal with the Yazidis. When we are talking about the Yazidis that means in the last 800 years, the Yazidis faced 74 genocides. In the last 600 years, Yazidis are killed by the Muslims. We have a study which can prove that about 1,800,000 Yazidis were forced to Islam, by force. And about 1,200,000 Yazidis were killed in the last 800 years. That means we are talking about three type of traumatization. One is a trans-generation trauma, which is given from one generation to the next generation and we are talking about collective trauma, which means on 3rd August, 2014, the IS started systematically to destroy the society. Actually the same like the Nazis in Germany, they did in the 1930s, 40s against the Jewish community and the third is the individual trauma, all of them suffering from their own symptoms and own trauma events. In the Western community and Western psychotherapy we focus more on individual psychotherapy. We tried to cope the individual trauma to reduce symptoms. If you don't take the trans-generation trauma and the treatment models we will not be able to successful long term.

AMT: So as you help these women and girls, what are you doing to help them? What are their days like?

JK: You know if someone is facing this trauma event and it's not just one, they observed how the family killed and just give you an example, a girl of eight years called Runda, when they take in captivity, she was observed how her grandfather and father killed in front of her eyes. Later they divided her from her mother and they were raped for eight months by ten times by all Muslim IS fighters. Now when I talk her, do you want to came to Germany, they said yes, I want to come to Germany and I ask her why. She said, do you have school? I said yes we have school in Germany and she said because I want to be one day like you a doctor and to help my own people. We are talking about resilience and this is where the Western society don't understand. Trauma mean don't mean they are just sick and have to be in a bed or be treatment. Post-traumatic stress disorder traumatized society is also shown to learn and to wake up and change the society. And I hope so for this woman and the Yazidis they will understand and grow with this trauma and change the society.

AMT: So in other words, you help them cope with the immediate feelings of trauma, but you also give them a sense of a future, a sense that they can have agency and somewhere to look forward to.

JK: Absolutely. Absolutely. Without you have to work on the past, on the trauma to understand what's happened to them and without to cope this past, you will have no future. And this is how we are working. We are more focused on positive issues, but in the same time, to talk with him through narrative therapy. To accept it and they can learn and they understand because they know you know they told me always we heard many stories from our grandfathers and fathers about genocide. We never believed it. When it happened on the 3rd August when the IS came, so we remember the stories of our ancestors. We know what will happen now. In some way the Yazidis have a different kind of resiliency, were prepared more or less in quotation and can deal different to maybe another groups.

AMT: You have faced criticism, including from the United Nations, for uprooting as they say, the Yazidis from their homes in Iraq, to a completely foreign environment like Germany. What do you say to the argument that bringing Yazidis to Germany or Canada is not a long term solution?

JK: You know Yazidis are living now for more 4000 years in Iraq and the Sinjar areas. Since 2014, they are living in refugee camps. One refugee camp for example has more than 20,000 people. And I told to the United Nations. You mean these camps are roots? They don't they lost all of their roots. Their roots is on Sinjar, but Sinjar is destroyed and they don't want to go back. This is the first, the second as a United Nations, are you able to help them in the refugee camps through psychotherapy and medical treatment. They have no way of doing. So what is the problem to bring them to Germany and do medical treatment for them or psychotherapy? So this was still I argue, this is not a real critic. A critic means you are doing something wrong, but we have alternately we can do it better. If the UN can do it better, we will support them.

AMT: I know you're trying to improve the quality of psychiatric care and mental health support inside Iraq. What are you doing?

JK: We started in 2017 to set up an institute of psychotherapy and psycho traumatology, which is supported by the German government and it's a master studies where we train through three years, very professional, psychological with a bachelor degree to have a master degree, a double qualification. They will have a master after three years and they will a licensed psychotherapist under the same criteria like in Germany and they will able to treat their own people in Iraq and maybe hopefully for a long term there are no need to bring them to Germany. This is our aim.

AMT: And we've been talking about the impact of surviving ISIS or IS or Daish. What other sources of trauma though are there as well? Because it's different things piled on top, isn't it?

JK: Yes it is. You know we are talking about ethnic minorities. And if we are talking about trauma, it's not just a medical problem, it's a political issue at the same time. It's a social problem. We have to ask why the IS was able to came to Iraq and to kill thousands of people, destroy the society, destroy the culture and monuments. We as medical, we try to treat the person of course, but give me a question of the eight years you ask me why humans are so sinister? Why are they using violation? We can talk intellectually and talk about violence science and trauma science and about the society, but we have also to find a answer to Runda, to eight years at Runda, why people are so bad? If we're talking about trauma, it's not just a medical problem actually, it's a political and social and religion problem in the Middle East.

AMT: I'm wondering what impact this work with so many traumatized people has had on you?

JK: Personally of course it's impact me. Sometimes you can lost your belief. Belief in humanity, in humans. But my work and I'm writing a lot of books, helps me to get a distance and at the same time I'm involved in Germany and in different kinds of countries, try to help people to support the people to have a better future. And this is how I can try to cope and to understand this cruel situation that we are face in the last years.

AMT: And what do you do for your own mental health?

