Germany – Berfin* was 14 when Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters attacked her village. They killed most of the men and separated the married women from the young girls, who were taken away and forced into sexual slavery.
“ISIL fighters locked us up in an empty house in some village. We were nine young girls,” she recalls.
“In the evening more fighters came to that house. One of them wrote our names on pieces of paper and dropped them in a bowl. Each fighter took a piece of paper out of the bowl and the girl whose name was on it, was his.”
She looks down as she speaks, fidgets and barely pauses for breath. Her short black hair is held back by a thin hairband. She wears a hooded sweater with teddy bears on it.
“The man who took out the piece of paper with my name was 53 years old and had a long, grey beard,” Berfin, who is now 16, continues.
“He took me to his house and said: ‘Now you are going to wash yourself.’ When I resisted, he cut my clothes open with a knife and pushed me into the shower. He took me to a room where there was a laptop showing a porn film. In that room he tied me to the bed and raped me.”
This was just the beginning of Berfin’s ordeal.
She was imprisoned by ISIL for nine months. In that time she was raped and abused by Afghan, Syrian and British ISIL fighters who afterwards sold her on, on one occasion for $6, she says.
In April last year, Berfin was rescued by a network that frees Yazidi women from ISIL captivity.
She now lives in a village in southern Germany, where the peaceful streets are lined with blossoming trees.
About 30 other Yazidi women and children who escaped from ISIL are here. They are part of a unique humanitarian project.
‘A humanitarian decision’
In October 2014, two months after ISIL invaded the district of Sinjar in Iraq, massacred Yazidi men and captured 7,000 Yazidi women and girls, the German state of Baden-Württemberg took a decision: it would bring 1,000 Yazidi women and children who had escaped captivity to Germany on a special visa to receive free treatment. The budget for this programme was set at 95m euros (around $107m).
We think these women would simply not have survived their heavy traumas if they hadn't come to Germany.
The women and children are housed in 22 villages and cities. In the interests of their safety, the whereabouts of the shelters are kept secret.
“It was a humanitarian decision,” says Michael Blume, head of the Special Quota Project, as it is called. “Our main goal is to offer these women and children, who suffered so much, the chance to build a new future.”
This is the first time that a federal state in Germany has created a humanitarian admissions programme.
“It was legally possible, but it was just never done before,” Blume says.
“We think these women would simply not have survived their heavy traumas if they hadn’t come to Germany,” explains Jan Kizilhan, a German-Kurd who is the programme’s chief psychologist. He is a professor at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University in Villingen-Schwenningen and an expert in transcultural psychiatry and traumatology.
Deciding who to help
Kizilhan, a Yazidi Kurd who emigrated to Germany from Turkey as a child, travelled in 2015 to the refugee camps near the city of Dohuk in northern Iraq, with the near-impossible task of selecting the women who would come to Germany.
He spoke to 1,403 women and girls who had all been forced into sexual slavery by ISIL.
”Every time a woman told me her story, I thought, ‘It can’t get any worse’. But then another woman came with a story that was even worse,” he says.
“The youngest girl I spoke to was eight years old. After seeing her father and grandfather being executed, she was raped hundreds of times, five or six times a day, over 14 months. She was sold and resold many times.”
Kizilhan weighed up two main considerations when deciding who should be taken to Germany: the severity of their psychological and physical trauma and how much they would benefit from the treatment offered.
It was decided that for very elderly women, for whom it would be more difficult to build a new life without their relatives, the programme would be less beneficial. On average, the selected women are below the age of 20.
”It was very difficult to decide who could come to Germany and who could not,” Kizilhan says.
As there is little help available to the women in their communities or in refugee camps, his task effectively meant choosing who was going to receive treatment and who wasn’t.
“There are only 25 psychologists in northern Iraq,” Blume says. “And most of them are male and Muslim. A heavily traumatised Yazidi woman would never want to be treated by them.”
Those who have come to Germany will all undergo therapy, but the women in the village where Berfin lives are still in the first phase of settling down. Their daily lives revolve around German language lessons and simple activities like buying groceries and learning how to ride a bicycle. The children attend school.
