The following article was written by Lisa Miara, the founder and president of USA Springs of Hope Foundation, Inc. and Springs of Hope Foundation, Iraq (www.springsofhope.foundation). Ms. Miara spends most of her time on the ground in Iraq helping children who have been rescued from ISIS.
This article, special to the Clarion Project, is about the Yazidi children in the refugee camps in Iraq:
The geographical area controlled by ISIS, along with its multi-layered infrastructure, is now greatly limited in northern Iraq and Syria.
However the 1,800 Yazidi children who were dragged from their beds in Shingal and taken straight into the ISIS “farms” in Mosul and Tal Afar are left struggling with issues of abuse, indoctrination, radicalization and core identity crisis.
Even though they have been liberated, ISIS remains their shadow by day and nightmare in the hours of darkness.
Their Yazidi names were taken from them. They were renamed Mohammed, Ahmed or Mahmud. Many of the girls were called Aisha. They were taught that their families, their father, their mother were infidels. By the time they were rescued, many of them were totally brainwashed into believing that their families were “sons of the devil” and deserving of all the evil that can possibly be poured out on them.
Their identities were stripped from them; their ethnicity and religious beliefs were dehumanized. Many were referred to only by a number. I will never forget one gentle, beautiful girl who, after her liberation from her captors, had her name tattooed across her fingers. “My name is Mxxx, I am not a number,” she said to me.
I have met weeping, broken fathers (whose wives and mothers still are unaccounted for in captivity) who have gone to meet their daughters in various hospitals to bring them “home” only to have their daughters spit in their faces and demand to be returned to ISIS (it is more preferable than going with a Yazidi).
There were numerous Yazidi women who refused to leave Mosul during the liberation, totally convinced that ISIS had conquered the world. There was no point in leaving for them.
And then there are the young girls of 11 who, post-release, declare that they love their captors, making their three years in Raqqa sound like a holiday on a desert island. One cannot contradict them as they are in an identity crisis and need silent support, love and safety.
If given space and understanding, within a couple of months, these 11-years old will become children again, not the pre- teens-going-on-twenty provocative flirtatious “women” being primed for sale on the open market.
It is then that they will talk — about hard servitude, the cruelty of their captors’ wives, of their fear by day and the terror by night, of the beatings, of those who tried to escape being punished by being thrown out of four story buildings in order to break as many bones as possible.
What about the young and mid- teens who ask to have operations to restore their virginity? They are often the girls who sit quietly on the side when other kids of their age play. They describe being handcuffed to a bed and raped, then sold, raped again and sold again.
Just days after her release, one such girl looked longingly at a group of girls playing house, albeit in the dust, and cried, “How can I play? I am different from them, I am not a virgin.”
It is easy to identify babies and toddlers born to Yazidi women who were taken captive during their pregnancy. They are silent, suspicious and afraid. They do not communicate nor make any form of contact or movement. An 18-month old will sit on the floor for hours without moving or uttering a sound.
All of the children have one thing in common. They have been starved. At best, they were fed a few pieces of rotten fruit a day, some of them for over three years. Quite a few children rescued in Mosul and Tal Afar during the liberation looked as if they had been released from the Nazi concentration camps. Stomachs extended, bodies emaciated, horror written over their faces and engraved into someplace behind their eyes.
When food when given, it was as a reward for reciting the Quran or for saying this Islamic prayers correctly:
“In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. Say oh Mohammad, peace be upon him: He is Allah, the One, the Self-Sufficient Master, whom all creatures need, He neither eats nor drinks. He begets not, nor was He begotten And there is none co-equal or comparable unto Him .Without that, there was nothing.”
The children were kept in prisons two floors under the ground. No light, no electricity. No food and little water. They were beaten with rifles and tortured. Today their eyes are weak, their skin is thin and flaking, their heads are scarred. Upon release their sleep patterns are abnormal, and many binge eat on rice and bulgur for comfort.
A generation of young boys whose former lives consisted of school, sheep and farming are now are practiced in every form of weaponry available within the Islamic State. They recite with great precision the names and details of their captors: Abu Abdullah, whose real name is Daham from the village of Bazona, aged 30; Abu Khider, whose real name is Yassin Mitote from Rabiha, aged 40; an American who loved to behead and joined ISIS in order to behead, nicknamed Abu Ali; and finally, Abu Hamas from Sudan.
They list weapons like you and I would write a shopping list: JC, AK47, BKC, hand grenades, pistols. They were tied to tanks and jeeps and forced to drive into fires. They were forced to behead.
The world has moved on. The stories of these amazing, strong, resilient kids are largely unknown. There is no one sweeping in to their rescue. I recently spoke with a Yazidi leader on the fate of those still in captivity of the Islamic State. His sorrow was evident. “They are living as ISIS,” he said. “If they are not rescued very soon, they will be ISIS for the rest of their lives.”
How does one take the violence, the brutality and brainwashing of ISIS out of such a child? There are those who advocate sending the children out of the country to receive asylum amidst the Yazidi communities in Germany or Canada — as if a new beginning will resolve issues of chronic trauma. Those who wish to see the girls married as soon as possible so that they will get on with their lives seem oblivious to the fact that the trauma will certainly surface.
The children have not returned home. They have returned to crowded “tent life” in the deteriorating refugee camps that are suffering from three years of neglect and horrible infrastructure. They have not returned home to their parents but to the reality of family members in mass graves and captivity and living with their extended tribal family.
Many of them do not return to school. Either they are deemed by the Iraqi constitution to have been out of the educational system for too long that return is denied, or they have no ID card to permit them to go to school. Their extended family members acting as their guardians do not have the hundreds of dollars to purchase an ID card. They are still busy trying to pay off the ransom costs.
How to help these children and their harsh reality? First, we acknowledge that they are children who need love and, acceptance, who need to laugh and play and have non-invasive modes of expression. They are kids who need methods to talk without using words.
One thing we are doing is build restorative art therapy centers — not that they are known by that grandiose title. The focus is on art, music, drama, games, sports, photography, videography, computer science and English. Through these activities as well as just by “doing life together” — shopping, eating, playing, drinking tea — they gradually begin to talk. It is then that we can slowly go deeper to help correct, mentor and scrape the puss out of their wounds.
One of our amazing kids who was rescued a year ago once told me that he would behead me if I continued to speak English. Today when I see him, he runs to me and begins to count in English. He writes his name on his paintings in English.
The situation on the ground is bleak. But, there is hope. I am a witness to that.