JK: I have a good family, a good background. Children who are supporting me. As I said I'm working now for 20 years with the traumatized people. So I have to learn to make a distance. I can close, when I close my office. So I'm a private person. I have a normal life. I enjoy a lot of issues, I'm writing novels. I'm traveling like you, like another person. So we have to learn to be professional, but in the same time to able to close the stories. These stories are not a part of my person, my individualism. I'm just listening and as a professional, I try to understand and to support, but never have to always say this is not my problem. The problem of Runda, can you imagine? I cannot. Can you imagine what Runda, the 8 years goes through when she was raped, how was the feeling. I don't know. But I can listen, understand and try to find together a way to cope this.

AMT: One of the lasting messages we heard from the Yazidi women in our documentary was that their healing cannot begin as long as they know that the atrocities of Daish or ISIS are continuing. That loved ones are still missing or in the hands of these perpetrators. What will it take to stop the root of all of this trauma and displacement?

JK: You know trauma, when you a face a trauma, traumatic event, like the Yazidi faced. This means this will be always a part of their life. You cannot erase it from your mind. But what we can do to show a way to control this. Just give you an example, sometimes when they are traumatized, they have nightmares, flashbacks, fear, anxiety, sleeping disorders. So the symptoms started to control their life. What we are trying is to say no you can control your symptoms, but this trauma will be a part of your life, to accept it as a part of your life, but you have a future. And you could go ahead with new experiences in your life, positive experiences of life and you are absolutely right. If they don't have a clear future in Iraq, if the family members are still missing or in the hands of the IS. Now this is always a problem also for psychotherapy. So we can stabilize them, we can support them, but resolution is absolutely when maybe they're released or even they know they are not alive anymore. So they can close this case and concentrate more in the future. And this is somehow a problem, a political problem, a problem of terror and of course the missing people. And we have also a problem of Yazidi women and girls who came now back from IS captivity with IS children. This is also a big problem, but this can't just solve by the Yazidi community and society in Iraq.

AMT: I'm wondering how you maintain hope for them, for those who you're trying to help. What do you tell them?

JK: OK. The first is to have a good relation and it's like in all psychotherapy. They have trust in you and they believe you. I wish to just give you an example, I was two weeks ago sitting with a woman who was crying, shouting, talking about her trauma event and I didn't say anything because I was just listening. And for me it was very active and tried to change some people, my part was just sitting and give her a feeling I am with her. And after this session, they came to me and said thank you very much, even you don't say anything, but I had the feeling you are with me. This is how psychotherapy is working to give them a feeling of trust, of orientation, of stability and with time if they have a trust, we can talk about different issues and show another perspective. This is psychotherapy for long term, which takes time and take patience and sometimes don't do anything is doing more than doing something wrong.

AMT: And what about you? You made the point that you've been helping people traumatized by conflict for two decades. When one war stops, another begins. I'm just wondering what you tell yourself.

JK: Actually I'm very interested in history and a history of violence. If you go through the mankind's history is full of violation. According to my estimation and researches, with the start of mankind's history, about 500 million people killed by human. Human killed human. This is the nature of humankind. And if you notice, so as through the history, just to give you an example, through the Second World War, 60 million people were killed by humans. We killed more than 15 million Indigenous people in North and South America. And this is our nature. We have to accept this and hopefully through culture, through peace processes, through ethnic philosophy, there is some development in humankind history and this gives me hope for the next 200, 300 years, we are able to change. And I never lost my hope that we will do it better than our ancestors.

AMT: Well, we will end on your note of hope. Thank you so much for talking to me and thank you for your work.

JK: Thank you.

AMT: Dr. Jan Kizilhan is the medical and psychological head of the Special Quota Project in Germany.

Advocates urge more support for Yazidi refugees suffering seizures from PTSD

CBC, Dec 7, 2018

Trauma from being captured by ISIS results in psychogenic non-epileptic seizures
Cameron MacLean · CBC News · Posted: Dec 08, 2018 6:00 AM CT | Last Updated: 5 hours ago
Yazidi refugee Faeza Mejo has suffered from a seizure-like condition ever since she was captured and sold into slavery by ISIS in August 2014. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

The blackout spells always come with the same feeling — Faeza Mejo feels as though she's trying to scream for help, but someone or something is holding her back.

As It Happens
Yazidi refugees in Canada suffering PTSD-related seizures need their families: doctor

She then loses all awareness of her surroundings, sometimes for hours. To outside observers, she appears to be having a seizure. She thrashes, clutches at her throat, kicks and punches herself and anything else around her. This happens several times a week.

Mejo's experience mirrors that of many other Yazidi women who were held captive and sold as sex slaves by ISIS militants.

"They think that it's like a dream, that somebody is attacking them. They're fresh in their mind, going back [to] what happened to them while they were captive by ISIS," said Hadji Hesso, director of the Yazidi Association of Manitoba.

Hadji Hesso, director of the Yazidi Association of Manitoba, says 15 out of 500 Yazidis in Winnipeg suffer from pseudoseizures. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

The episodes are called psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, or pseudoseizures. They mimic the symptoms of a grand mal seizure, but instead of being caused a malfunction in the brain, they are brought on by severe psychological trauma.

Doctors have scanned Mejo's brain and found no signs of epilepsy. She has been prescribed medication and is going to therapy, but nothing has helped.

Condition caused by trauma

The condition is rare, affecting between two and 33 people per 100,000, according to Dr. José F. Téllez Zenteno, a neurologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Hesso said that, out of the roughly 500 Yazidi people living in Winnipeg, 15 suffer from pseudoseizures.