“Before we can start treatment, they first need to stabilise, find a new orientation in their lives and a feeling of safety,” Kizilhan explains.
“These women suffer from nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. They are afraid of people, they find it hard to trust anybody. Some are scared to go outside, many suffer from psychosomatic pains. We really have to give them time to settle down first.”
Settling into village life
Mayor Helmut Muller drives through his village to visit a Yazidi mother and her children. He is an energetic man in his 50s and his aim is to help the women to lead independent lives in about two years’ time. He estimates that for some it could take longer.
“The decision to offer shelter to these women in our village has been far-reaching,” he says. “There was so much we needed to organise. In the beginning I spent at least 20 percent of my time on this project.”
He had expected individual women to come, but to his surprise, entire families arrived: mothers with children, the youngest of whom are still babies, who had all been in ISIL captivity.
He says he specifically asked for women from villages, hoping they would be able to identify somewhat with life in his community. “I am convinced of the wholesomeness of village life,” he adds.
The women live in comfortable homes with daffodils and forget-me-nots in the gardens.
“They have been through so much, we want them to live in a beautiful place, not in some impersonal building,” the mayor says.
When Muller announced that the village would shelter a group of refugees, not all the locals were happy about it, he says, mostly because people didn’t know what to expect.
“There was some resistance, but now that the women and children are here, neighbours bring them chocolate and shopkeepers offer them work experience,” he says.
Still, cultural and language differences have made communication difficult at times.
“These women not only come from a totally different culture, they also come from a different era,” he says. “Things that are normal to us, like bikes and keys, are unknown to them. We have to explain a lot, but they only speak Kurdish.”
Two Turkish Kurdish women from the neighbourhood offered to help as volunteers and now have part-time paid jobs as interpreters.
Beritan Demir, 34, a former nurse, is one of the interpreters. Her main role is to accompany the women on visits to the doctor. “To me this is not just a job, I do this with whole my heart,” she says. “I feel so sorry for what these innocent people have been through.”
She says the women are often ill and suffer from all kinds of pain.
“‘Their health is destroyed during their imprisonment. They suffer from insomnia, they suffer from stomach pains when they eat. They were often given only bread and water – and the mothers gave their food to their children.”
Working within Yazidi culture
Fifteen-year-old Rana pours tea for the mayor, Demir and social worker Brigitte Neuhaus, who are visiting her family. She has a long braid and a pale face which betrays no emotion as she shares fragments of her story.
”When Daesh attacked our village, they took me and all the other girls with a bus to Mosul. Along the way Daesh fighters got on that bus. Their feet were spattered with blood and they stank. They took photos of the girls and would say things like: ‘I will come to get you later’. One fighter was very big, he had an enormous black beard. He came to me and took my picture. He said: ‘You are so pretty. You are mine now’. I was so scared.”
Rana doesn’t say explicitly that she has been raped.
“We know almost for sure that all the girls have been raped,” Demir says later.
“But most of the women find it extremely hard to talk about it. They never use the word ‘rape’, they say ‘marry’. They are so ashamed, they just can’t pronounce the word. They are even ashamed for each other.”
Berfin, for example, has never told her mother what happened to her.
“She often asked me about it, but I have always denied it. After everything she’s been through, I don’t want to hurt her even more,” she says.
“Chastity and family honour are extremely important in Yazidi culture,” Kizilhan explains.
“When a Yazidi woman has had sexual intercourse with a non-Yazidi, she traditionally is expelled from the community, whether it was voluntary or not. This 800-year-old rule has complicated the situation of these women. Some women have been rejected by their families,” he says, adding that some women in the camps in northern Iraq have committed suicide.
The tradition of ostracising women who have been raped has been the subject of discussions between Kizilhan and the Yazidi spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh. The leader subsequently issued an official declaration that women who have been raped by ISIL have not lost their honour and are still considered part of the community.
Before going to Germany, the women of the Special Quota Project were brought to Lalish, the Yazidi religious centre in northern Iraq, where Baba Sheikh blessed them and told them he was proud of them for escaping captivity.
“This was psychologically very important,” Kizilhan explains. “Because it gave them back their identity and self-worth.”
