The Current

'I know the Yazidis are going through hell': ISIS survivors in Canada plead for help for family left behind

After surviving sexual slavery under the brutal rule of ISIS, Yazidis who escaped to Canada cannot find closure because of family members who are still missing, languishing in refugee camps or still in ISIS hands. They want Canada to do more to reunite them.

Yazidi survivors of ISIS struggle to find peace in Canada

The Yazidis fled their homes and villages when ISIS began their incursion in August 2014. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

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ISIS survivors — who have escaped to safety in Canada — say they cannot find peace while their families remain in the clutches of Islamic militants.

Basema, a Yazidi woman who escaped ISIS in 2017 and now lives in Toronto, said she received news that relatives of hers were among those buried in a mass grave in Kojo, Iraq. CBC Radio has agreed to disclose only her first name for safety and privacy reasons.

"Every Yazidi village has a mass grave," she said in The Current's documentary So They Can Rest A Little.

One of her relatives told her, "with his own hands, he uncovered Nader, Azeez, Jamal, my cousin and my dad's cousin. He said they were still in their clothes. He saw their pants and their shirts."

"My husband, my uncles, all killed."

Basema wears this necklace every day. The pendant is the name of her village, Kojo, Iraq. (Pacinthe Mattar/CBC)

The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking, religious minority in Iraq, whose ancient monotheistic faith borrows from many others, including Christianity and Islam.

Last year, the federal government pledged to resettle 1,200 ISIS survivors in Canada, with an emphasis on Yazidi families, but missed their deadline. Many of those who did escape, like Basema, were forced to leave family behind. 

"I came to Canada, to safety, but I'm not at peace," Basema said.

"I don't sleep," she said, because "I know the Yazidis are going through hell."

In August 2014, ISIS trucks drove into Yazidi villages in northern Iraq, with the aim of wiping out a people they refer to as "kafir" a derogatory term for "unbelievers." Within days, thousands of men had been killed, with women and girls sold into sexual slavery and boys taken as child soldiers.

The day ISIS came

Basema's son Hazal remembers the day the ISIS trucks rolled into their village.

The 15-year-old boy said the militants separated the men from the women and children.

"Then they took the men in cars… we don't know where, but somewhere in the village.

"We heard guns. And those of us who spoke Arabic, we asked them: 'What is the sound of the gunfire? What's that shooting?'

"They said: 'We're killing dogs.'"

Hazal was taken away from his family to train as a child soldier for ISIS. Now 15, he shows pictures of the boys he was kept at the camp with. (Pacinthe Mattar/CBC)

Basema had been separated from Hazal. At 11, ISIS took him to train as a child soldier in Hama, Syria, she said.

"They trained us to use weapons," Hazal said. "They made us watch videos on how to mount attacks, how to hide if planes were flying over head."

The militants made him watch a video of two boys going through with a suicide attack.

"I was terrified when they told me to wear a suicide belt. I cried and said, 'Where are my parents?'"

"They said: 'Just go blow yourself up.'"

Women 'didn't bathe' to repel rapists

In the village of Tel Kassap, a young woman named Adiba was facing horrors of her own. After they took the men away, the fighters gave the women a stark demand.

"They said: 'You have to be Muslim — all Yazidis must convert.'"

The women refused. In response, the fighters beat them, forced them to pray, and raped them.

"We said no matter what you do to us, we won't change our religion."

. (Pacinthe Mattar/CBC)

Adiba was forced into sexual slavery, bought and sold between the fighters. In Mosul, she said, they took pictures of women and girls and displayed them in public. Men would choose, based on the photographs.

"It was a marketplace for girls, young girls," she said, adding that some were as young as eight and nine. She said that today, in ISIS-controlled territory, this is still happening.

"It's been four years that Yazidis have been going through this. Why is the world, why is humanity not listening?"

Basema was suffering the same ordeal. She was in ISIS custody for two years and five months, she said.

She saw ISIS generals buy up to 10 girls at once.

"They'd say: you, you, and you… like cattle," she said.

"Yazidi women would try to turn the men off in any way… I didn't bathe for two months… two months.

"I wanted to smell terrible. I said, 'Let me smell as bad as I can, so they don't rape me.'" 

Survivor's guilt

Mavis Himes, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, said nothing in her 40 years of experience could have prepared her for the work she does with survivors in Toronto.

One of the psychological barriers they face, she said, is knowing that they have escaped when others haven't.

"I know, for example, one woman whose last contact with her 15-year-old daughter was seeing them torture her daughter as she separated," Himes told Tremonti. "Her daughter is still under the hands of ISIS."

"She cannot rest, she cannot rest knowing what she's been through, and what her daughter is probably still going through."

What can Canada do?

Majed El Shafie, the president and founder of Toronto-based non-profit One Free World International, said the government could do more, both for those still under ISIS rule, and those new to Canada.

He said that once the women arrived, a lack of support services meant they were "thrown under the bus." 

"There were many services — like finding [a home], how to go to the grocery store, how to take a bus — there were many services not really provided to them, and we had to step forward to fill the gap," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

There are still 3,200 Yazidi living under ISIS control, according to El Shafie.

In a statement to The Current, the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the government has "provided a new home to over 1,300 women and their families who endured the brutality of [ISIS], 85% of whom are Yazidi." It also noted that the government has "increased funding for settlement services in every province and territory across Canada, totalling more than $1 billion."

A picture of Basema's niece hangs on the wall of their Toronto home. She is still in ISIS captivity. (Pacinthe Mattar/CBC)
Adiba wants the world to help "get these girls back from this torture, from this fiery hell."

"I want them to bring our Yazidi girls here. They need to be here, so they can rest a little."

Listen to the full documentary at the top of this page. 

Written by Padraig Moran. The documentary, So They Can Rest A Little, was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar and documentary editor Joan Webber. Voices on the documentary were performed by actors Gia Sandhu, Dalal Badr, and Sam Al Esai.