Af­ter unimag­in­able trauma, a thread of hope

Grazia (UK) - - Contents - WO R D S JESSIE PARKS

Fol­low­ing the dev­as­tat­ing mas­sacre of Iraq’s Yazidis by Isis, the women who sur­vived are re­pair­ing their lives through a unique project that of­fers sup­port as well as skills

TEM­PER­A­TURES EX­CEEDED

40 de­grees the day Isis came to the Iraqi vil­lage of Tel Qasab, near Sin­jar. As con­voys of un­fa­mil­iar trucks ap­peared on the hori­zon, a sense of fore­bod­ing de­scended over the area like a rolling fog. Sin­dus, 24, was heav­ily preg­nant and had a bag of baby clothes and nap­pies packed and ready to go by the door, but this was not in prepa­ra­tion for her dash to the hospi­tal when her wa­ters broke. In­stead, it was to en­able her and her hus­band, Farhad, to flee at a mo­ment’s no­tice. She was right to be pre­pared. On her due date of 4 Au­gust, they saw the omi­nous sight dreaded by all Yazidis: heav­ily armed Isis sol­diers ar­riv­ing in town, their black and white flags blow­ing in the wind.

‘We ran for Mount Sin­jar be­cause we heard the roads had been blocked off ev­ery­where else,’ Sin­dus tells Grazia. ‘I’ll never for­get the sight of thou­sands of peo­ple run­ning up the moun­tain; some had no shoes and their feet were torn and bloody from the rocks. I was in pain from my pregnancy and gave birth to my son, Hawar, a few days later on the moun­tain. Up there we had to sleep on stones and peo­ple were dy­ing around us from star­va­tion and thirst. Farhad went off to search for food and I never saw him again.’

Be­cause, in Au­gust 2014, those trucks brought geno­cide to Sin­jar. Ji­hadists sought to eth­ni­cally cleanse the re­gion of the an­cient Kur­dish mi­nor­ity – which takes re­li­gious el­e­ments from both Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam – that Isis ac­cuse of be­ing ‘devil wor­ship­pers’. By the time it ended, 300,000 Yazidis had fled, 9,900 were killed or cap­tured, with al­most

half mas­sa­cred – ei­ther shot, beheaded or burnt alive. The rest died from star­va­tion, de­hy­dra­tion or in­juries on Mount Sin­jar, and more than 7,000 girls and women were kid­napped as sex slaves.

While Sin­dus and her baby sur­vived, Farhad never re­turned. ‘I searched for days, scream­ing his name. We only had two years to­gether in this world, it wasn’t long enough,’ Sin­dus weeps. A week later, Kur­dish troops opened a route that al­lowed peo­ple trapped on the moun­tain to en­ter Syria and move into Iraqi Kur­dis­tan on foot – a jour­ney that takes 10 days.

Those who sur­vived, in­clud­ing Sin­dus, are still dis­placed and liv­ing in camps in the re­gion. But a new char­i­ta­ble project called Sewing Sis­ters is bring­ing hope to her and some of the most vul­ner­a­ble fe­male refugees. Many – who had no need to work be­fore their dis­place­ment – have few or no skills, but have sud­denly found them­selves the sole bread­win­ners now that male rel­a­tives are miss­ing or dead.

Based in the Rwanga Com­mu­nity Camp in Qadiya, Iraq, Sewing Sis­ters is a col­lec­tive of 15 vol­un­teers who teach women in­comegen­er­at­ing skills like sewing and tai­lor­ing.

Ta­ban Shoresh, 34, who sup­ports the ini­tia­tive through her Lo­tus Flower char­ity, along with The Kindly Col­lec­tive, now lives in London, hav­ing sur­vived geno­cide in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein. She ex­pe­ri­enced im­pris­on­ment at the age of four, as well as nar­rowly es­cap­ing be­ing buried alive with her fam­ily be­cause her father was crit­i­cal of Sad­dam’s regime. They were res­cued by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and taken to safety in Eng­land in 1988. She was so hor­ri­fied watch­ing the mass slaugh­ters hap­pen all over again, she knew it was her call­ing to help.

‘I re­turned to Iraq for 15 months and flew over Mount Sin­jar in an aid plane dur­ing the Au­gust mas­sacre,’ she says. ‘I founded The Lo­tus Flower in re­sponse to the des­per­ate strug­gles I saw at that time. It brought back mem­o­ries of the tragedy my fam­ily went through.’

