As It Happens

Yazidi boy who survived ISIS captivity can't come to Canada unless he leaves his big brother behind

Nobody knows exactly what happened to Zainal Ato between the time he was kidnapped by ISIS at the age of six or seven, and when he was found last year — wounded and alone, in the battle-torn Syrian town of Baghouz.

Zainal Ato, 12, is too traumatized to be without his older brother Ahmed, says charity worker

Zainal Ato spends time with his older brother Ahmed Ato as he heals from wounds sustained during the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani. (Road To Peace)


Nobody knows exactly what happened to Zainal Ato between the time he was kidnapped by ISIS at the age of six or seven, and when he was found last year — wounded and alone, in the battle-torn Syrian town of Baghouz.

Now the traumatized 12-year-old Yazidi boy has an opportunity to find refuge in Canada, where he has family. 

There's just one problem. Zainal won't go without his older brother Ahmed — who Canada won't take in because he took up arms against invading ISIS fighters in 2014, says the founder of a U.K. charity.

"He has this strong bond with Ahmed, and it's just impossible for us to imagine tearing these two brothers apart," Sally Becker of Road to Peace told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

"The Canadian government have been amazing — welcoming survivors, providing a safe haven when all the other countries were basically closing their doors. So I'm just hoping that the prime minister will review this case and take into account what's happened to Zainal and allow Ahmed to accompany his little brother to Canada."

Canada's Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship would not comment on Zainal and Ahmed Ato's cases, citing privacy concerns, but said Canada makes "every effort" to reunite separated refugees. 

The Yazidis are a religious minority who were targeted by ISIS fighters in Iraq in a brutal campaign described by the United Nations as genocide

Monday marks the sixth anniversary of the genocide, when thousands of Yazidis were either slaughtered or abducted in the northern Iraq province Sinjar — Zainal among them. 

Becker first became aware of Zainal's case in March 2019, when she was in Syria with Road to Peace, a charity that helps children in war zones. She was looking for Yazidi children left behind after coalition forces drove ISIS militants from their stronghold in Baghouz a month earlier. 

Zainal had been found by Syrian Defence Forces outside an ISIS compound in the aftermath of the battle, his leg full of shrapnel and his thigh badly fractured. 

Zainal, a 12-year-old Yazidi boy, was severely malnourished when he was found wounded and alone in Syria in 2019. (Road To Peace)

She believes the ISIS fighters likely threw him outside when the compound was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. She says he doesn't appear to have ever been trained as a fighter, as is the fate of many abducted Yazidi boys — possibly because he was so young and frail, and had trouble with his hands. 

"He was lying there with his injuries in the dust with no food, no water, no one to comfort him. And as far as we can tell, he must have been there for days," Becker said.

"He was so thin and so dehydrated. He'd had nothing, and I suppose it's a miracle he didn't die."

'Very gentle and very affectionate'

The soldiers took the boy to a nearby hospital, where doctors used a metal fixator to treat his compound fracture, Becker said, but had few resources to do much else.

His wound became infected, and Road to Peace paid to have him moved to a hospital in Duhok, Iraq, for further treatment.

That's where Becker first met him.

"I bought him an iPad, and to be honest, I thought he might sort of look for things that show aggression, you know, fighting and bombing, because of what he'd seen and experienced," she said.

"Instead he went straight to YouTube and he found this little girl singing a song, a Yadizi song. It was amazing to see that."

Zainal, 12, survived five years of confinement by ISIS and has been offered refuge in Canada — but he doesn't want to go without his older brother. (Road to Peace)

Shortly after Zainal was found, abandoned by his captors, the boy was reunited with his older brother Ahmed, who has remained by his side. 

"[Zainal is] very gentle and very affectionate. The problem is that he has a lot of trauma and he suffers from separation anxiety because, of course, he lost most of his family at the time. His parents are still missing, probably dead. And all he's known since he was rescued is Ahmed, his brother, who he absolutely adores," Becker said.

"They bonded, of course, immediately. And Ahmed has taken care of him ever since."

Zainal has two brothers and five sisters currently living in London, Ont., all of them survivors of the genocide. They want Zainal to come to Canada to live with them.

As It Happens has spoken to Zainal's family in Canada to confirm his story. The siblings, however, speak little English and asked that Becker tell their story publicly.

He needs to go to Canada.He needs to live a normal life in peace. He needs to have trauma therapy and to do normal things. But the fact is that I think if they take him away from Ahmed, he won't survive.- Sally Becker, Road To Peace founder

Becker says Zainal doesn't appear to remember his other siblings, which is common for Yazidis abducted as children. She says he doesn't want to leave Iraq without Ahmed, who is married with a child of his own.

The Canadian government has been working with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, to resettle more than 1,400 Yazidi survivors. 

However, Becker said the UNHCR told Ahmed he and his family don't qualify for resettlement in Canada because when Sinjar was attacked, Ahmed joined the Yazidi Protection Force to defend his people, and fought with them for several months. 

The Canadian government wouldn't comment directly on Ahmed's refugee case. 

"Our government has a clear track record as the global leader in welcoming refugees, having more than doubled Canada's refugee numbers. We have provided a new home to more than 1,400 women and their families who endured the brutality of Daesh [ISIS], 85 per cent of whom are Yazidi," Kevin Lemkay, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marco E. L. Mendicino, said in an emailed statement. 

"We understand the importance of keeping family members together and make every effort to help reunite them when they are separated."

The UNHCR did not respond to a request for comment. 

"Ahmed, he's a Yazidi. He'd watched his family torn apart and his people destroyed. He'd seen women and girls taken away and sold as sex slaves and the men were executed. The only reason he wasn't taken is because he was working in Kurdistan at the time," Becker said.

"It doesn't make sense to me. I mean, it's because nobody was there fighting for these people that these terrible things happened in 2014, and some are still happening even now."

Zainal's wound has healed, Becker said, but he still requires surgery to lengthen the bone in his injured leg. He also has brain damage and serious psychological trauma.

Severe PTSD is common among Yazidi survivors, many of whom endured horrific physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of ISIS fighters. 

"It really is traumatizing for everyone who knows about it because he is so sweet and so loving," Becker said.

"He needs to go to Canada. He needs to live a normal life in peace. He needs to have trauma therapy and to do normal things. But the fact is that I think if they take him away from Ahmed, he won't survive. I really don't think he'll survive."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Sylvene Gilchrist. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. 

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