After unimaginable trauma, a thread of hope
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
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