Canada has taken in roughly 1,400 victims of ISIS, including Yazidis, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Yazidi refugee women stand behind a banner as they wait for the arrival of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Special Envoy Angelina Jolie at a Syrian and Iraqi refugee camp in the southern Turkish town of Midyat in Mardin province, Turkey, June 20, 2015. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Support groups and doctors working with the Yazidi population here say they need mental health treatment in their first language and the ability to reunite with their families, who may be left behind in refugee camps.

"What we do know about these psychogenic non-epileptic seizures is, usually they are triggered by a strong emotional response," said Dr. Annalee Coakley ​during an interview with CBC's As It Happens. Coakley is a medical director with Calgary's Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic who has worked with Yazidi refugees in that city.

"I believe this government has a compassionate heart, and I hope they use that compassion to reunite these families."

Calls for change

The federal government has a one-year window policy during which refugees can sponsor family members who were believed to be dead, but later found alive. Opposition politicians and refugee advocates have pushed the government to extend that window and speed up the processing of claims for Yazidi refugees.

They have also called on the government to expand the definition of immediate family members beyond parents, children and siblings, to reflect the broader meaning that family has for Yazidis.

Yazidi refugee woman urges government for help navigating new world

"When we're talking about Yazidi families, we need to think beyond the extended notion of mom, dad and children," said Fadi Ennab, manager of the community wellness program at Mount Carmel Clinic in Winnipeg. "We need to think of their bigger network of support who could be just like their families if they were missing in a war situation. So uncles, aunties, siblings all those could be part of your family."

Ennab also wants the government to make it easier for family members to privately sponsor their relatives to come to Canada.

Even for someone who is financially independent and has had a reliable income for years, it can be difficult to sponsor a family member, he said. Achieving that independence would take a while for a newcomer refugee who can't even speak English.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said there are fewer than five Yazidis waiting under the one-year window application system.

"In light of the unique challenges faced by this population, and to further support family reunification for this cohort, the Department will develop eligibility criteria and implement a temporary extension of the one-year window provision for immediate family members of survivors of Daesh [ISIS] resettled under the government's original commitment," the statement said.
Refugees need supports

Mejo, 21, now lives in Winnipeg with her family. In August 2014, she was captured when ISIS attacked her home community in the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq. In what has since been declared a genocide, the militants separated men from women, executing the men and enslaving the women and children.

Mejo was sold 15 times before U.S.-led forces rescued her in 2017. While she was in captivity, she gave birth to a son.

She was eventually reunited with her parents and the family came to Canada as government-sponsored refugees.

Lori Wilkinson, a sociologist at the University of Manitoba, conducted a study on Yazidi refugees in urban centres across Canada. She said they are particularly vulnerable in Canada because they were already severely marginalized in their home country.

Boy who endured three years as ISIL captive asks for meeting with Justin Trudeau

"They haven't been allowed to go to school, and if they have gone to school, they've only finished, say, equivalent of Grade 5, Grade 6 in Canada," she said.

Many of those who have gone to school didn't receive education in their native language of Kurmanji, but rather in Arabic.

"And so you're certainly not functionally literate in your own language and now you're coming to place in Canada and you're asked to learn English, that's going to be a challenge…. Their first task is to get better mentally before they can learn a new language."

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Conservative Immigration Critic Michelle Rempel brought forward a vote to adopt a report by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration which recommends the government expand access to mental health services in Kurmanji.

Rempel said this is important because language differences can make it difficult for Yazidi refugees to accurately describe their trauma.

"For example, one family in Calgary that I know well, one of the women was describing one of her children as crazy, like that was the word she was using," but in Kurmanji, the word she used would more accurately translate as chronically depressed, Rempel said.

Hesso hopes that with the right support, Mejo and other former ISIS captives can start to forget the trauma of what happened to them. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Hesso hopes the government will step up to help the women like Mejo who continue to suffer even after escaping from ISIS.

"They all should be receiving same quality trauma therapy and whatever that we can do to make them better and to be part of this society and to forget what happened to them," he said.

'We are now free': Yazidis fleeing Isis start over in female-only commune
The Guardian, by Bethan McKernan in Jinwar, Syria, 25 Feb 2019

In Jinwar, north-eastern Syria, a pioneering group of women are rebuilding their lives away from the constraints of patriarchy

A mural in Jinwar. The female-only commune in north-eastern Syria opened in November and is home to Kurdish, Yazidi and Arab families. Photograph: Bethan McKernan/The Guardian

Berivan runs over to join in the dancing, her traditional gold dress catching the winter sunlight. The 15-year-old Yazidi clasps hands with her best friend and stands among the line of women stamping their feet to a Kurdish pop song.

Berivan and her mother are from Sinjar in Iraq, the Yazidi homeland, but like thousands of other Yazidis they were kidnapped by Islamic State in 2014 when the group stormed across the border from Syria.

Far from here, in the eastern desert, Isis has almost lost control of its last stronghold, Baghuz, but there are at least 3,000 Yazidi women and girls whose fate is unknown.

During the genocide, Yazidi men were rounded up and shot then dumped in mass graves. The women were taken to be sold in Isis’s slave markets, many passed from fighter to fighter, who inflicted physical and sexual abuse.

Yazidi children have been brainwashed and rights groups say suicide among captives is common. Even for those who manage to escape after years of enslavement and rape, many struggle to survive without an income or identity papers.

