Mission Øst  Irak
By Svend Løbner 10 Oct 2022 |

Yazidi survivors get new start at community centre

How does a traumatised girl or woman cope after years in captivity with the terrorist movement IS? Mental health care at the Mission East community centre in Sinjar eases women's pain and boosts their confidence. We have spoken to three key staff members at the centre.

Imagine you have been imprisoned and subjected to torture and sexual violence for years. Finally, you managed to escape and now you have returned to your home region. You search your house, scouting for the people you knew from before. But nothing is the same.

In addition to your inner chaos, your city is also in chaos. This is the case for Yazidi survivors of the IS massacre in Iraq on 3 August 2014.

An oasis in the desert

Mission East's community centre in the Yazidi capital of Sinjar is an oasis in the middle of a desert. Every day, between 25 and 30 girls and women come to the centre for psychological support through social activities and individual counselling with a psychologist. Just as many children turn up every day to learn different school subjects, play games, and take part in sports. The centre is also open to young men, although many of them won't admit that they need help too.

- But we don't wait for people to come to us," says Vajeen Tayeb, a sociology graduate and head of Mission East's protection programme in Iraq.

- We also reach out to the community through teams, she explains. "Forty-five young volunteers are divided into six teams and sent out to six areas in and around Sinjar, going from house to house educating people on women's rights, mental health, and psychosocial support.

The activities are based on requests from the local community. Mission East conducts focus group discussions and runs the courses they choose, including sewing, candy-making, and yoga.

Boosting women's self-confidence

Psychosocial support may sound a bit diffuse, but it's not to Suzan Saeed, team leader of the staff who leads group discussions and activities to help the women get back to normal life.

Mission Øst Irak

- We invite them to sew, draw, paint, make sweets, do yoga - all in small groups. We give them small tasks to do together. That way they start talking to each other and getting to know each other.

It's hard to open up when you've been so badly let down, but here the women are given some simple exercises: 'We teach them what to do when, for example, they have flashbacks, feel depressed, stressed or burnt out because they're recalling memories of the terrible things that have happened to them.  We boost their confidence and encourage them to take control of their own lives. At the same time, we give them a safe space to express themselves physically. They learn breathing techniques and stretching exercises that they can use in their everyday lives.

Raised by the roots again

It's a big help that women know they're not alone in their experiences. That's why the social aspect is so important, says Suzan Saeed, a Yazidi herself:

- When people flee, they are no longer among the people they know. Everything is new. And when they return to Sinjar, they meet a completely different community, new neighbours, completely new people with whom these already traumatised people have to relate. It gets messed up over and over again. It takes a lot of resilience to be able to settle back in after the horrors of war.

- We bring together those who are strangers to each other. They are helped to cooperate and express themselves to each other. That's how contact is made and new friendships are formed," she concludes.

Important to build women's confidence

Sometimes the trauma can run so deep that girls and women feel the need to talk to a psychologist. At the Mission East centre in Sinjar, that's between six and eight people every day. And psychologist Ghalya Qasu is there to help:

Mission Øst Irak

- It is important to build women's trust in other people and systems. After all, they have been let down badly. That's why we start the interviews by talking about ourselves in great detail and how a psychological interview works. And that what the woman says to the psychologist remains in complete confidence.

First, the psychologist needs to get an overall picture of the woman's situation, says Ghalya Qasu, who is Yazidi herself. For example, finances play a big role: "We ask about their financial situation, because we know that financial problems affect their state of mind. It's important to know if they can support their families.

Flashbacks to horrific scenes

How do you get the client to open up?

- It is very difficult for these women to talk openly about what they have been exposed to. Many of them have flashbacks to horrific scenes, some experience increasing depression, and most are very tense. You can't ask the questions directly. But through open, indirect questions we help each survivor to tell in their own words what they feel and what they have experienced.

What happens inside the survivor when they start talking?

- They begin to feel more comfortable when they can unburden their hearts in a safe and confidential space. The intensity decreases after the handover. It all loosens up when they are told what is weighing on them.

What about the shame...?
- The women know that many other women in Sinjar have suffered the same thing. They are not alone. When thousands of women have gone through the same brutal violence, it makes the stigma a little less.

No shame, no condemnation

It's important for Ghalya Qasu to tell her client that what happened is not her fault.

- After all, what happened was completely beyond her control. So she doesn't need to feel shame. It is also important that the client understands that we are not judging them. That as a psychologist I'm just trying to understand. I make sure to say it very clearly: I believe in you!