WHEN Dr Sarah Ahmed first approaches Yazidi families living in camps in Kurdistan, their immediate reaction is often to insist that any cameras be put away.
Building trust is tricky, given the bloody road that led here, and the actions of those in whose footsteps she follows.
“I never say, ‘Here I am, the hero,’ or have them hold signs,” she explains. “I say, ‘I am like you. I am here to help you.’”
It is estimated that about half-a-million Yazidis are living in camps in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq, with “scant psychological and medical care” (News, 19 February). About 3400 women and girls remain in the hands of Islamic State (IS), which overran Sinjar, a Yazidi homeland, in August 2014. Others have been bought back by families, sometimes with the assistance of the Iraqi government. Just last month, it was reported that 19 Yazidis, mainly women and girls, were rescued after two years in captivity.
Before the current crisis, Dr Ahmed had had little contact with the Yazidis, a religious minority living mainly in Iraq. Born in Baghdad in 1987, she trained in dental surgery, before working on a project connecting people in the United States with Iraqis. It was at a conference in New York, in 2013, that she met Canon Andrew White, then Vicar of St George’s, Baghdad, who persuaded her to return to her home country. She initially agreed to go for a week. More than two years later, as director of operations in Iraq for Canon White’s Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, her days are spent co-ordinating aid deliveries and visiting the recipients.
She has a particular concern for Yazidi women and girls kidnapped by IS, and traumatised during their captivity. Identifying them is a delicate operation. Not many families are willing to talk about the issue openly, she says, “because of the honour thing, and the culture that surrounds the situation”.Through regular visits, she is winning their trust, connecting with them “on a woman-to-woman level”.
Many of these survivors are now “mentally unstable”, she says. “They do not talk or interact normally. I try to make them laugh all the time, but it is really hard.” She has found that they will describe other girls being raped, but deny that it happened to them: “It is shameful to them.”
These women are not shunned, she stresses. Their families are “very welcoming”, but rape is “frowned upon. . . It is not ‘Let’s help her’; they do not speak about it. So that is the way they deal with it, as if it never happened. I feel that the more they talk about it and the feeling associated with it, it brings them, not closure, but at least dealing with it on some level.”
The Girls Who Survived ISIS Empowerment Project serves survivors under 30, some of whom are as young as ten. For the past two months, Dr Ahmed has been working on a project that enables them to paint. Choosing colours, and dwelling on them, helps a person to forget that they are sitting in a small tent; that they were raped multiple times.
In September, she was helping 20 girls and women, but this has risen to 155, and by May she hopes to be working with 1000. She would like to establish a centre where Yazidi women could gain some self-sufficiency, as tailors or in food preparation. It is the Yazidi women who go in search of food and medicine for their families, she has noticed: “The women are so strong and I know that they are suffering.”
The Yazidis have been disappointed by previous visitors who have come, taken photographs, and failed to live up to their promises to return with help, they tell her. Such approaches have left them feeling used.
“These people are very traumatised and they lost all the trust they have in all humanity . . . so they are very fragile.”
Securing their trust has been tough — “I am a Muslim. I represent all that they hate” — but she hopes that through her actions she will be able to “win them back, to show that there is hope. . . not just to use them to get publicity.”
Her mission has taken her beyond the camps of Kurdistan. She returned two weeks ago from a trip to deliver clothes, flour, and oil to Mount Sinjar, where she believes 10,000 Yazidis remain, more than 18 months after the United States intervened to help evacuate those who had fled IS’s advance. Almost nobody is helping them now, she reports: “They are living like wolves. . . The situation is absolutely horrible.” She saw burned-out villages, now inaccessible because IS left mines behind.
She has “reservations” about the decision by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to brand as genocide IS’s attacks on Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims (News, 18 March). She would have reserved the term for the Yazidis, who were, she believes, the worst affected; their women trafficked and subjected to multiple daily rapes, their men killed. Without wishing to minimise the sufferings of other groups, she believes that some religious authorities have “exaggerated” what occured. “The situation does not need to be exaggerated,” she says. “It is bad.” While IS would recognise the other groups as people of the book, she explains, it regards the Yazidis as devil-worshippers, hence the inhumanity of the attacks against them.
The Yazidis were bewildered upon her arrival at Sinjar, she says, until “I started yelling and carrying boxes and pulling everybody to carry boxes.” Her work has often confounded those she meets in the region. As a single woman living alone, it was a struggle just to get residency in Kurdistan. The fact that she is director of operations, “the boss”, is “weird, not fully accepted, even here,” she explains. “The system does not accept women who are in high command.”
Working with religious minorities has also been a challenge. She recalls how, when she first met the Bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church, he said to her: “You are a girl, you are a Muslim, and you are coming offering help. What went wrong?” Today he gets in touch if she hasn’t called in the past month. “So it happens. Trust happens, and working with other religious minorities is not as easy as it sounds but you can make it happen. It is not impossible.”
She worries that Iraq is getting less and less attention despite huge suffering. Born during the Iran-Iraq war, her earliest memories are of sirens and food shortages. “All I remember is war since I was young. . . We did not live our childhoods, our adulthood, or our teenage life. . . Even now, it is always a constant struggle.”
It is “easy to lose hope”, she says, particularly when she sees refugee children “being brought up to hate. . . All the new generation are being brought to know about this gap [between different groups] and to live looking at it.” But she hangs on to hope, “because I am working on their education and providing job opportunities and [getting] their pride back, and hope that one day their land will be back too, after ISIS are kicked out, and that is the hope that I have. There might be a future. I am working on it and so are many others.”