“I am always in pain” - Refugee Clinic blog

“I am always in pain”, said Adiba, a Yazidi refugee who was captured by ISIS and sold six times before escaping.  “I’m never comfortable”. (The New York Times, March 16, 2018).

Adiba is like many of my newly arrived Yazidi patients, who were imprisoned with ISIS for years.  Many of my patients describe how their lives were changed forever when ISIS invaded their villages.  First, the men were separated from the women and children. Then, the men were executed while the women and children were forced to convert from their native Yazidi faith, which is an ancient religion based on Zoroastrianism, to Islam.  If they refused, they were killed. In order to survive, many feigned conversion to Islam but continued to practice their faith in secret. The women and children were held captive by ISIS, often in very poor conditions. The women and girls over the age of 8 years old were sold into sexual slavery, where they suffered unimaginable horrors; sometimes, the women and girls tried to avoid rape by making themselves unattractive – refusing to bathe, removing their eyebrows, painting ash on their faces, and sometimes acting as though they were crazy.   The young boys were taken to be trained as child soldiers. Sometimes, mothers would pretend that their young sons were actually their daughters by piercing their ears, growing their hair long, and making them wear dresses – all in an attempt to protect them from becoming suicide bombers and child soldiers.

Some of these Yazidi prisoners were lucky enough to eventually win their freedom either by escaping their captors and finding refuge in Kurdistan or by having their freedom bought by a charitable organization or their families who found them online being sold by their ISIS captors to the highest bidder.

It is these women and children, whose families have been decimated by ISIS, who have been resettled in Canada over the past year as part of the Federal Government’s Victims of Daesh Program.  Because of the impact of their severe trauma, many of these women suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, characterized by severe nightmares and flashbacks. Many of my Yazidi patients still have children in captivity with ISIS and they are desperately searching for them online, hoping to find a picture of them posted by ISIS who often sells them on the internet.  These mothers are consumed with worry for their children who remain in captivity with ISIS. They feel guilty being so far away in Canada and worry about how their children will find them if they ever manage to escape ISIS. They feel guilty for sleeping in a comfortable bed in a clean home with enough food to eat while their children are suffering at the hands of their ISIS captors. They try to reassure themselves that they made the right decision to come to Canada since now their surviving children will have a chance at a future.  

The strength and resilience of these Yazidi women in the face of such brutal adversity have been astounding.  I admire how they never talk of “my” suffering but always about “our” suffering. When I talk to them during their clinic visits, they report that their greatest concern is for others who remain in captivity with ISIS – their capacity for empathy is truly extraordinary.

Every once in a while, the Yazidi women in Calgary will learn that one of their sisters has managed to escape to Kurdistan, where she is living in a tent in one of the refugee camps set up to house those who have managed to escape ISIS captivity. These women often have no surviving family in Kurdistan; they are alone and acutely traumatized. Their sisters in Calgary desperately want them to join their family in Canada – so that they can help them raise the surviving children and so that they can support each other in healing from their trauma. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism within our immigration system that allows the reunification of these families since the Federal Government’s policy is to allow only for the reunification of parents with children.  This fact has devastated the Yazidi women who have been resettled in Canada. They have lost everything – their homes, their husbands, and their children. The only remnant of their life before ISIS is their surviving family members. Without the support of their family, they will never be able to fully heal. As a nation that values compassion, I hope that you will join me in advocating for the reunification of these families who have survived genocide. For them to not only survive but thrive, in Canada, they need the love and support of their surviving family members.  Without family reunification, their trauma will persist and prevent them from building their future in Canada.