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For Yazidis traumatized by Islamic State horrors, few mental health resources

Yazidi women and families who survived Islamic State atrocities nevertheless carry a heavy emotional burden. But little psychological counseling is available to them.

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    Nafida, 25, who is deaf and mute, uses her hands at the Qadiya displaced persons camp to describe her experiences while held by the Islamic State. Her captors did not believe she was mute, so they tortured her for five months to try to make her pray. They hung her from a moving ceiling fan for two days without food or water, pushed her from a 3rd-floor building, beat her with their pistols and rifles, and strangled her. She escaped and found an Arab family who helped contact her family.
    Holly Pickett
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Alia never thought she would survive. Each time a new Islamic State fighter took her as slave or “wife,” she tried to end her life.

All three of her attempts were a failure. Today she bears lasting physical and emotional scars that would warrant months, if not years, of one-on-one psychological therapy in most other settings. But for a Yazidi woman living in makeshift refugee housing, barely scraping by, such care represents an unaffordable luxury.

“Each man was worse than the other,” recalls Alia, a beautician from Tel Azer village in Mount Sinjar who spent nearly a full year as the captive of Islamic State (IS) fighters in Iraq and Syria. “All of them married me by force. My reaction to that was suicide.”

The first time, enslaved and abused by a Kurdish member of IS, she overdosed on the only tablets she could find. The second, after being sold to a Libyan jihadist who eventually ended his life in a suicide attack, she jumped off a balcony and broke her legs. Then, while in the custody of a German militant, she tried to electrocute herself in the bathroom.

A year ago, the plight of the Yazidis galvanized the world’s attention and set in motion the creation of a US-led coalition against IS. 

Alia is one of the lucky ones – a survivor who managed to escape IS captivity in July with the help of smugglers. 

But today the frail 21-year-old has little to smile about. On her return to Iraq, she discovered that her father had passed away and that another one of her sisters remains in the hands of IS. Having lost their breadwinner, family members live in a cramped room and survive on handouts.

“It is hard for us,” says her elderly mother, Maya, still pained by the loss of her husband and anxious about the fate of her other daughter. “I would rather be dead.”

It's a common sentiment among Yazidis singled out for slaughter by IS, which views the secretive religious minority as infidels. Whether living in half-finished, rundown buildings or in overcrowded camps, the community is in a constant state of mourning: crying for those whose lives were lost during a brutal IS onslaught on Sinjar Mountain in August 2014, crying for those still held by IS, crying for what survivors endured.

Mental health care for the community is in very short supply. There are only four psychiatrists for the province of Dohuk, where most of the Yazidi community has resettled along with more than 400,000 Iraqis and Syrians displaced by violence.

Charity brings some to Germany

While most Yazidi women receive basic medical care after escaping IS, few have access to regular psychological therapy. Resources are stretched so thin that the German charity Air Bridge Iraq is bringing traumatized Yazidis to Germany for treatment. The women also receive two-year residency rights plus housing and schooling for their children.

“The main issue we are facing is depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and hysteria,” says Awaz Abdusittar, a psychologist working at a Kurdish Regional Government-sponsored health center for Yazidis in Dohuk, which now also receives funding from the United Nations.

Frail arms full of dark bruises and a scarred skull speak volumes about how IS tortured Nafida, a deaf and mute woman who escaped in September. For two days, IS fighters suspended her from a ceiling fan, convinced she was faking her disability in order not to say Muslim prayers. Sweeping and violent gestures map out Nafida’s ordeal with chilling precision. A relative translates to the best of her ability.

“They hang me on the fan and hit me in the head,” the relative says, as Nafida puts up her hands to illustrate the position, then parts her hair to reveal the bumps on her skull. “They beat me with sticks and guns. They lay me on the street and threatened to run me over. They tortured me for five months before they accepted that I could not speak.”

Like Alia, Nafida has never seen a mental health professional.

Children struggle to understand what they saw

Dr. Abdusittar says her worst case by far was a nine-year-old rape survivor. “The hardest thing is she doesn’t know what happened to her,” she says. “She doesn’t know what is a marital relation, what is rape, why it happened to her. She cannot express what happened to her.”

“All girls over 14 – even some as young as 12 – were subjected to rape and sold to different jihadists,” says Jameel Chomer, director of the Iraqi branch of Yazda, a non-profit helping the Yazidi community that has collected the testimonies of more than 700 survivors. “It is not proper for girls who have been through all of this to go live in a crowded tent. It is indecent.”

Children, like their mothers, are also struggling to digest and describe the long litany of horrors they witnessed. Fadi, a timid 6-year-old from Khanasor, says he was forced to undergo IS military training, an education that begun with the beheading of 20 of his classmates and the shooting of 10 others in order to frighten the class into submission.

“I was so scared this would happen to me,” he whispers, before calmly recounting how IS sexually exploited the women around him. “The ‘Doctor’ was the bad guy. He was always looking for girls and taking them by force.”

Fadi’s older sister, Hadiya, still sports a boy’s haircut that her father gave her in a bid to protect her from sexual abuse.

'I cry three times a week'

The vast majority of those surveyed by Yazda reported experiencing torture ranging from beatings to biting, a recurring practice that has left health workers perplexed.

“We’ve spent a year asking ourselves why – why would they bite?” says doctor Luma Hazim. “They put kerosene in the water that women use to wash their faces, screws and glass in their food. There are too many whys. We can’t find answers for this.”

While husbands and relatives have proved supportive in terms of bringing women to the center, says Dr. Hazim, there are many obstacles to follow-up care including a lack of qualified staff. Many patients refuse to pursue treatment while they have relatives who are still in IS captivity. Others live far away and cannot afford transportation to attend regular therapy.

“I would like to see a doctor and get therapy, but we have no money for transportation,” explains Alia, the former IS bride. She suffers from nightmares and migraines but no longer entertains suicidal thoughts.

“I cry three times a week,” she says. “I remember my friends who are still held by IS. I know that they are being tortured, raped and beaten every day because that is what happened to me.”

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