Fighting ISIS with Hope
THE WOMAN WHO LOST DOZENS OF RELATIVES TO ISIS AND DECIDED TO ACT
By Beatriz Buarque
Pari Ibrahim was 25 years old when the so-called Islamic State entered Sinjar, northern Iraq, and started killing thousands of Yazidis. During the attacks many of her family members were killed, and 19 women and girls were kidnapped. Since then, two have managed to escape. Ms. Ibrahim, living in Holland, decided to act.
“Their fathers and in some cases their mothers have been killed. Their brothers have been killed. The two who escaped, left one sister in Syria, because they had a chance to flee while in a public market, but they had to leave their little sister, who is still held by ISIS. It was a heartbreaking choice. They say life as a sex slave is the worst thing that can ever happen to anyone. They have been raped by a lot of men. If an ISIS terrorist says, ‘I don’t want this girl anymore,’ he sells the girl to another man.”
In August 2014, Ms. Ibrahim realized she had lost family members to ISIS and became aware of the atrocities committed by ‘Islamic State’ terrorists.
“We heard that they were checking children – young boys – under their arms. If they had hair, they would shoot them immediately. If they didn’t have any hair under their arms, they would kidnap them, brainwash the children, and force them to become suicide bombers. The boys that were too old were killed immediately, and the men were also killed. Young women were taken as sex slaves. The women that the terrorists believed were too old to be sold as sex slaves were executed.”
ISIS overruns Sinjar
When ISIS conquered Sinjar Pari´s brother joined the Yezidi militia. He went there to try to protect the civilians and fend off ISIS, as the civilians were unarmed and weren’t protected by anyone else. According to Pari, at 5 am, when the Islamic State reached Mount Sinjar, there were more than 50.000 Yezidis on the mountain, seeking shelter from ISIS. Many of them managed to flee from ISIS, but others were unable to reach the mountain.
“We know that more than 400.000 Yazidis have been displaced from Sinjar itself. More than 3.500 Yazidi women, girls, and children are still in ISIS captivity. The exact numbers are not entirely clear because many people were killed and their bodies are in mass graves. Many are still held by ISIS and hundreds of thousands are in IDP camps*. Some other Yezidis have fled Iraq to go to Europe and America, to get a better life. Some of those drowned off the coast of Turkey. So the precise numbers are difficult to confirm.”
Pari says: “It is suspected that there are at least 35 mass graves in and around Sinjar. Twenty of them have already been uncovered. Thousands of people remain under ISIS control in Sinjar and even if ISIS is completely defeated, the displaced Yezidis will not be able to return to their houses soon. This is due to the landmines that the extremist group placed around the mass graves and in many houses, clearly indicating their intention to eradicate the Yezidi community.”
The recent recognized genocide
A number of Yezidi activists and organizations have been vocal in advocacy efforts, and thus far the European Union, The Vatican, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Department of State have all formally recognized the genocide committed by ISIS terrorists against Yezidis and other minority groups.
“In the fourth edition of ISIS’ magazine, Dabiq, it says clearly why they believe they have to eradicate the Yezidis, namely that it would be a sin for future Muslims if they let any Yezidi live. So it’s clearly a genocide, even by their own words, and also by their actions. The Holocaust Museum in Washington has recently written a report about the issue and it clearly says that the attacks on the Yezidis by ISIS were genocide, and that was a key step forward”.
The Free Yezidi Foundation
During the ISIS attack on the Yezidis, Pari was miles away from Kurdistan. She has spent most of her life in the Netherlands. However, this was not an obstacle preventing her from helping fellow Yezidis in need. In fact, her presence in Europe gave her the opportunity to raise her voice. She founded the Free Yezidi Foundation during that month and began a campaign to raise awareness of the grim fate of her people. She spoke with politicians and led rallies in Brussels, Amsterdam, and Geneva.
“After the attacks, I immediately quit my job, I quit school, I thought I had to do something for my people the Yezidis because most news channels weren’t talking about it, so I tried to raise awareness by going to demonstrations and by appearing on television to talk about the genocide against the Yezidis. Eventually, we got some attention.”
Her advocacy efforts were soon noticed, and a representative from Proctor and Gamble, on behalf of Gucci’s Chime for Change, awarded the Free Yezidi Foundation with a generous grant of $120,000 to help aid Yezidi women and children in need. With this funding and resources from other donors, the Foundation was able to finance its first women’s center and children’s center for Yezidi survivors in one of the IDP camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
“Gucci and also individual people donated money to the Foundation and with that money we started our projects. In November 2015, we finally opened the centers and we are now active on the ground. We have two centers: a women´s and a children´s center, but we are trying to raise money to do more because, of course, much more assistance is needed.”