Berivan and her mother have lost the other members of their family. But at a new women’s commune near Qamishli, in north-eastern Syria, they have had a chance to start over.

“I like it here,” she says. “I love going to school, I love mathematics. And I’m going to be a hairdresser when I grow up.”

Jinwar is a female-only community, set up by the women of the local Kurdish-run administration to create a space where women can live “free of the constraints of the oppressive power structures of patriarchy and capitalism”. It opened in November and 12 of its 30 adobe brick houses are home to Kurdish, Yazidi and Arab families.

The women built their own houses, bake their own bread and tend to the livestock and farmland, cooking and eating together. On Saturday, people from the neighbouring villages have been invited to a graduation celebration for a group of local women who had attended a course on natural medicines at Jinwar’s education centre.

Over chicken and rice, and later music and dancing, residents discuss how the newly planted apricot, pomegranate and olive trees are doing.

“We built this place ourselves, brick by brick,” says 35-year-old Barwa Darwish, who came to Jinwar with her seven children after her village in Deir Ezzor province was freed from Isis and her husband, who joined the fight against the group, was killed in action.

Families who fled Isis’s last holdout of Baghuz sit in a truck in Deir Ezzor. There are plans for a second commune in the Arab province.

“Under Isis we were strangled and now we are free. But even before that, women stayed at home. We didn’t go out and work. In Jinwar, I’ve seen that women can stand alone.”

Jinwar grew out of the democratic ideology that has fuelled the creation of Rojava, a Kurdish-run statelet in north-eastern Syria, since the civil war broke out in 2011.

The area has largely thrived despite the presence of enemies on all sides: Isis, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s troops, and Turkey, which regards the Kurdish YPG fighters as a terrorist organisation.

The women’s revolution, as it is known, is a significant part of Rojava’s philosophy. Angered by the atrocities committed by Isis, Kurdish women formed their own fighting units. Later, Arab and Yazidi recruits joined them on the front lines to liberate their sisters.

‘We can change this reality’: the women sharing news of war in Ghouta

But at home, many parts of Kurdish society are still deeply conservative. Some of the women now in Jinwar have left arranged marriages and domestic abuse. Those dynamics, as well as the legacy of Syria’s brutal eight-year war have to be unlearned at Jinwar.

“When the families first arrived, the Arab children wouldn’t play with the Kurdish children,” says Nujin, one of the international volunteers working at the village. “But even in just two months you can see the change. The children are already so much happier.”

Berivan’s mother, Darsim, was mute when she arrived at Jinwar, a side-effect of trauma. Little by little, she has started to form words again. “The village is the best rehabilitation for the things these families have suffered,” Nujin says.

Jinwar is not finished yet: there are gardens to plant and an empty library waiting for books. The community is still coming up with ideas. Behind the education centre there is a swimming pool that will be filled with water in the summer. Most of the residents will get to use a pool – the reserve of only men in most of the Middle East – for the first time.

The women have also voted for driving lessons and to start a sewing business.

There are plans for a second commune in Deir Ezzor, an Arab province that is still the scene of fierce fighting to destroy Isis – but there is also a sense that what has been built at Jinwar is fragile and could be taken away.

It is not clear what will happen when US troops leave the area in a few months. Renewed fighting is a possibility.

“This place is peaceful and a refuge from the war,” Nujin says. “So how can we bring guns here if we needed to defend ourselves? I hope Jinwar never has to face that.”

This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the world’s most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at

Far from the crumbling caliphate but haunted by ISIS
Yazidi refugees in Canada live with profound and persistent trauma — and they fear for their families still in Iraq and Syria

Story by Emily Rauhala and Amanda Coletta
Illustrated by Shonagh Rae
April 10, 2019


She was thousands of miles from Syria when the call came, but the voice on the line took her back.

The caller spoke in Arabic, addressed Melkeya by name, threatened her. “I know who you are,” he said. “Just you wait.”

Her first thought: ISIS.

In 2014, the Islamic State swept through Melkeya’s hometown in northern Iraq, killing and kidnapping thousands of Yazidis, an ancient religious minority group, in what the United Nations called a genocide. Many ended up in Syria, where the fighters claimed a capital.

At a time when others were closing their doors to refugees, Canada stepped in to help, offering to resettle more than 1,000 of the Islamic State’s most vulnerable victims, particularly Yazidi women and girls who, like Melkeya, survived sexual enslavement.

Interviews with more than two dozen people, including five Yazidi families, settlement workers, doctors, volunteers and officials, show how the Islamic State continues to haunt them, even as their caliphate crumbles, even in quiet, Canadian suburbs blanketed in snow.

“After I got that first phone call, it was like I was put back in that place,” Melkeya said. “All of those fears returned.”

The Washington Post is identifying adult refugees by only their first names to protect their safety and privacy, as well as the privacy of their children, some of whom were also enslaved.

Yazidi newcomers live with profound and persistent trauma. Some suffer rare, seizure-like episodes. They struggle to access treatment and when they do, they often find care workers, though devoted, are ill-equipped to help.

They relive their trauma through menacing messages from men who claim to be Islamic State militants, or from videos of their time in captivity, or through social media posts from the front lines.

Their pain is compounded by the fact that most have family members still held by ISIS, or missing, or languishing in refugee camps with no way out.

