Week 40: Free Yezidi Foundation: Hope for Survivors of Genocide
For thousands of years the Yezidis have lived in the Sinjar area of northern Iraq. This is their spiritual heartland, and although Yezidi communities are found in several countries around the globe, their connection to this ancient land is magical. For generations and generations they have lived in Sinjar as herdsmen and farmers, growing crops of figs, wheat and almonds… a peaceful people with a rich and distinct spiritual tradition that can be traced back over 6,700 years, predating Islam and Christianity….
This week’s blog is very different from prior weeks. Instead of having completed a specific activity or event, I am writing about the beginning of a connection, with more to come. I have been deeply moved to help this week’s organization – the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF) – and am currently working to figure out what that looks like. But it is important to me to share the journey thus far because I want to draw attention to the Yezidi women who so desperately need to be remembered and lifted up.
It is the summer of 2014… ISIS has seized the city of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh region. Stories of ISIS brutally and systematically killing members of religious minorities filter into the Yezidi communities nestled in Sinjar (about 100 miles West of Mosul).
The information is confusing, alarming, but the Yezidi have lived on this land among Muslims and minority Christians for centuries as a peaceful people, and the Kurdish military forces (the Pershmerga) maintain checkpoints into the region to preserve stability, so everyone believes ISIS will just pass them by.
August 2, 2014 marks the Ieda Chilê Havinê, or “Feast of the Forty Days of Summer.” It is a wonderful day of fellowship among extended families and neighbors who gather together to celebrate and worship.
Many will visit Lalish – a temple and village complex in the Shekhan Valley that is the holiest temple of the Yezidi faith (Yezidi are expected to make a pilgrimage to the site at least once in their lifetime to drink the holy spring water). The celebration day ends in elaborate meals, with candies and sweets for the children.
At dawn the morning of August 3, 2014, ISIS arrives in Sinjar and begins a campaign of terror and genocide against the Yezidi people. As ISIS enters each village, they separate the men from the women, then the women from the children. All but a few men are lined up and shot, the rest become prisoners for torture. They gather the male children together and brutally slaughter some, taking many others as prisoners who will be forced to pledge allegiance to ISIS, convert to Islam, and become fighters or suicide bombers.
The women and girls of each village are rounded up and captured… taken away in groups to be sold, tortured and raped as sex slaves, or forced to marry ISIS fighters where they will be horribly abused.
Girls as young as 8 are tortured, raped, and sold. Women too old to take as wives or sex slaves are murdered.
As word spreads from village to village, a mass exodus of the Yazidi people fleeing for their lives takes place… hundreds of thousands head towards Syria and the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. They are chased by ISIS.
By the end of August, more than 5,000 Yezidi have been killed. More than 6,000 women and girls have been enslaved. Over 300,000 Yezidi have become refugees fleeing for their lives.
During the exodus, at least 40,000 Yezidi flee up Mt. Sinjar, a desolate, craggy, mile-high ridge identified in local legends as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. There, burning in the unrelenting sun, blistered from thirst, weak from exhaustion, and surrounded by ISIS terrorists, they wait for military assistance from the United States and other countries. They did not have time to bring food or water with them when they fled their homes and scrambled up the mountain. There is no shelter or medical care on the mountain. After many days, the US will begin a series of humanitarian aid drops, but it is not enough, scores of people will die of hunger and thirst in the summer heat….
Eventually, the US and other countries hold attacks and airstrikes against ISIS and open a path off the mountain. Scores of Yezidi make their way to IDP camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Displaced, with nothing but the clothes on their back, these refugees find their way to camps.
It has been almost 4 years since the ISIS attacks on the Yezidi in Sinjar, and the survivors still live in displacement, with no justice and not enough support to help rebuild their lives.
Many of the women who were captured by ISIS have escaped or been rescued. They live in dire conditions – either with impoverished relatives who have been displaced from their homes, or in refugee camps. Food is scarce. Daily life is a struggle. Traumatized and haunted by the horrific torture, rape and unimaginable abuse they have experienced, devastated by grief for relatives killed by ISIS, and overcome by fears for those who remain in captivity, these women have lost everything. Flashbacks, nightmares, crippling depression, severe anxiety, suicide… these are all part of life for these women.
Into this reality steps the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF), created by Pari Ibrahim after the events of August 2014. Pari’s family is Yezidi. They fled from Iraq to the Netherlands when she was a child. She was a university law student in the Netherlands when ISIS attacked the Sinjar province in August 2014. Most of her extended family lived in that region so she was desperate to hear what had happened to them. Like the rest of the world, she watched the news stories in horror as they unfolded – the ISIS attacks, the mass exodus of the Yezidi from the land they had lived in for generations. She watched as tens of thousands of Yezidi became trapped on Mt. Sinjar, and then their subsequent escape to the refugee camps. She heard the reports about the brutal murders, rapes and tortures. Her heart aching for her people and for the family members who were murdered (she lost 40 extended family members), Pari turned her shock, horror and anger into action and created the Free Yezidi Foundation. She became a spokesperson for her people, tirelessly raising funds and coming up with a plan to help the refugees, especially the women and girls who were so horribly abused.
In November 2015, FYF opened both a women’s center and a children’s center in the Xanke Refugee Camp in the Kurdistan Region. More than 16,000 displaced Yezidis live in the camp and anther 12,000 live in makeshift tents adjacent to it. The centers are safe, warm, nurturing environments that provide educational, therapeutic and livelihood support. Psychological counseling, literacy training, and bilingual education in Arabic and English are some of the programs offered. Art and music classes allow expression of feelings and reduce the stress of trauma. Women are given courses in computers, sewing and knitting, and receive education in working rights, family rights and protection. The goal is to give these women and children the skills to come to terms with the horrible atrocities they have endured, and to help them develop the skills they need to support themselves (since many have no surviving family members to help them). The centers are safe spaces for healing, socializing, rebuilding.
The programs run for 3 months, four times a year, so currently FYFs programs support 400 women and 600 children a year. With tens of thousands of women and children who need help, the need far outstrips available aid. FYF’s mission is to continue to raise awareness and funds to expand their programs.
After reading the information and stories on the FYF website and watching the videos of Pari and the survivors, my horror and shock at the ISIS crimes and my sympathy for the survivors fueled a need to do something concrete. So I began an email correspondence with Pari to find out how I could help. She then introduced me to Catherine van Kampen, a Board member who is leading FYF media and awareness efforts and helping with justice efforts.
What my involvement will look like is still developing, but one of the first things I wanted to do was to help get the word out about Pari and the FYF organization. In addition to sharing information in my blog, we are discussing other ways to promote awareness of the organization and to connect with the survivors so they know they are not forgotten. Activities may include engaging the women in social media campaigns, or connecting with the survivors through text or email conversations. Another opportunity is to collect clothing items for the women and girls. Although it is very expensive to ship items to Iraq, this act would be like sending hugs to the survivors and the clothing is much needed. And of course there is also opportunities to organize and host fundraisers to raise money to support the programs.
Much more needs to be done to ensure the Yezidi receive the necessary care and support they urgently require to rebuild their lives and help heal the deep physical and psychological scars. FYF offers hope. Funding this type of specialized support and programs is essential to their future.
Stay tuned to see what my next step will be in my quest to help FYF. For now, please visit the FYF website to learn more or to make a donation: https://www.freeyezidi.org/
If you are interested in helping make a difference, want to get involved in a concrete way, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for coming along with me on this week’s journey.
Until next week,
– – Penelope XO XO