Newly arrived Yazidis who escaped sex slavery of ISIS eager to build better future in Canada

A group of Yazidi refugees from Iraq hope to build a new life for their families and try to move past the horrors they suffered while held captive by ISIS as they settle in London, Ont., where about 300 members of the religious sect already form a small, tight-knit community.

Man raised $26,000 to free nephew's wife from ISIS captors

Yazidi women mark the anniversary of what a UN-appointed commission of independent war crimes investigators calls an ISIS-led genocide against the Yazidi population. (Sertac Kayar/Reuters)

In a dark hallway of a London, Ont., motel, a young Yazidi woman and her husband's uncle explain how he raised $26,000 to buy her freedom from the ISIS captors who had forced her into sex slavery. 

As she holds her restless son, the woman in her 30s speaks softly, recounting her time in captivity in Syria after being snatched from her home in the Sinjar region of Iraq. For two and a half years, she was passed from one ISIS member to the next — beaten, tortured and used as a sex slave.

Bhasa (not her real name), who arrived in Canada as a refugee two weeks ago, says her freedom came after her ISIS captors decided to sell her to her family. Through intermediaries, contact was made with her husband's uncle in Iraq, who went about raising money to pay the ransom.

Whatever we had, we sold. Some in the community went around to collect money for them.- Yazidi man who paid $26,000 to free relative from ISIS

"I cannot describe the feeling," said the uncle, who, like Bhasa, asked not to be identified. "Very good feeling that at last I found one of the family members that we could bring back with money.

"We had a car; we sold it. Whatever we had, we sold. Some in the community went around to collect money for them."

He said he was able to buy his nephew's wife's freedom in July 2016. Once free, Bhasa and three of her children made their way to a refugee camp in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where they lived until they, along with the uncle, were able to leave for Canada. 

She and her children are being sheltered in this London motel, temporarily, all brought over from Iraq by the Canadian government.

Yazidis flee violence in the Iraqi region of Sinjar on Aug. 10, 2014. Displaced families from Iraq's minority Yazidi sect crossed the border into Syria. (Ari Jalal/Reuters)

They're part of a group of 400 Yazidis the government pledged last October to bring to Canada after the House of Commons passed a Conservative motion declaring the violence perpetrated against the religious minority group in Iraq and Syria an act of genocide. Last month, the Trudeau government announced that it will bring in a total of 1,200 survivors of ISIS violence by the end of the year, the majority of whom are expected to be Yazidi.

'So many cases, none of the family has survived. What we suffered, it's like the crime of the 21st century.'- Bhasa, Yazidi woman who survived ISIS captivity

​Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who mostly reside in northern Iraq and practice a religion that has elements of Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. Branded as devil worshippers by some Muslims, including ISIS militants, the community has faced persecution for centuries.

Bhasa says that now that she's in Canada, she's simply looking for a better future for her children and hopes the Canadian government will bring in more of her people, who continue to suffer at the hands of ISIS. 

"We came for safety because where we came from there's no safety," she said. "So many cases, none of the family has survived.

"What we suffered, it's like the crime of the 21st century."

Tight-knit community

It's here in London — where about 300 Yazidis have formed a small but tight-knit community since the early 1980s when they fled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein — that Bhasa and other recently arrived Yazidis hope to start building a new life for their families and try to move beyond the horrors they suffered in captivity.

Dalal Abdallah, a Yazidi human rights activist who lives in London, says members of her community have been donating clothing, hygiene products and toys for the families who have arrived and look forward to absorbing more into their community.

"For many, many years, we have been struggling [to grow] as a community because no Yazidis were coming through," she said. "It's a great opportunity to build our community, and the more people, the merrier."

The relative of a Yazidi woman who raised $26,000 to buy her freedom from her ISIS captors. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

She said London has already accepted and integrated Syrian refugees and that there's enough support for Yazidis, including a program at Victoria Hospital to help refugees deal with trauma.