[Listen on Post Reports: Yazidi refugees found a new home in Canada. They’re still haunted by ISIS.]

Melkeya was among those held as sex slaves.

When ISIS surrounded her village, Kocho, she was nine months pregnant with her first child. Days later, she gave birth to a boy and named him “Hawar” — a name used to signal a cry for help.

When the fighters moved on Kocho, they killed the men, including her husband and his brothers and father. Boys were taken to Islamic State training camps for indoctrination. Melkeya and other women and girls were loaded into buses and trucks and shipped across the territory for sale.

She and her son spent 2 ½ years in captivity before escaping to a refugee camp in northern Iraq, where she put her name on a list to come to Canada. They landed in 2017.

Melkeya and her sister-in-law, Basema, compared resettlement to being pulled from a fire. Canada rescued them from an inferno. Now they watch, skin still blistering, as others burn.
Seizures and reliving rape

Melkeya and other Yazidis arrived in Canada with fresh wounds, some just months out of captivity, and many with family still enslaved or missing.

Canadian settlement agencies, the nongovernment organizations tasked with supporting newcomers, are used to working with exceptionally vulnerable people, but they were shocked by the condition of the Yazidis, according to interviews with agencies in Calgary and Toronto.

“We were working how we normally do, which is to help refugees towards independence and empowerment, but we were doing that too soon,” said Mario Calla, executive director of the settlement agency helping Yazidi newcomers in Toronto.

Two years after the first arrivals, there are new and better programs in place, but Canada is still struggling to meet their needs.

Yazidi refugees display symptoms that most care providers are scarcely prepared to treat, including seizure-like episodes that leave women writhing on the floor, as if reliving rape.

Merely witnessing these episodes can be so troubling that care workers need support of their own. “The squealing — ” said Bindu Narula, a settlement and immigration manager at Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, pausing. “No matter who you are, it’s traumatic.”

Mohamad Elfakhani, a psychiatrist at the London Health Sciences Center hospital and professor at Western University in London, Ontario, treats Yazidis with symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, including dissociation and extreme sleeplessness.

He said their symptoms exceed what he’s seen, even compared with recent Syrian arrivals, because the concentration of extreme trauma is higher and they have less support.

There are several health and social services for Arabic-speaking newcomers to Canada, but some Yazidis have refused to receive treatment in Arabic, the language of their former captors.

Settlement agencies are still struggling to find care workers who speak the Yazidis’ Kurdish dialect. In Calgary, one Yazidi immigrant serves as interpreter and supporter to more than 100 people in distress.
A desperate struggle for survival inside the last corner of the Islamic State

Allison Henderson, a family doctor at the London InterCommunity Health Center, said the small size of the Yazidi diaspora in Canada makes it harder for newcomers to heal.

Deeply traumatized Syrian refugees drew strength from the Syrian Canadian community, she said. For Yazidis, there are simply not enough well people to create a sense of collective health.

Canadian schools are trying to assist newcomers but are not generally equipped to deal with the impact of sexual enslavement or forced indoctrination on children, settlement workers said.

A teenager from Kocho, now living in Calgary, bore two children through rape while in captivity. When she was rescued, she left them behind, she said.

Two of her brothers, now with her in Canada, spent years living alongside Islamic State fighters. They were taught to fight and forced to renounce their faith and families, one said.

The youngest, a student at a Calgary school, has refused to see a counselor.
Threatening phone calls

In Canada, women like Melkeya have found refuge but scarce relief.

Melkeya and five other Yazidi women living north of Toronto reported getting threatening calls and messages on their Canadian numbers in January.

The callers spoke and wrote in Arabic, flooding them with calls, voice messages and texts that referenced their time in captivity.

Melkeya was just wrapping a day at her government-sponsored English class when she got the first call from an unknown Canadian number.

After she hung up, another man called back, threatening her again. She started recording.

Constable Andy Pattenden of the York Regional Police confirmed that six newcomers reported harassment by phone and WhatsApp. The incidents are under investigation, he said.

It is not clear who sent the messages. Police said “spoofing apps” make it tough to determine the origin of calls.

For Melkeya, the calls brought back the feeling of the siege, stirring memories of what happened in Kocho and in the months and years after.

In February, she and Basema flipped through family portraits taken at her 2013 wedding. Basema pointed to a portrait of their extended family, noting which men were killed, which women were missing.

“Everybody, ISIS,” she said, in English, dragging her finger across the screen.

Then, she said it again, with disbelief.
A hope for reunification

Over the last few months, as U.S.-backed forces squeezed Islamic State fighters into a tiny sliver of territory, Yazidi refugees have been glued to their phones.

They scour photographs and videos for faces they know, hoping to find out what happened to relatives. The Islamic State may have lost its territory, but the terror is not over, they know.

Guli, a Yazidi woman who was held captive, said the focus of her life in Calgary is to reunite with family still in Iraq. “I don’t need anything, just my brother,” she said.

There are believed to be less than 1 million Yazidis worldwide. Before the Islamic State came, many lived in close-knit villages, surrounded by extended family. By systematically separating families, ISIS sought to sever those ties.

Among refugees and the Canadian settlement workers, doctors, social workers and volunteers that support them, there is a broad consensus that family reunification is key to their health.
After five failed attempts to escape ISIS slavery, she tried one last time

“The separation, and not knowing what is happening, just provides the perpetual trauma to the women,” said Rita Watterson, a psychiatrist who works with Yazidis in Calgary.

