Black For­est sanc­tu­ary for IS-abused Yazidi women

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DONAUESCHINGEN, Ger­many — Af­ter sur­viv­ing tor­ment and rape at the hands of her Is­lamic State cap­tors, Na­dia Mu­rad re­built her life at a trauma cen­tre in Ger­many’s Black For­est which be­came her sanc­tu­ary.

It was here along­side hun­dreds of other Yazidi vic­tims of IS abuse and ter­ror that Mu­rad found her voice and started the jour­ney that saw her hon­oured with this year’s No­bel Peace Prize.

Thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from their war-bat­tered homes in north­ern Iraq’s Sin­jar re­gion, 1,100 women and chil­dren of the Kur­dish-speak­ing mi­nor­ity were re­set­tled here.

The psy­cho­log­i­cally scarred women are es­caped IS cap­tives who were cho­sen for an emer­gency asy­lum pro­gramme set up in 2014 by the state of BadenWuert­tem­berg.

The women, many of whom were sold as IS slaves, have since re­ceived trauma coun­selling for rape, a taboo sub­ject in the Mid­dle East, un­der the guid­ance of Kur­dish-Ger­man psy­chol­o­gist Jan Ilhan Kizil­han.

“At the begin­ning here it was very dif­fi­cult,” said one of them, Lewiza, speak­ing in a mono­tone voice about her cul­ture shock when she ar­rived three years ago.

“I was al­ways afraid, I thought I was go­ing to fall back into the hands of Daesh,” she said, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for the ji­hadi mil­i­tant group.

The 22-year-old, who de­clined to re­veal her full name, had to re­build her life from scratch in this pic­turesque and pros­per­ous cor­ner of Ger­many near the Swiss border.

“Ev­ery­thing was new to me: un­der­go­ing ther­apy, talk­ing to some­one about my con­di­tion,” she said. “But ev­ery time I speak, I feel much bet­ter.”

Sit­ting be­side her, Kizil­han trans­lated her Kur­dish into Ger- man, a lan­guage Lewiza is study­ing while also train­ing at a ho­tel school in the re­gion.

It was this Turk­ish-born Ger­man trauma psy­chother­a­pist who has helped the women, in­clud­ing Mu­rad, whom he en­cour­aged in 2015 to ad­dress the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

Kizil­han sought out the women who were liv­ing in refugee camps in north­ern Iraq un­der a 95 mil­lion euro (US$108 mil­lion) state pro­gramme.

It has re­quired psy­chol­o­gists, so­cial work­ers and in­ter­preters with spe­cial train­ing to help those from a cul­ture with very dif­fer­ent con­ven­tions and sen­si­tiv­i­ties.

“The terms they use are dif­fer­ent,” said Kizil­han, who is also train­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of psy­chol­o­gists in Iraq to ad­dress the coun­try’s mental health cri­sis.

“They do not say they were raped, they say they were ‘mar­ried’ ... They do not say they suf­fer trauma, they say they have In Yazidi cul­ture, as in other Mid­dle East­ern com­mu­ni­ties, vic­tims of sex­ual vi­o­lence can be ban­ished be­cause they and their fam­i­lies are seen to have been dis­hon­oured by rape.

In their des­per­a­tion, some Yazidi women have com­mit­ted sui­cide be­cause of their shame and iso­la­tion.

To help them, the psy­chother­a­pist turned to the Yazidis’ spir­i­tual leader, Baba Sheikh, and asked him to of­fer a ges­ture of in­clu­sion to the vic­tims, kiss­ing them on the fore­head.

“It is only when one is sure of one’s iden­tity that one can be­gin a ther­apy,” said Kizil­han, speak­ing in his clinic of­fice dec­o­rated with amulets to ward off bad luck and a kilim car­pet, tes­ta­ment to his Kur­dish ori­gins.

Mu­rad was one of the first women to speak, re­called Kizil­han, who had met her in a refu- gee camp in Iraq.

Bro­ken by the sav­age vi­o­lence she had en­dured, “she was cry­ing a lot and col­laps­ing on the floor”, he re­called.

“But she said to me: I want to talk about what hap­pened to us.”

Af­ter three years of treat­ment, Lewiza has also man­aged to put into words the pain she has en­dured, even if her gaze is lost in the dis­tance when she speaks.

The ji­hadists “have done so much harm all around them, I don’t know if a le­gal process will be enough to rec­tify that”, she said.

In his of­fice, also dec­o­rated with a green porce­lain pea­cock, one of the most im­por­tant Yazidi re­li­gious sym­bols, Kizil­han said that al­though the mi­nor­ity has been bat­tered by vi­o­lence, it is un­der­go­ing a “par­a­digm shift”.

In “this pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety ... it is women like Na­dia who have risen up”, he said.

“They are the ones who now lead this so­ci­ety.” — AFP

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