The centers are located in Duhok province, one of the more than a dozen UN-operated camps meant for Yezidis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Around 19,000 people live in or around this IDP camp, in tents exposed to weather conditions and in some cases lacking access to basic sanitation and health services. Despite the challenging conditions, the Foundation aims to comfort the women and children and empower them. The centers focus on reducing trauma, rehabilitation, and the establishment of a safe, warm environment. The Foundation created the first football pitch at the IDP camp – a great gift for children and their parents seeking some normalcy for their children during such a difficult time.
In the last three months, the first cohort of children attended art, language, and computer classes in the center. Many of them draw pictures of their home, now most likely destroyed, or of their family members. Almost all children have lost some relatives, and in some cases, their own parents. Pari has brought expert post-trauma trainers to Kurdistan to train practitioners, as hundreds of thousands of people are traumatized for life. Post-trauma training is another key component of the Foundation’s portfolio.
In the women´s center the challenge seems to be even bigger: some of these girls were raped many times by many men.
“Hearing them, their stories and how they suffered, does a lot to you as a human being. Not every person can accept that these things are happening. It’s unbearable to hear that, especially if you have been raised in a country where you’re able to speak up against these crimes and you see that these crimes are committed by people and you cannot understand why people have suffered so much. It’s unbearable. So there are many, many stories of these young girls and the stories of the ones who could escape. The bravery… It really touches your heart when you talk to them”.
During their time at the center, the women engage in two sets of courses: livelihood training to help empower them and provide them with useful skills for the local economy, and evidence-based activities designed to reduce stress, combat trauma, and encourage self-expression. Livelihood training includes sewing, basic computer classes, and basic English language courses. Activities for women’s well-being include art, music, gardening, and a carpeted quiet room replete with couches and tea. Although the centers currently include cohorts of about 30 women and 80 children for three-month courses, a new facility will soon expand this number of women to 60. Nonetheless, hundreds of applicants are on the waiting list to join the FYF centers.
The Free Yezidi Foundation continues to seek further funding to expand assistance to Yezidis most in need. The Foundation prides itself on its extremely low overhead cost, only 2.4%, with all other funding going to the Foundation’s programs. Each center costs approximately $65,000 to build and outfit, and just over $100,000 to operate for a full year. FYF staff members are themselves Yezidi IDPs from Sinjar, capable and committed to sharing their skills with fellow camp residents. Giving them this opportunity is something that Pari had in mind from the beginning of the project.
“I think if you want to help the population to rebuild itself from the ground up, as we are doing, then you have to work together with the community. That’s why we choose Yezidi IDPs first, and I am very happy that they receive a salary for the great work they do with us.”
From the Netherlands, Pari, some friends, and her board coordinate everything that happens in the centers. They make sure the donated money is spent to keep the activities going in the centers. Since August 2014, the Foundation received more than $150,000. Pari has travelled to the United Nations, spoken during GA week and at the Security Council, and addressed a panel at the UK House of Lords to explain what is actually happening in Sinjar: the execution of thousands of Yazidis and the slavery of at least 3,000 women. For the last two years Pari was trying to call the international community attention and only recently, on March 17th, the United States recognized the Yazidi genocide.
“Recognition matters for us – it matters a lot. Justice is the next goal, because perpetrators should be held accountable for their actions.”
A word to God
Ms. Ibrahim left Kurdistan in 1991 as a young child – her family and thousands of others fled from Saddam Hussein´s regime. Perhaps this is proof that one can leave the land, but never forget his or her roots. Thousands of miles away she, only a single person, decided to make a difference for her people, and she has done so. When asked what she should say to God if she had a moment with him, she didn´t hesitate:
“I just wished God would see the suffering of my people and do something. Because we are trying to do something about it, but what we do is actually only something small compared to what is needed. And I would ask God to… Not to help my Foundation, no. I would ask God to give us the opportunity to rescue these girls, the thousands of girls. Otherwise they will remain captured in the hands of ISIS. Because they are suffering much more than the IDPs living inside the tents. That would be my greatest wish and I would wish to God that He would, in the future, help the Yezidi people. Because we are a religious minority among people who don’t understand our religion at all.”
*IDP camp: Internally Displaced Persons camp, managed by UNHCR (the UN High Commission for Refugees) and the Kurdistan Regional Government
Who are the Yezidis?
The majority of Yezidis live in Northern Iraq and practice a distinct religion. In general, they speak Kurmanji, a dialect spoken by Kurds. The Yezidi religion is monotheist – Yezidis call God ‘Khude’ or ‘Ezid’. They worship the Peacock Angel (Tawusi Malak), which was created by God before the creation of the world.