Photo: By Defend International (YazidiLKids_DI_Partner) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I remember watching it unfold on the news: the images of men, women and children, old and young from the Yazidi community fleeing to Sinjar mountain, many dying of starvation and dehydration waiting to be saved, waiting for the world to know what was happening to them and to help them. More than 100,000 people fled, seeking refuge on the mountain. Those who could not flee were rounded up by ISIS fighters.
Then the stories began to emerge: about ISIS taking over Yazidi villages, about executions of men, older boys, and older women; about women and girls – some as young as nine – taken by ISIS, forced to convert and serve as sabayas (sex slaves) or wives of ISIS fighters; about young boys sent to ISIS training camps for indoctrination, radicalization, and exploitation as child soldiers.
Prior to the news unfolding of the Sinjar massacre, I was among the vast majority who knew nothing of the Yazidi people, a small ethnic and religious group based primarily in Northern Iraq who, throughout their history, have faced persecution. The genocide perpetrated against them by ISIS is just part of a painful and traumatic history. In the four years since Sinjar, they have been – almost – forgotten again, save for a few politicians and others who continue to work with them around the world. As the granddaughter of a Holocaust Survivor, a history that has shaped so much of who I am, I found the images excruciating, and what I read and saw four years ago continues to drive my commitment to helping ensure the Yazidi people have a voice – that, for them, “never again” does not ring hollow.
In a matter of days, in August 2014, as many as 10,000 Yazidis were killed or captured. More than 3,000 were murdered or simply died of starvation, dehydration, or injury during the siege on Mount Sinjar, and 6,800 were enslaved – transported to ISIS prisons, military training camps, and homes of fighters across Syria and Iraq.
The women enslaved by ISIS were bought and sold as commodities, brutally raped, beaten and tortured; when they tried to escape, their punishment was gang rape or the murder of their children. The stories these women tell are horrific but, when they speak, we must listen, we must bear witness. Four years later, it is incredible to me that at least some of these women who have miraculously survived and escaped refuse to be silent. They share their stories to be sure they are not forgotten. Many will tell you how they have felt the international community abandoned them and, to this day, as Yazidis remain in captivity, this feeling prevails.
With the honour I have of working with the Yazidi community in Canada comes the opportunity to build relationships with them, seeing firsthand the pitfalls of our refugee system, and hearing firsthand some of their stories. Theirs is a culture that welcomes guests into their homes and their families with open arms. I have worked closely with one family, a mom and her three children. I remain in awe of Z’s strength and perseverance. In addition to living as a single mother of three children under five, Z is coping with language and cultural barriers, financial constraints – and the trauma that comes with their time in ISIS captivity. And yet, during her short time in Canada, she has excelled. As the anniversary of Sinjar approaches, I think of her, of how painful this date must be, marking the end of life as she had known it.
One of the central tenets of Judaism is the pursuit of justice. The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) states: “justice, justice you shall pursue.” While there has been tremendous work by Jewish community groups such as Operation Ezra, sponsoring Yazidi refugees and Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) offering settlement services, there is much more to be done. Those who have come to Canada are facing many barriers. They lack sufficient access to mental health services, affordable housing, and government services in their mother tongue. In some cases, only Arabic-speaking interpreters are available. In the last letter my great-grandmother wrote to my grandmother before the Nazis deported her to a death camp, she wrote: “I hope that you will forget the German language and, if you have children, they also should never know this language.” For my family and for many survivors, German became the language of oppression, so I fully understand how being spoken to in Arabic, the language of their torturers, especially in such a vulnerable setting, can be traumatic.
In refugee camps many Yazidis still languish, wanting to return safely to their homes but still targeted because of their religion. Whether they have found refuge in other countries or remain in Iraq, they want only one thing: to confront their torturers – and those who murdered their families – in court, to see justice done, a goal for which Amal Clooney and others are fighting.
Four years since Sinjar, the global community needs to recommit to the Yazidi people, to help their pursuit of justice. We must provide opportunities for them to share their stories, a goal to which I am firmly committed. Their stories are not mine; I am there to give them the support they need to speak, to ensure their people are not forgotten.
Today, more than 350,000 Yazidis remain in IDP camps, the mass graves of those murdered by ISIS remain unexamined, and crucial evidence disappears everyday. Horrifically, more than 3,000 – one third of the Yazidis taken in 2014 – are unaccounted for. Many are still held by ISIS. Some are dead, and others have been trafficked outside ISIS territory. For all of them, the women captured, the men murdered, the families torn apart, and all who have escaped, we must demand justice.