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
Washington Post, 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. ...