Until families are together, it “feels a bit like we are treading water,” she said.

The problem is that even those who escape captivity may not have a clear path to Canada.

Yazidis can apply to bring spouses or dependent children to join them. That often leaves many others — parents, siblings, cousins, in-laws — stuck in camps.

Advocates want to change that, arguing that for a community to survive genocide, they must be able to re-create a sense of family, community and continuity.

“We said ‘never again,’ but that rings completely hollow when you look at what happened to the Yazidis,” said Belle Jarniewski, a child of Holocaust survivors who helped found an organization that privately sponsors Yazidi refugees in Winnipeg.

She and others are calling for the Canadian government to allow Yazidi refugees to reunite with whatever family members they have left.

Melkeya wants that, too. She is speaking out, she said, because she sees family reunification as a matter of survival — and considers all Yazidis her family.

She can’t stand to watch what’s happening in Syria and Iraq.

“The fire is still burning,” she said.

Germany opens its doors to Yazidi women and children enslaved by Isis
Secret shelters in Baden-Württemberg support some of the 2,500 deeply traumatised women and children who have escaped Isis in northern Iraq

by Lara Whyte in Stuttgart, The Guardian, 2 Mar 2016

A displaced youth from the Yazidi community in the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk. The Yazidis have been particularly targeted by Isis. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

From the outside, the shelter looks like a disused old people’s home. Inside, it is more like a busy playgroup. Children with new backpacks queue in pairs against a wall covered in their artwork, waiting to be taken to swimming lessons; football and skipping competitions take place in the corridors while groups of women, babies on their laps, sit huddled together on their phones.

The shelter, in a sleepy village hundreds of miles outside Stuttgart, is one of several dozen that has opened across the German region of Baden-Württemberg since spring last year as part of a special-quota project designed to support some of the estimated 2,500 women and children who have escaped after being held hostage by Islamic State.

Security at the shelter is tight. The only clue as to who is inside comes when a teenage boy shouts instructions in Kurdish to a child attempting to ride a bike in the empty car park.

“These women and children have been enslaved by Isis, who believe they are their owners. They are victims and witnesses to war crimes, so we protect them by running our mission in a secret, secure way,” says Dr Michael Blume, the head of the programme.
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The first women and children began arriving in Baden-Württemberg last March. As well as being one of Germany’s wealthiest regions, it is also home to a large number of the 50,000 Kurdish Yazidis, a persecuted minority group from northern Iraq. Last year, the federal parliament issued 1,100 resident visas on humanitarian grounds, and set up an office with a budget of €95m (£74m) to allocate places to women and children kidnapped by Isis.

In a number of murderous dawn attacks that began on 3 August 2014, Isis militants laid siege to the areas around the ancient city of Sinjar, displacing roughly 300,000 people and committing what the UN described as possible genocide against Iraq’s indigenous Yazidi population. Activists say more than 6,000 women and children were kidnapped by militants, many experiencing horrific abuse.

Kidnapped from Sinjar along with her two-year-old child while her husband was working in Duhok, Noor Murad, 25, was held hostage by Isis for 10 months. She was freed after months of negotiations and arrived in Germany in November.

“It has been overwhelming for me to come here. I have five brothers still missing so I am thinking about them,” she says through a Kurdish translator and German social worker.
German doctor Jan Kizilhan, photographed in Geneva.

German doctor Jan Kizilhan, photographed in Geneva. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

While in Germany, Murad will receive intensive physical and emotional support. She was initially assessed by Dr Jan Kizilhan, the programme’s chief psychologist in Iraq. Having interviewed more than 1,200 former captives, his challenge, he says, was to create a trauma counselling programme that could be applied in multiple locations, in another language, for a “devastated group who have endured multiple genocides”.

Blume explains that the culture of psychotherapy is alien to most of the women and girls. “There is not such a focus on the self,” he says, “so we begin slowly, making the women feel safe and secure.”

An intensive orientation starts immediately after they arrive on a specially chartered plane from Irbil. There are free German lessons for all and strict school attendance is expected for those under 18. Many of the children were forced to attend indoctrination and light weapons training while captive, and few schools are operational in the internally displaced people’s camps where the hostages lived after escaping. Social workers are firm about allowing the women space from their childcare duties as part of their therapy.

The women are given a small stipend depending on their age and number of dependents, and they manage their own budgets “exceptionally well”, according to the head social worker at the shelter. The women shop for food, go out together to explore, and begin to navigate the daily demands of German life.

“Going from every day being locked up all the time – I just wanted to die when I was in the hands of Daesh [Isis],” Murad tells me. “Now I am comfortable and I enjoy my freedom. I can’t compare Germany to Iraq. It is very peaceful and quiet and very green. But how can I enjoy being here when I am without my family?”

Those with specific medical emergencies (complicated gynaecological issues or life-limiting disabilities, or those who had self-immolated) were prioritised for the scheme. All were assessed on the extent to which they were traumatised by their time as hostages, whether they could benefit from treatment in Germany, and whether they could adapt to life there.

“The future for the younger women will be better than the older ones, as they will be able to integrate easily and enjoy more freedom than would have been possible in Iraq,” says Kizilhan.
In August 2014, displaced Yazidis flee violence from forces loyal Isis in Sinjar town, heading for the Syrian border

In August 2014, displaced Yazidis head for the Syrian border, fleeing violence from forces loyal to Isis in Sinjar town. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

The timescale for psychological treatment is dependent on the individual. Several women have children still in captivity and are attempting to negotiate their urgent release, which clearly takes most of their energy.

