Moving forward

Pioneering German program aims to help Yazidi women traumatized by sexual slavery

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community, who fled violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk in a field near a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the Sharya area some 15 kilometres from the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Even after being rescued from the clutches of ISIS, Yazidi women in refugee camps are continuing to struggle with debilitating trauma caused by enduring and witnessing extreme violence and sexual abuse. Some 60 Yazidi women have committed suicide while in refugee camps in Iraq. One 17-year-old girl, who had been safe in an Iraqi refugee camp for two weeks, set her hair and face on fire in order to make herself undesirable after imagining she heard the voices of ISIS fighters outside her tent.

More than 1,000 women, mainly Yazidis, are receiving psychological treatment in Germany — with the hope that, someday, their trauma can become manageable enough to allow them to live normal lives. The pioneering program began after Yazidis approached German politicians for help and found an ally in Winfried Kretschmann, governor of the prosperous western state of Baden Wuerttemberg. The state parliament committed $107 million over three years to bring women abused by ISIS to the country, and reached out to experts such as Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, a psychologist and Middle East expert who specializes in trauma. From February 2015 to January 2016, Kizilhan and a small team of experts made 14 trips to refugee camps in northern Iraq, trying to determine who would most benefit from the program.

“It was an evil that I have never seen in my life,” said Kizilhan. “I’m experienced in trauma. I had already worked with patients from Rwanda, from Bosnia, but this was very different. If you have an 8-year-old girl in front of you and she’s saying she was sold eight times by ISIS and raped 100 times during 10 months, how can humankind be so evil?”

Kizilhan has also met with the head religious leader of the Yazidis, the Baba Sheikh, who agreed not to ostracize the victims — despite the fact that a woman’s honor, in Yazidi culture, is tainted by rape. “The Baba Sheikh talked with each one of them, kissed them on the head and said, ‘You belong to our society, you are still Yazidis and we are very proud of you … Most of the women cried, very shocked but happy to be accepted by the highest priest,” Kizilhan recalled.

All 1,100 of the women and girls have permission to remain in Germany for two years. Kizilhan has said, however, that they should all be able to qualify for permanent asylum if they so desire.

Read the full story at The Associated Press.

Related:

U.N. report finds nearly 2,000 Yazidi women still enduring slavery at hands of ISIS

Exclusive: Amal Clooney to represent ISIS survivor Nadia Murad and victims of Yazidi genocide

Germany offers support to traumatized Yazidi slaves of ISIS

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