Survivors of ISIS atrocities settling in Calgary urge Canada not to turn away others

Kamo Zandinan is haunted by the two years spent in the hands of ISIS militants in Iraq, too weak to do anything but watch as they snatched her husband and four of her seven children — the youngest, a three-year-old girl — with the intention of killing them or selling them off into sexual slavery.

Ottawa not taking new applications, says Yazidi resettlement program capped at 1,200

Kamo Zandinan, her husband Khaleel and their seven children were living in the village of Wardiya in northern Iraq when ISIS captured them in 2014. (CBC)

Kamo Zandinan is haunted by the two years spent in the hands of ISIS militants in Iraq, too weak to do anything but watch as they snatched her husband and four of her seven children — the youngest, a three-year-old girl — with the intention of killing them or selling them off into sexual slavery.

These are images she can't shake, especially at night.

"I can't sleep if I don't take medication," said Zandinan, 38, speaking through a translator in her dimly lit basement suite in southwest Calgary.

She is one of hundreds of Yazidi people now living in Canada, in a handful of cities across the country, mostly women and children, who require intensive psychological support to cope with their unimaginable ordeal. 

Many of them are now urging the federal government to go beyond its initial commitment to bring in 1,200 survivors of ISIS, because they know it's the only way the horrors will stop for those still facing persecution.

"All the Yazidis back home, they need help. We appreciate Canada government … but we need them bringing more because it's not safe back home for them."

Kamo Zandinan, 38 and her children Jilan, 9, Arkan, 5, Rakan, 3 in their home in southwest Calgary. They are among 1,200 survivors of ISIS who are resettling in Canada. (Colleen Underwood/CBC News)

Like a prison

Zandinan, her husband Khaleel and their seven children were living in the village of Wardiya in northern Iraq when ISIS captured them in 2014.

They spent most of their time in a home, which Zandinan likens to prison, because they were under constant watch and never allowed outside.

"We didn't know how the night is going, how the day is going because we scared every time they take a man, we said, maybe he's not coming back, maybe they kill [that man]," said Zandinan.

Maybe he's not coming back, maybe they kill [that man].- Kamo Zandinan, who survived ISIS atrocities

Zandinan says her oldest daughter, Suzan, who was 14 at the time, desperately tried to avoid her fate by starving herself, but it didn't work.

"I tell them my older daughter she is sick, don't take her. They hit me because I say that. And they take my daughter." 

And Zandinan starts to cry as she thinks about one son, Jelliel, who was taken. She says he'd be 15 now.

Zandinan says eventually she and her three kids managed to escape her captors. They were then picked up by a family who sold them back to her husband's brother for $11,000 US.

After she was released, she went to live in a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. From there she worked with the United Nations to come to Canada.

Trauma support

Zandinan and her family are among the more than 200 Yazidi refugees resettling in Calgary.

The head of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, Fariborz Birjandian, says Calgary was chosen as one of the cities to accept ISIS survivors because it has the capacity and the mental health programs to help deal with victims of torture. 

Newly arrived Yazidi children are learning some English while playing at the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre in Calgary. (Colleen Underwood/CBC News)

"This is the highest trauma level that we have ever experienced, so it is a very special group, amazing people," said Birjandian. "We have to be, as a Canadian, very proud, of giving a helping hand to this group. What happened to them in the past four or five years is unimaginable for us."

Birjandian says the families have access to crisis counselling, support groups, psychologists and psychiatrists.

In October 2016, Canada committed to welcoming 1,200 survivors of ISIS and their family members, after the House of Commons voted unanimously for the Government of Canada to provide protection to this vulnerable group.

But the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says it's no longer accepting any new applications under this initiative.

It says it will continue to facilitate the private sponsorship of refugees who fall within this vulnerable group. 

Resilient group

Birjandian believes the federal government will receive more Yazidi refugees down the road, in limited numbers. He says it likely depends on how this larger group resettles.

"Some of them are going through the panic attacks when they were here but when you look at the number of incidents that are happening with the attacks, it's reducing," said Birjandian.

Yet considering the level of trauma some have faced, Birjandinan says they actually seem to be adjusting well to life in Calgary.

Fariborz Birjandian, with Calgary Catholic Immigration Services, says despite the severe trauma experienced by many Yazidi refugees, they are settling well into Calgary. (Colleen Underwood/CBC News)

"The resiliency they have shown so far is very impressive, actually, and they are a very close community and they are looking after themselves."

He says some of the men are stepping up to help families who are without a father. And the schools are doing a good job of helping the kids feel welcome.

The resiliency they have shown so far is very impressive.- Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of Calgary Catholic Immigration Services

Still, Zandinan holds out hope she'll be reunited with her husband and four kids one day.

She says her three young kids are her focus now. She says life is hard but it's better than before. She just wants to give her children a safe and happy life.

She also knows she can't return home.

Zandinan still has 10 family members held captive by ISIS.

"I can't go back.… If I go, I don't see anyone, my dad, uncle, my mom," said Zandinan. "I want to stay here."


Colleen Underwood has been a reporter/editor with CBC news for more than 10 years filing stories from across southern Alberta for radio, television and online. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.