Kizilhan believes that working on the women’s sense of self-worth needs to be a crucial part of their therapy.
“It is important to make them feel they are valuable women. That they haven’t lost their honour because they were raped, but that the ISIL fighters have lost their honour by raping them.”
He emphasises the importance of taking into account their cultural and religious values.
“If we work from Western values, we won’t be able to reach them. We have to take into account the crucial importance of family honour in their patriarchal culture. That’s why I have given many courses to psychologists, social workers and interpreters who are working with these women.”
‘Not a single suicide’
Despite their efforts, there are critics.
“Some people said that we should have given the money to Iraq so the women could be treated at home,” Blume says. “But there simply aren’t enough psychologists in northern Iraq to treat all these heavily traumatised women who need intensive therapy.”
The project has also been accused of being idealistic.
“I agree with that,” Blume says. “And we are already seeing results. Some women have jobs now and rent their own apartments. Others are still struggling, that is certainly true. But we haven’t had a single case of suicide, whereas in the camps in Iraq there were many.”
Baden-Württemberg has recently invested one million euros (more than $11m) in a programme to train psychologists in Dohuk.
‘Our hearts are broken’
It’s Wednesday morning and the Yazidi mothers are at their German lesson in the village. Today they are learning how to count in German. One of the women nurses her baby and the atmosphere in the classroom is relaxed.
When the teacher goes too fast, the women start to laugh. “No problem,” she says. “‘You are all super students.”
She explains afterwards that the mothers are all illiterate.
“That’s why learning how to read and write German is extra difficult for them. We have to repeat a lot. But they are very motivated. It is important for their self-esteem and it is a good distraction for them.”
One of the women in the German class is 50-year-old Dilan. She wears a purple scarf and has soft, dark eyes.
”I am happy and grateful to be here,” she says. “We live in a beautiful house and we are safe now. The people are very kind to us. But our hearts are broken.”
Dilan was the first woman to arrive in the village in the autumn of 2015, along with seven of her eight children. She was enslaved by ISIL for nine months. One of her daughters is still in captivity and she doesn’t know if her husband is alive. On the wall of her living room there are pictures of family members who have gone missing since ISIL attacked her village. “We are thinking of them day and night.”
Three types of trauma
Having family members in captivity complicates the women’s treatment, Kizilhan says.
He explains that the women face three types of trauma.
“First there is their personal trauma,” he says. Then, he adds, there is the “deep rooted historical trauma” caused by the massacres and persecution the Yazidis have experienced in the past.
The third trauma, he says, is the collective trauma of the Yazidi people.
More than 3,500 women and 1,000 children remain imprisoned by ISIL.
“While they have to deal with their own trauma, these women’s minds are constantly occupied by the fate of their family members. While treating these women you have to take into account these extra traumas,” he says. “You have to keep in mind that their story is more complex than that of, for example, a war victim.”
‘Cruelties you can’t imagine’
Berfin attends a daily intensive German language course in a neighbouring city. She also does the shopping and cooks for her family.
“She is a great support for her mother,” says Neuhaus, the social worker.
Neuhaus says working with the women has changed her life.
“I have been confronted with cruelties you just can’t imagine,” she says. “ISIL have systematically destroyed these people. You can compare it to what the Germans did to the Jews.”
In spite of their trauma, Rana and the other young girls regularly attend school. They are passionate about football and are often seen playing a game together in the village.
“The women and children visibly have made progress ever since they have been here,” Neuhaus says.
“They look better than when they first came to the village. And they have taken up the daily routine remarkably well. In the beginning they didn’t cook for themselves. There were women who did nothing but sleep. But now they invite us to tea or to delicious dinners. All the children go to school or kindergarten. I really feel they have come to trust us a little.”
“I have gained new insights by working with these women,” Kizilhan says.
“What has impressed me most is their resilience. I realise that to make treatment successful, we really need to work with the inner strength they still possess. It’s amazing how strong these women are. They really want to survive.”
*For the safety of the children and women, all the names in this article have been changed, except for those of Dr Jan Kizilhan and Michael Blume.
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