Group uses yoga to help Yezidis who suffered gender-based violence under ISIS
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – A French organization that provides assistance to vulnerable populations announced that it, in cooperation with a local women’s rights group, has been providing yoga as part of a program of psychosocial support offered to over 2,000 Yezidi (Ezidi) girls and women now in the Kurdistan Region who were previously victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the Islamic State.
The group, ACTED, provides humanitarian support to vulnerable populations in several countries including Iraq. It implements the program through its local partner in the project, Women’s Empowerment for Peacebuilding (WEPO).
Five years after the Islamic State overran the Ezidi-majority city of Sinjar (Shingal), near Iraq’s border with Syria, thousands of displaced members of the ethno-religious minority remain scattered across displacement camps and informal settlements in the Kurdistan Region and abroad.
Starting on that day in August 2014, an estimated 7,000 Ezidi women and girls were taken by the extremist group’s militants, many of whom were forced into sexual slavery. Scores of other Ezidis were simply killed.
In a statement released on Thursday, ACTED described Azeezah, a 22-year-old Ezidi woman who was kidnapped, taken to Syria, and forced to convert to Islam.
She spent four years in captivity before she was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during the battle for Baghouz, the Islamic State’s last remaining territory in Syria. She soon reunited with her younger sister and they now live together in the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
“After I arrived in Kurdistan, I thought I would be reunited with my family but I quickly understood that they were no longer here. I cried for three days,” she said.
Currently, most Ezidis who fled Shingal have not attempted to return home due to the safety concerns, lack of basic services and job opportunities, and the widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. A UNHCR survey conducted in February 2019 showed that only 3 percent of displaced Ezidis asked wished to Shingal within the next year.
As a result, Azeezah remains in a small village in the Kurdistan Region with her younger sister, where they both face difficulty integrating into their new home while being haunted by painful memories of past traumatic events.
“It is very hard for us, two young women, in this environment. We have trouble to sleep, we keep on thinking about what happened to us back in Syria,” she told the organization.
Many Ezidi women have been rejected by their own community after returning from Islamic State captivity. For females, this includes the perception among the conservative culture that they are no longer worthy of marriage.
Yoga and other kinds of relaxation sessions have become an integral part of the psychosocial support provided by the two organizations to several groups of 20 girls and women who gather every two weeks within different parts of Duhok province.
In May 2019, Azeezah and her sister joined the program.
She said that the ancient mind-body practice of yoga has helped her come to terms with her experiences and has also made it easier for her to find friends among the other displaced women from Shingal and surrounding Nineveh province who also participate.
“We attend all the sessions. It helps us to escape from our reality by doing interesting activities such as yoga. I made friends there. They invited me to their houses and I invited them to mine,” she said.
A WEPO psychologist known as Kajeem said, “Women here are in great need of expressing their feelings, they need to build their own coping mechanisms, become stronger and resilient.”
According to ACTED, this is also a safe place for them to discuss their concerns and feelings and also to create new positive social networks that are often sorely lacking among displaced people.
The sessions also provide useful information to protect them from sources of current harm including child marriage, sexual exploitation, and other forms of abuse which women, especially those from vulnerable displaced populations, can face in the Kurdistan Region.
Hayrî Demir, Editor in chief of EzidiPress, told Kurdistan 24, “After their liberation, the women often wait alone and without help in the tents. This additionally reinforces their suffered traumas. That someone is helping them is essential. No other group has suffered as much from the terrorist militia as these women. In that sense, help from organizations like ACTED is always helpful.”
“I know from personal encounters that nothing is worse for these women than the feeling of being left alone,” Demir added.
Azeezah, the young woman, said, “I called my mother and told her I was going to the yoga sessions and seeing a social worker from WEPO and that I was doing better.”
“She was happy for me. Even if we are not together, the time of suffering is over.”
Editing by John J. Catherine