International community neglecting Yazidi mental health support, camp workers say

With conditions exacerbated by Covid-19 crisis, some Yazidi women are resorting to suicide

Iraqi Yazidis light up a balloon outside Lalish temple situated in a valley near Dohuk during a ceremony to celebrate the Yazidi New Year. AFP
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Yazidis suffering from mental health illnesses are being neglected by the international community with deadly consequences, say psychologists and NGO workers at a camp in Dohuk, Iraq.

In early September, a mother of five, 52, committed suicide in Khanke Camp, home to 15,000 Yazidis displaced by ISIS, in Iraq's Kurdistan Region.

The woman lost her husband and son to the extremist group, leading to deep psychological wounds.

Before her death, she told of frequent flashbacks to the violence committed on her family and neighbours.

Her death is symbolic of the chronic mental health crisis that plagues communities of Yazidis displaced after the genocide committed against them by ISIS, which began in August 2014 and ended in 2019.

Three years after government forces backed by the US and an international coalition liberated the last ISIS stronghold in Mosul, up to 200,000 Yazidis remain displaced, with many living in camps like the one in Khanke.

An estimated 43 per cent of Yazidis who suffered at the hands of ISIS meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, a 2017 German study published in Frontiers of Psychiatry found.

Another 40 per cent met the criteria for major depression, and 26 per cent for both, showing the need for greater access to psychological and psychiatric support.

The woman’s death was just one of many in the camp, where most have lived for nearly six years.

FILE PHOTO: Displaced Iraqi children from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the Iraqi town of Sinjar, play at the Khanki camp on the outskirts of Dohuk province, July 31, 2019. Picture taken July 31, 2019.  REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File Photo
Displaced Iraqi children from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the Iraqi town of Sinjar, play at the Khanki camp on the outskirts of Dohuk province in 2019. Reuters 

“There have been a lot of similar cases of people committing suicide because they could not endure the pain,” said Pier Alo, a Yazidi religious leader and the camp manager.

Between 2018 and 2020, five Yazidis died by suicide inside the same camp.

In 2018 two girls lost their lives, emphasising how women and girls are disproportionately affected by mental health difficulties.

“Men go out, work, see people, see nice things, but women stay home,” Mr Alo said.

More than 6,000 Yazidis, mostly women and girls, were abducted and sold into sexual slavery during the tyranny of ISIS. Almost 3,000 of them are still missing.

Between 7,000 and 13,900 Yazidis are believed to have been murdered between August 3 and 14 in 2014.

Those left behind bear deep psychological scars and require mental health treatment.

But the Barzani Charity Foundation, a local group that administers the Yazidi camp and other centres for internally displaced people and refugees throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, says there are severe limits on psychosocial support from international donors.

A staff member from local charity Harikar said the main psychological stresses women and girls face in the camp are domestic abuse and being forced to marry at a young age.

Staff members secretly meet women and girls who endure such problems, but solutions are limited by financial constraints.

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Camp staff suspect that many others suffer in silence as only 200 severe mental health cases are reported every year.

Social clubs, seminars about how to lead a stable life in the camp, youth capacity building and technical training are a few of the initiatives that the camp’s staff suggest could help to improve inhabitants’ mental health.

“We need awareness, hospitals, medicine and psychologists capable of addressing the difficulties we face,” Pier Alo said.

But with limited international support and the coronavirus pandemic, these initiatives remain difficult to implement.

After the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown in the Kurdistan region in April, international organisations did not visit the camp for three months and funding drastically decreased.

Lack of employment, insufficient food supplies and uncertainty about the future are all stresses exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mr Alo has repeatedly raised the issue of mental health in meetings with the UN High Commission for Refugees but the requests are met with silence.

Only three psychologists work in the camp of nearly 15,000 people, providing an impossible task.

One of the psychologists, Kheri, said care was urgently needed.

“Their psychologies are destroyed," Kheri said. "We need more psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists.”

But even with enhanced support, many other obstacles lie ahead.

Azhee, a local charity based in Erbil, says that the most significant challenge to addressing mental health is stigma, and that it will take decades to address.

The ISIS genocide is just the latest attack on the community, which says it has survived 74 pogroms.

The trauma of the brutality has been passed from generation to generation for centuries.

Prof Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, a world-renowned Kurdish psychotherapist, told The National  that if transgenerational traumas were "left untreated, it will have a negative psychological, social, political and cultural impact on society".

Prof Kizilhan stresses the importance of culturally appropriate psychotherapy to effectively assist Yazidis.

He says that raising awareness using apps and digital tools will address stigma and open up pathways to mental health care.

Ensuring that the Yazidis have access to the psychological support that they need throughout their displacement is critical to ensuring they can lead meaningful lives filled with peace and dignity.

Providing the Yazidis with the security and stability they need to return to their historic homeland safely and voluntarily requires international and local organisations to co-operate closely with the community.

“It is vital that we listen to the communities we serve,” Nobel laureate and Yazidi survivor of the ISIS genocide, Nadia Murad, said during a side event co-hosted by the UAE at the 2020 UN General Assembly on August 3.

Kheri, 15, who has lived in the camp for six years said: “We want to go back but we can’t. There are no services. There is no safety. We miss our family members. We miss our schools.”

After reflecting on the suicides and his community’s hardships, Mr Alo said: “Don’t we deserve to be treated as humans? Why should we have to be killed, murdered and forced to flee from our homeland?

"We need to be treated as if we matter. We need to feel safe again.”