The women arrive in Germany severely traumatised from their experience. Most have severe post-traumatic stress disorder, Kizilhan explains. But generally their physical health has been maintained by the basic services at the camps.

Salma, 17, from Sinjar, travelled to Germany with her 15-year-old sister and aunt from Zakho camp six months ago. She is enjoying the freedom of Stuttgart, but with guilt and sadness, and has been attending counselling since she arrived.

“I felt I was nothing when I came here, but I have been treated very well,” she says. If she stays in the programme her family, who urged her to go, can apply to join her in two years. “I had to have a lot of medical treatment and I have had counselling and social support. I have everything that I need.”

Salma’s family remain in Zahko camp, one of many under-resourced settlements around Duhok, but she is determined to bring them to Germany, as she says she never wants to return to Iraq, or “any Muslim country” again.

“I feel like I am stronger now – and the psychologist said I don’t have to have medicine any more. When I was in Iraq, I thought my life was over. I had no hope, even when I was free. It was still the end of my life. Now, I have a new life. I go to school. I learn German and I will study in the future.”

This article was amended on 2 March 2016 to clarify that there are 50,000 Kurdish Yazidis in Germany, not just in Baden-Württemberg.

Yazidi woman traumatized by ISIS explains how her 2 sisters have been able to mentally overcome the ordeal
by WITW Staff, Women in the World, 02.23.17

A German project aimed at providing psychological care to the Yazidi people — more than 400,000 of whom have been “displaced, captured, or killed” by ISIS, according to the U.N. — is set to begin a new program in Dohuk, Iraq, next month that would provide local mental health professionals with the training requisite to work with those traumatized by ISIS. The project, funded by the wealthy German state of Baden Wuerttemberg, had already brought 1,100 women who survived capture by ISIS to Germany for psychological treatment.

There are 5.5 million people and more than 1.5 million refugees in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, but only 25 practicing psychiatrists — none of whom are specialized in treating trauma. The new program would allow training for 30 new professionals over the next three years, as well as expanding the project to other universities in the area. After ten years, experts hope, the project could provide more than 1,000 psychotherapists for the region.

Thirty-nine-year-old Gorwe, a Yazidi woman who lives in the Sharya refugee camp in Duhok, said that the mental health of two of her sisters-in-law had improved dramatically after they went to Germany for treatment.

“They were as good as before Daesh,” she said. “I’m not sure why, but I think the treatment has helped.”

Of the 24 members of Gorwe’s family that were taken by ISIS — only 14, all women and children, have returned. After their capture at the hands of ISIS, Gorwe said that the fighters separated the men from the women and children before taking the women and “distributing them to themselves.” Gorwe, a mother of six children, said she doesn’t know where they took her eldest daughter, then 15. After taking her daughter, her three eldest sons, 14, 12, and 10 years old respectively, were also spirited away. Together with her two remaining children, Gorwe was then sold to an ISIS fighter at an “underground marketplace” near Raqqa.

Over the next few months, Gorwe said she was bought and sold multiple times before a young man drove up to her in a car, apparently enamored with her 7-year-old daughter. Fortunately, the young man’s interest was feigned — after he bought Gorwe and her children, he revealed himself as a smuggler hired by her family to help her to escape.

Gorwe says she’s received psychological treatment in the wake of her escape, but that it hadn’t had the same effect on her as she’d seen it have on others. “No matter how many doctors I see,” she said, “I’ll still have the same pain inside me.”

Jan Kizilhan: ISIL rape victims need culture-sensitive therapy

Need for mental health experts who know local culture in post-ISIL Iraq is immense, German-Kurd psychologist says.
by Annette Ekin, 10 Jun 2018

Kizilhan brought 1,100 Yazidi women enslaved and raped by ISIL to Germany for trauma treatment [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

Brussels, Belgium - When German-Kurd psychologist Jan Kizilhan visited Khaparto refugee camp in northern Iraq in May, he met a four-year-old boy who until a few weeks ago, had been a captive of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

The child was so terrified of fighters returning to take him away, that he slept with a knife under his pillow.

At another camp, Kizilhan met a nine-year-old girl who was repeatedly bought, sold and raped during her three years in captivity. She now has post-traumatic stress disorder and lives in a state of dissociation.

These children are among the many survivors of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group's brutality who are suffering from psychological trauma.

Last year, Kizilhan, dean of the Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology at the University of Dohuk in northern Iraq, began a programme to train local students to become psychotherapists.

The need for local mental health experts and treatment in the region is immense, according to Kizilhan.

There are just 26 psychotherapists in a population of 5.5 million in Iraq's Kurdistan region, Kizilhan said at a panel on Wednesday during the two-day European Development Days conference held in Brussels, which focussed on the protection and empowerment of women.

In Dohuk province where his students work, Kizilhan said there are just five psychiatrists for a population of about two million, including more than half a million refugees.

Kizilhan is also the chief psychologist of a special asylum project financed by the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. Starting in 2015, 1,100 severely traumatised Yazidi women and children who escaped from ISIL, were brought to the German state to receive treatment.

