Pari Ibrahim isn’t giving up hope in the face of the Yezidi people’s 74th genocide.
On August 3, 2014, Pari Ibrahim’s life changed forever. That was the day ISIS arrived in Sinjar and began to commit genocide in the northern Iraqi province. Their target: the Yezidi people, a Kurdish religious minority that has long been persecuted.
It was also the day Pari, a Yezidi herself, quit law school.
The events that followed were harrowing. “In the towns of Sinjar, [ISIS] started to kill the men and killed the women who were too old to take as sex slaves,” Pari explained. “Then, they took the women and girls and sold them as sex slaves in markets in Syria and Iraq. Young boys were taken to be brainwashed and taught how to become suicide bombers and how to behead people.” She paused. “Girls as young as eight years old were taken as sex slaves. We can’t believe that this has happened.”
“At that moment, I couldn’t do anything else but do something for my people,” Pari said.
Pari with Yezidi children at the Duhok refugee camp in Iraq.
Pari, who grew up in the Netherlands after her family fled Iraq when she was three years old, has lost 40 members of her extended family to ISIS. After quitting law school, Pari founded the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF) to provide psychological support and education to Yezidi women and children in Iraqi refugee camps.
Pari originally envisioned opening a trauma center but decided against it since she feared women would not come forward for fear of stigma. Instead, FYF opened a women’s center to provide psychological support, women’s rights education, computer and art classes, and bilingual education in Arabic and English. In their own time, women have come forward and spoken to FYF’s psychologists about their trauma.
“A new cohort started recently, and more than 90 women have already requested individual sessions with the psychologists,” Pari said. “I’m very proud that Free Yezidi Foundation is led by Yezidi women. We hear it from the women and girls in our community: Because I am a woman, they will tell me anything.” Pari said that FYF is the only Yezidi woman-led nonprofit working in the refugee camps.
FYF also offers sewing and knitting training for women, “in hopes that they can learn something new and earn a living,” Pari explained. Since so many Yezidi men have been killed, women are finding themselves as their families’ sole source of income.
Literacy is key to their newfound independence. “A few months ago, we heard from a woman that was so happy that she followed the training and is so happy that she can go to her own appointments, see what room the doctor is in, and things like that,” said Pari.
While this ongoing genocide is particularly brutal, it isn’t the first time the Yezidi people have faced oppression at home.
“The Yezidis have been persecuted for so many years. We call this the 74th genocide,” Pari said. “The Yezidi religion has always been misunderstood by the community surrounding them. They see us as devil worshippers. One of our angels, called Tous Malik, head of all the angels, came from God down to earth, but without putting his feet on the earth, and went back to God. Other communities surrounding us see that as the fallen angel, or the devil.”
Distrust runs deep in the Yezidi community: Both neighbors and outsiders have betrayed them.
“Don’t talk about putting Yezidis back into their homeland because they’re surrounded by people who might have joined ISIS or told ISIS that they were Yezidi and they should be taken,” said Pari. “Perpetrators are walking around in Iraq like nothing happened.”
Pari, who returned to law school to finish her degree shortly after founding FYF, is also working with local authorities to get justice for the Yezidi women and children. “You cannot tell a victim she got justice if you only go after a terrorism sentencing,” she said. “The international community was too late to stop ISIS. If you let these crimes go, tomorrow it will happen in your own country.”
“Most Yezidis do not see a future in Iraq,” she added. “They want to be resettled elsewhere. The young generation is moving. When we left, my father did not see any future in Iraq or Kurdistan for Yezidis. A lot of the Yezidis are thinking the same way now, even after so many years.”
Addressing the trauma stemming from sex slavery, witnessing genocide, and centuries of persecution is no small task, so Pari is very careful. Especially because so many have not been.
“We have seen a lot of bad journalism in the last couple of years. Some journalists literally came into the camp and said, ‘Okay, who has been raped?’ We had to turn journalists away because they had disgusting questions, for the protection of the women and girls we serve,” Pari said.
“Constantly asking a woman how she was raped is the worst thing you can do to one of these women. Our psychologists say it is retraumatizing,” she explained. “What bothers me the most is that girls are pictured as just sex slaves. Look beyond that. We’re trying to make sure these girls have a future and change the image that people see of the Yezidi girls. When I see these women and girls, I treat them like my sisters.”
While many Yezidis have escaped ISIS, more than 3,000 remain missing. Pari hasn’t given up hope.
“I see that the Yezidi community has become much stronger. We are trying to get justice for these women and girls,” she said. “This is an opportunity to show the world what the Yezidis truly are: a peaceful community trying to live on their own land.”