Viewpoints

Trudy Rubin: Two groups offer aid to Yazidi refugees

In the wake of the Islamic State atrocity in Brussels, it’s time to reflect on the meaning of John Kerry’s recent statement that the group has committed genocide against Yazidis.

It is certainly true that the Islamic State has done its best to wipe out members of the ancient monotheistic religion, killing thousands of men, enslaving women and children, and creating roughly 400,000 refugees.

But what good does a State Department declaration do for women and girls who escaped Islamic State captivity after months of being raped daily, or the thousands who remain enslaved? What help does it provide for a shattered community?

“We must find the resources to help those harmed by these atrocities be able to survive on their ancestral land,” said Kerry. No clue, so far, if the words will be followed by action. If Kerry’s intent is solid, the State Department should look at the work of two nongovernmental organizations that are helping Yazidi women and their families, and heed their advice on what needs to be done.

The Seed Foundation (www.seedkurdistan.org), co-founded by former State Department official Sherri Kraham Talibany, runs projects in the Mamylian refugee camp in Akre, Iraqi Kurdistan, to help the 80 percent of its 13,000 residents who are Yazidis, especially the women.

The camp was built by the Kurdish government, but Talibany, whose husband is deputy prime minister of the Kurdish Region, raised funds from Kurdish businessmen to build a community center where Yazidi women can attend a variety of classes. Seeds has also built a greenhouse where women can plant vegetables to supplement their food allotment.

But most critical is the presence of a clinical psychologist who, with two assistants, can reach out to traumatized women – and men. Psychotherapy is rare in Iraq, and Rezhna Mohammed is one of the few therapists with graduate training in counseling that includes practical experience, which she obtained via a partnership between Kurdistan’s Koya University and Adler University in Chicago.

Mohammed is passionate about her work with women survivors. A Sunni Muslim, she quickly removed her headscarf when a Yazidi rape victim reacted violently to this symbol of Islam. “Religion is a matter between me and my God,” Mohammed said, “but (these women) have been repressed in the name of religion.”

There is a desperate need to train more compassionate psychologists like Mohammed – perhaps via partnerships with other U.S. universities – and to expand their outreach to Yazidi women.

But there is a huge question about whether Yazidis can ever return home, as I learned from the terrific staff of Yazda Iraq (www.yazda.org), an organization founded by Yazidi-Americans that helps refugees in Dohuk, Kurdistan.

“Yazidis have lost trust both in the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government,” says Ali Khalaf, Yazda’s project manager for genocide documentation. (Yazda is documenting mass grave sites to ensure there is a definitive record of Islamic State crimes.)

“On Aug. 3 we were abandoned,” Khalaf continues. He’s referring to Aug. 3, 2014, when the Islamic State swarmed over their heartland. Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who were supposed to be guarding Yazidi towns, suddenly withdrew, taking all their military equipment with them. Yazidis claim that, in some cases, the peshmerga instructed fearful villagers not to leave their homes.

The result was genocide against the defenseless.

Khalaf, then a college student, recalls the Islamic State swooping in to his village, putting women in trucks and forcing the men into a caravan of cars hemmed in by the trucks and headed for an execution site. Ali escaped by speeding through a break in the trucks at an intersection. The rest of these men have never been heard from again, a scenario repeated over and over during the Islamic State assault.

Yazidis now want a U.N.-mandated force to protect them if they return to their heartland, which is still partly under Islamic State control. Their fears of return have been exacerbated by several Islamic State rocket attacks since February on returnees to the city of Sinjar, attacks that dispersed chemical agents.

Matthew Barber, Yazda Iraq’s executive director, says Yazidis won’t go home unless they are convinced they will have security. Right now, the only forces they trust are Syrian Kurdish fighters who came across the Iraqi border in 2014 and created an escape corridor for Yazidis.

In the future Yazidis would want their own security force (which would probably require Washington to pressure reluctant officials in Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil). Short of that, many will think of joining the refugee flow to Europe; that would mean the Islamic State killers had succeeded in destroying this ancient religious sect.

Yazidis would also require money for reconstruction of their shattered cities and towns and to restore schools, electricity, and health care (with oil prices low, such funds won’t be forthcoming from Erbil or Baghdad). They will need long-term medical care for their traumatized women, around 2,500 of whom are still in Islamic State captivity (the Kurdish government had been helping buy them out via smugglers, but those funds have stopped). About 900 women have contacted Yazda for support services.

Barber also notes the desperate shortage of mental-health specialists to work with these women. He urges any qualified U.S. professionals who are interesting in volunteering to contact his organization.

If the State Department wants to follow up on Kerry’s genocide speech, these two NGOs have plenty of suggestions. At a time when the Islamic State is bent on destruction, this is one way to defeat their aims.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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