As It Happens

Yazidi refugees in Canada suffering PTSD-related seizures need their families: doctor

The post-traumatic stress disorder that some Yazidi refugees are struggling with here in Canada is so intense, it's triggering non-epileptic seizures.

'They need to be together to start healing,' says Calgary doctor

A Yazidi woman feeds her child in their tent at a camp for internal displaced persons in 2017. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)


Jihan Khudher is a Yazidi refugee in Calgary whose post-traumatic stress symptoms include violent seizures — and her doctors think being with her family could help alleviate her symptoms. 

The Globe and Mail has published a story about Khuder and her struggles with pseudoseizures —​ which can mirror epileptic seizures, but are believed to be triggered by severe PTSD.

The condition is rare, but Khuder is not the only Yazidi refugee in Canada to be afflicted with it. The Yazidi are a religious minority who were brutally targeted by ISIS in Iraq.

Dr. Annalee Coakley, a medical director with Calgary's Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic, is urging the Canadian government to resettle their family members.

Here is part of her conversation with As it Happens host Carol Off.

I know you've have been seeing Jihan Khuder, and you've seen her when she is having one of these seizures. What happens to her?

Jihan will suddenly fall to the ground. She's unresponsive and disassociated with a very blank look in her eyes. She will arch her back in quite an extreme way where the top of her head is on the floor and her feet are on the floor.

She is moving her head to side to side and biting at her arms as if she's fending herself off from her attackers. She's also making a very deep, guttural sound that's quite disturbing to listen to. 

And these episodes often last from 20 minutes to three hours. 

Is there anything in particular that triggers them?

She will say no. And they seem to happen at random. They happen here in the clinic, over at the resettlement centre, at school, on the CTrain or crossing the street.

But what we do about these psychogenic non-epileptic seizures is usually they are triggered by a strong emotional response. But she will deny that.

Like many of our Yazidi women and children, she was held captive by Daesh [ISIS] for many, many months. And she suffered extreme abuse at their hands — extreme sexual abuse.

And when I witness these episodes, it really does look like a recreation of her rapes.

Yazidi refugee women stand behind a banner at a Syrian and Iraqi refugee camp in the southern Turkish town of Midyat in Mardin province, Turkey, in 2015. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

In this extraordinary Globe and Mail story that featured Jihan, it described in detail what happened to her.  You mentioned Daesh — also known as ISIS — and how she was taken into sex slavery and repeatedly raped, with her sisters. When did these seizures begin?

They started while she was in captivity, and they've become progressively worse over time.

There was a period a few months ago when these were happening multiple times a day. So her life was completely impacted by the frequency of these seizures — not only her, but everyone around her.

She was unable to attend school, unable to do daily activities. She was afraid to go outside because she was worried she would be out at the supermarket or crossing the street and fall down and have one of these attacks.

I believe this government has a compassionate heart, and I hope they use that compassion to reunite these families.- Dr. Annalee Coakley, medical director with Calgary's Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic

So many of the Yazidi women who now live in Canada have similar brutal and awful stories. Are they having the same condition?

Many are. We have 286 Yazidi refugees here in Calgary, and we have six patients with this condition.

It's women and children who have these conditions. In fact, one of our children has been asked to take a leave of absence from school because the school cannot handle this condition. She has these attacks multiple times per day, and it's causing tremendous stress on the teacher and her classmates.

And we know ISIS did rape children, and forced older girls and women to watch, including their mothers. 

It's been horrific. You can't even imagine that human beings do this to other human beings.

Back to Jihan — she has two sisters that were also taken into sex slavery. One of them she's now with. What's happened to Hudda, the youngest?

Hudda's now living in a refugee camp in Kurdistan. She has been severely traumatized. She's on her own. She's desperate to be with her sisters. She, too, has these psychogenic non-epileptic seizures.

I feel like they really need to be together in order to start the healing process.

Annalee Coakley is a medical director with Calgary's Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic. (Submitted by Annalee Coakley)

Not just because it would be nice for them to be with each other, but you think it's essential to her recovery from this trauma that she is reunited with her sisters?

Absolutely. If you talk to Jihan about her biggest stressor, it's being separated from Hudda. And through her phone, she witnesses Hudda's suffering every day, and it's a perpetuating factor for mental illness.

Not only for Jihan, but the whole group of Yazidi, their biggest stressor is their relatives who managed to escape ISIS after they left for resettlement in Calgary.

Their wellbeing is being compromised by this ongoing family separation.

Why can't they be reunited with their siblings and their families?

The federal government has a policy where refugees have a one-year window to sponsor their dependents to come and join them here in Canada. 

With the sisters, they're adults, so not dependents, so there's no legal mechanism by which the Yazidi women can sponsor their sisters to come to Canada.

Any indication that the government is hearing your plea and that of others that families like Jihan's get reunited,  to allow them to recover their mental health?

I haven't heard anything from the government personally. But I do believe this government has a compassionate heart, and I hope they use that compassion to change policy to reunite these families.

Produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.