Other support comes from London's Cross Cultural Learner Centre, where Yazidis can learn some basic tools for integrating in Canada: how to get housing, set up bank accounts, apply for health cards.

We are here to support them, welcome them, make them feel comfortable … There's a community behind them.- Omar Khoudeida, Yazidi interpreter, Cross Cultural Learner Centre

"We are here to support them, welcome them, make them feel comfortable, that they are not alone here," said Omar Khoudeida, a Yazidi interpreter who works at the centre and who himself came to London nearly 20 years ago as a refugee.

"There's a community behind them and supporting them."

But even with that support, Bhasa must still cope with the emotional fallout of a family torn apart by genocide. 

She fears being identified. Although she doesn't know the fate of family members in Iraq, she's worried that going public could put them in danger. She hasn't seen her husband and other male relatives since ISIS invaded her home in August 2014. 

Daughter still missing

She also fears for her daughter, who was nine years old when she was snatched by the Islamist militant group.

"They took her. She doesn't know anything about her,"  Khoudeida said.

While ISIS targets all communities, it has particular antipathy for Yazidis, whom it considers to be infidels. 

ISIS survivors Suham Haji, from left, Samira Hasan and Saud Khalid sit in the Dohuk Girls and Women Treatment and Support Centre in Dohuk, Iraq. The three women are among 900 being treated at the centre after escaping ISIS captivity. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Last June, a UN commission declared in a report that ISIS was committing genocide against the religious group of about 400,000. ISIS, it said, was subjecting "every Yazidi woman, child or man that it has captured to the most horrific of atrocities."

When the militants launched their attack in the Sinjar region, they killed many of the male Yazidis while thousands of women and girls were sold in slave markets, the report said. ISIS fighters subjected Yazidi women to various forms of slavery, including sexual slavery, "with Yazidi women and girls being constantly sold, gifted and willed between fighters."

Amal, another Yazidi woman from Sinjar who came to Canada two weeks ago, is living in the same London, Ont., motel as Bhasa with her eight children.

She's also missing a daughter, who, along with every other member of Amal's family, is believed to be a captive of ISIS.

They said either convert [to Islam] or we will kill you.- Amal, Yazidi woman held captive by ISIS

"When they captured us, they took all of our belongings, cash, jewelry, cellphones," said Amal, who also asked that her identity be protected. "They asked us to convert to Islam. We were afraid. They said either convert or we will kill you."

The men were separated from the women and the children. They were put in empty houses of those who had fled the area, she said.

"They told me, 'We killed all the men. Don't think about the men anymore. Think about us."

'You are mine now. I'm buying you'

Amal said ISIS tried to separate her from her 12-year-old daughter, but she grabbed the child. The captors hit Amal with guns, forcing her to let go of her daughter, she said. 

That was the last she saw of her, Amal said.

Amal and her other children were taken to Syria, she said, where she was forced into sex slavery.

"They put [the women] in a line. They cover their faces," she said. "Those people who buy [women], they came, they just uncover their faces. They say, 'You are mine now. I'm buying you.'"

During the day, her children would be taken away by ISIS and taught Islam and brought back during the evening.

She was beaten and tortured and was sold and resold. She would take any opportunity in whatever town or city she was in to tell people she thought were not ISIS members that she was a Yazidi and had been captured.

A Yazidi refugee who fled violence in Sinjar sits with a child inside a tent at Nowruz refugee camp in Qamishli, northeastern Syria. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

One man, dressed like a member of ISIS, bought her and her children and told her he would find a way to bring them back to their people. He hid them, she said, before taking them to the Iraq-Syria border and reuniting them with other members of the Yazidi community not under siege by ISIS. And from there, she and her children ended up in a refugee camp in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

She cannot fully describe the feeling of being rescued, she said, but it was like being "born again." She says she prays for the man who purchased her freedom.

"He saved me and my children."

She said she's hoping one day her husband and daughter, if they managed to survive and escape, will be reunited with her.

"I believe that I will have a better future here, but I will never forget the people I lost back home."​


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.