The German village helping Yazidi women raped by ISIL

The asylum scheme has been criticised for uprooting the women from their culture. In response to this criticism, Kizilhan asks: "There are roots in refugee camps?

In the past four years, Kizilhan said he has documented about 60 suicides in Iraq among survivors of ISIL sexual slavery.

Kizilhan, who comes from a Yazidi Kurd family, spoke to Al Jazeera about the importance of understanding a culture and its past in treating trauma and why he is running a programme to train future psychotherapists in northern Iraq.

Al Jazeera: How would you describe your approach to treating psychological trauma?

Jan Kizilhan: We focus on transcultural psychotherapy or transcultural trauma therapy, which means we start with the culture that people belong to. You need to know the coping strategies which are part of the culture or even the religion. You are not able to do psychotherapy with [just] modern, Western ideas of psychotherapy because psychotherapy was founded in the West, especially in America. They have a way of understanding illness and health but indigenous people have a different way to cope.

And we know from history, many times, ethnic groups, different kinds of groups, have faced major catastrophes - wars, conflicts. And somehow they find a way to cope with this conflict and grow with it. So we have to look at the resources of the people - and they have resources. We have to use these cultural resources to adapt the modern ways of medicine and psychotherapy. This is how we are working.

Al Jazeera: More than 1,000 Yazidi women and children were brought to Germany for treatment through a special programme. Where is the programme at now?

Kizilhan: The project finishes at the end of year. The women will stay in Germany and can stay indefinitely. [The aim] was to support them to deal with their trauma, to do psychotherapy, teach them German because language is very important. The children go to school. Many of them now have jobs or [are pursuing] education. This last period now is [to help] them be totally at the head of their own households and lives and to be part of society.

We ask them: Who lost their honour? The perpetrator or you? Because you didn't do anything. The perpetrator lost his honour if he has any.

Jan Kizilhan, psychologist

Al Jazeera: Do you think the programme has been a success?

Kizilhan: Absolutely, yes. From 1,100 people, just 15 women returned to Iraq - to join freed family members or those with illnesses. Most wanted to stay [in Germany]. They feel accepted as women. No one asks whether they were raped or not. They have more of a feeling of freedom. In Iraq, they don't have any future. Especially for a minority like the Yazidis, the political situation is not clear.

Al Jazeera: The programme was criticised for removing the women from their culture. You've said it had to be done to save lives - that it was an emergency situation. How is the project in Dohuk different?

Kizilhan: Normally we should help people in the home of origin of the conflict. In some cases, we don't have this possibility and this was an emergency situation and we had to act. We also have traumatised refugees in Europe and we have to provide them with mental health support of which there's not enough.

We cannot bring all the traumatised refugees from Iraq and Syria to Germany. What we can do is give the [local] people the know-how to treat their own people [with their] own language and cultural background.

In 2017, we started to train and educate psychologists with a bachelor's [degree] to obtain a master's in psychology and to be licensed psychotherapists like in Germany. This [degree] continues for three years (each student must complete 1,800 hours of clinical work). In October 2018, we will start with our second group. Each group consists of 30 people and my hope and vision is that other universities in Iraq will follow us in this project and instead of having 30 psychotherapists now hopefully we'll have in 10 years 1,200 psychotherapists.

We've also started to build a trauma network which means we're bringing all actors who are somehow involved in trauma - it can be NGOs, hospitals, the state government - to give them information and discuss more about the issue of trauma because we have to reach the population. Many people don't know what psychotherapy or trauma are.

Al Jazeera: What are you seeing in terms of the local population's psychological needs?

Kizilhan: According to our observations - we are talking about northern Iraq - Daesh (ISIL) is [just] one trigger of trauma. In 1998, in Halabja, we had a chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein - 5,000 people were killed - and during the Anfal era, 168,000 were killed by the Saddam regime. So these historical traumas continue and evolve with ISIL.

Al Jazeera: Who are you focussing on treating?

Kizilhan: Our institution's focus is mainly now on traumatised refugees who were in ISIL captivity. We are working in 24 camps, but we are [also] open to all people in Iraq.

Al Jazeera: What are the key challenges of treating survivors of sexual violence?

Kizilhan: The first thing is to give them the confidence to talk about their feelings of shame. This is one basic part of psychotherapy, to discuss with them why they are ashamed. Sometimes they answer [that] they've lost their honour because they were raped. This idea of honour is due to a patriarchal society which sees honour as the most important value. We ask them: Who lost their honour? The perpetrator or you? Because you didn't do anything. The perpetrator lost his honour if he has any.

We have to draw on these cultural ideas and take them into account in psychotherapy - these feelings of shame, feelings of trauma, being part of a patriarchal society and apart from that, we are looking for resources.

Yazidi or other ethnic minorities, through trans-generational trauma, have a special resilience. They are very strong. They deal differently with trauma and we can use these resources, this resilience, to be more competent.

Al Jazeera: In what other ways have you tapped into this reserve of strength?

Kizilhan: Everyone we speak to we ask whether they know about "ferman". Ferman means holocaust against the Yazidis. They tell me [about it] through recitation, religion, books and stories. I say: Look, you are not the first one facing trauma, because your ancestors faced it, too. And if your ancestors survived, you will also survive. And the difference between you and your ancestors is that I'm here as a therapist to work with you. Your ancestor had no psychotherapist 300 years ago and they survived. So we try to activate that.

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