Helping traumatized Yazidi refugees requires a different kind of care

Psychotherapy is a foreign concept to Yazidis. Providing it to the 1,200 refugees coming to Canada this year poses serious challenges
By Meera Vijayann - Published on April 18, 2017
The Toronto-based initiative Project Abraham helped settle the Mados family, seen here at a welcoming dinner. (Gary Rose)

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Omar Khoudeida has never been this busy. The 37-year-old works as a volunteer interpreter at the Cross Cultural Learner Centre in London and is preparing for a new group of Yazidi refugees to arrive. It’s a familiar scenario to Khoudeida, a Yazidi who fled Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War. When he came to Canada in 2000 with his family, after nine years in a Syrian refugee camp, few people knew about the Yazidis. Now, London has one of the largest Yazidi communities in Canada, with about 50 families. So far, Khoudeida has helped seven government-sponsored Yazidi families settle in the city. “They need special help — as much as they can get, as soon as they can,” he says.

And that won't be easy. Yazidis, who lived in isolation in northern Iraq, are frequently illiterate and have suffered considerable trauma. The violence stretches back centuries. Yazidi faith is influenced by ancient Islamic and Assyrian teachings; they worship a peacock angel known as Melek Taus, who they believe was cast from the heavens by God. This peacock has often been compared to Satan — a fallen angel in Abrahamic traditions — leading the group to be accused of devil worship.

Those accusations have made Yazidis vulnerable to religious persecution. Since the late 16th century, they have faced 74 genocides. In 2014, ISIS militants, who follow a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, began to target Yazidis, forcing them to flee to Mount Sinjar. Extremists continue to massacre the population and sell women and girls in slave markets, where the going rate is $1,500. More than 2,000 Yazidis may have escaped to refugee camps in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, but according to Human Rights Watch, at least 5,000 remain in ISIS captivity.

Last fall, Canada announced a $28 million plan to take in 1,200 Yazidis by the end of 2017. The federal government is also providing mental health support and, according to the immigration department, will initially approve up to 10 one-hour counselling sessions, with the possibility for more treatment. It’s essential care, but it’s not without its challenges.

Sharry Aiken, an expert in refugee law at Queen's University, says what sets Yazidis apart from many other refugees is the extent of violence the women and girls have faced at the hands of ISIS. “Many of these individuals will not feel comfortable disclosing the nature of their experiences to third parties,” Aiken says. “That’s going to be a big hurdle.”

In fact, the concept of psychotherapy is new to Yazidis, says Jan Kizilhan, a psychologist who has assessed Yazidi women and girls in Germany since 2015. “Most of the Yazidi girls and women come from villages, so they don’t have any idea of psychotherapy,” he says. Kizilhan, a German-Kurd, ran a program at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University that treated more than 1,000 women and girls who escaped ISIS captivity. “We don’t have words in Kurdish that can express depression or trauma,” he says. “So you need very special, trained translators to explain them what is happening in the therapy.”

Kizilhan says therapists must keep in mind that Yazidis suffer from a collective trauma, which has been passed on from one generation to another. When he addressed the Canadian Parliament last November, he pointed out that apart from language barriers, cultural norms might pose significant challenges to therapists and physicians.


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A key feature of Yazidi culture is a strict observance of patriarchal beliefs: women focus on raising children and household duties, while men work to support their families. Sexual contact before and outside marriage is forbidden, so women who have been raped are reluctant to speak about sexual violence and fear its deep-rooted stigma. “For Yazidi women, it is hard to abandon principles,” says Haider Ali, president of Yazda, a non-profit that advocates for Yazidi rights. “Usually translators and therapists don’t understand the culture.”

Ali and Kizilhan both agree that without showing sensitivity and building trust early on, therapy for Yazidis could fail. “It is the job of the translator to break these taboos,” Kizilhan suggests. He says that translators will have to be trained to ensure that individuals, especially women, feel empowered to talk about issues that affect them. He adds that Yazidi human rights icons like Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji Bashar, who have survived violence and speak openly about it, are good role models to help women talk openly.

In treating former ISIS captives in Germany, Kizilhan recognized a connection between the group’s deep cultural roots and its response to healing. Since Yazidis have a strong tradition of storytelling, he says it’s important to focus on a narrative form of therapy, which confronts problems by considering the broader contexts of people’s lives — rather than cognitive behavioural therapy, which treats emotional conditions by focusing on the here and now.

Nafiya Naso, a Yazidi human rights advocate with Operation Ezra in Winnipeg, fled to Canada with her family in the early 2000s. Since then, she has been intimately involved in the process of securing psychological and social support for arriving Yazidis who have arrived, as well as advising vetting agencies about what questions are appropriate to ask. Naso notes that for centuries, Yazidis have dealt with trauma by turning to one another. “It is a small community, and these kinds of things are dealt with within the community,” she says. “Not by professionals, just by Yazidis who they can go and talk to.”

And so volunteers in cities across Canada are working hard to bring Yazidis back together. “Families are very close: Yazidi homes are the drop-in centre for the whole community,” says Debbie Rose, a coordinator at Project Abraham, a Mozzud Foundation–led initiative in Toronto for Yazidi family reunification. Group activities such as dinners help Yazidi refugees feel welcome and connect with each other, as well as giving them a safe space. The non-profit organization helped settle the Mados, a family of seven, and is now looking to support another five families that have arrived in Toronto. Rose expects an additional 26 Yazidis to arrive this month.

In London, Khoudeida is confident that the community will adjust to their new lives in Canada. “When we came here, we knew how much help we needed,” he says. “So, we know what these people go through. We want to give them what we wanted so much for ourselves.”

Meera Vijayann is a Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She writes on international development and gender rights.

CORRECTION: The photo credit on this article originally stated Meera Vijayann.  In fact, the photo is by Gary Rose. We regret the error.

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