Mad­ina also fled from Isis in 2014, when they came to her vil­lage of Ran­bos near Sin­jar. In­stead of flee­ing on foot, the 25-year-old and her fam­ily es­caped by car, but saw many of her friends killed along the way to safety in the city of Zakho. ‘My father brought me a small sewing ma­chine be­cause I was suf­fer­ing psy­cho­log­i­cally when we got to the camp. I heard from a friend about the Sewing Sis­ters and joined them. Now, af­ter four months, I can earn an in­come and have re­cently be­come a trainer for the project. I feel that my dreams are com­ing true, step by step.’

An­other Yazidi woman ben­e­fit­ting from the Sewing Sis­ters pro­gramme is Nofa, 24, who not only sur­vived Isis im­pris­on­ment, but also weeks of liv­ing as a sex slave. Like Sin­dus and Mad­ina, she too lived in the Sin­jar dis­trict of Iraq when mil­i­tants in­vaded her town, Kojo, in 2014. They kid­napped her, along with her mother, five sis­ters and six broth­ers, and sep­a­rated men from women. She hasn’t heard from five of her broth­ers since that tragic day. ‘I can’t de­scribe the fear,’ she says.

They were trans­ported to a school-turned­prison, where the women were crowded into class­rooms and guarded by fight­ers, who picked out beau­ti­ful girls to serve as slaves. ‘The day I was picked I screamed and screamed at be­ing sep­a­rated from my fam­ily,’ Nofa ex­plains.

In the com­ing weeks, some Yazidis – in­clud­ing Nofa’s mother and sis­ters – man­aged to es­cape by walk­ing through the night across muddy fields, keep­ing to the val­leys to avoid Isis check­points, and made it to the rel­a­tive safety of the Rwanga camp. But Nofa was taken to a dirty house in Mo­sul by her Isis ‘owner’.

‘I told him I was like his sis­ter and I was very sick – any ex­cuse to make him stop touch­ing me,’ she says. ‘He beat me un­til I fainted and I woke up with him rap­ing me. I couldn’t do any­thing ex­cept cry. I was kept as a slave, work­ing for a fam­ily and be­ing con­stantly raped. Every morn­ing I told my­self it was all a night­mare.’

Af­ter a few weeks, she was granted one phone call and rang the mo­bile of her mother, who told her to run to a nearby house of some­one they knew in Mo­sul. When the men she was serv­ing were out, Nofa suc­cess­fully made her es­cape. ‘I can’t de­scribe the hap­pi­ness at see­ing my fam­ily again when I reached the camp.

‘I’d heard there was a sewing project where you can learn skills to make money. I re­ally needed this, as our broth­ers are in cap­tiv­ity. I’ve been in­volved with Sewing Sis­ters for a few months now and want to be­come a tai­lor to help my fam­ily sur­vive.’

Mean­while, Sin­dus has qual­i­fied as a Sewing Sis­ters trainer and is al­ready paid for the work she does mak­ing school uni­forms and gar­ments to sell at the local mar­ket. She still prays for Farhad’s re­turn every day. ‘The project helped with the trauma I suf­fered be­cause I met new peo­ple and it helped with my de­pres­sion. If my hus­band ever comes home, I can’t wait to show him the tai­lor­ing I can do.’

Kur­dish forces re­cap­tured Sin­jar from Isis in Novem­ber 2015. But al­most two years later, the area re­mains eerily empty and in ru­ins. Be­cause of po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary con­flicts be­tween the Kur­dish forces, go­ing home is not yet an op­tion for Iraq’s Yazidi peo­ple.

Sin­dus, Nofa, Mad­ina and thou­sands of oth­ers look on from dis­place­ment camps, pre­par­ing for the day they will re­turn with the skills to do the jobs their male rel­a­tives once did. ‘I can’t be­lieve I am in my midthir­ties and I have wit­nessed two geno­cides in this re­gion,’ Ta­ban says. ‘But be­cause I got through this as a child and was given the op­por­tu­nity to re­build my life, I have hope for oth­ers’ fu­tures too. Af­ter such a hor­rific or­deal, we’re giv­ing women the tools to achieve their full po­ten­tial.’ n To do­nate, visit kind­ly­col­lec­tive.co. All do­na­tions will be ring-fenced for the Sewing Sis­ters project

MANY WOMEN ARE THE SOLE BREAD­WIN­NERS NOW THAT MALE REL­A­TIVES ARE MISS­ING OR DEAD

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