“It’s hard to be here when my family is back there,” said Ramzya Issa, 21, who was enslaved for two years and four months before she escaped in 2017.
Issa is one of about 300 Yazidi Kurdish-speaking refugees, members of a religious and ethnic minority long persecuted in Iraq, who arrived in London in 2016 and 2017 after escaping an ISIS genocide in northern Iraq where several thousand Yazidis were killed and half a million became refugees.
Another 100 Yazidi settled in London after coming from other Canadian cities, such as Winnipeg, said Valerian Marochko, head of the Cross Cultural Learner Centre, a London agency that helps immigrants.
Because of their years of living in horrific conditions, many of the refugees suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Marochko said.
“Complex PTSD that is associated with prolonged trauma like exposure to mass killings; other people being killed; injury to themselves; torture; shelling; rape,” he said. “Some of the women still don’t know if their partner is alive or dead, and we hear some of our clients have been sold multiple times into slavery.”
Issa, who grew up in an agricultural family near Sinjar Mountains, is one of those who became a slave.
She remembers her life was normal before the massacre by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that devastated the Yazidis in 2014. Then came guns and bombs, and her former friendly Muslim neighbours began rising up against the Yazidi.
“They didn’t like that we belonged to a different religion and a different culture,” Issa said.
After she was captured by ISIS she was kept captive for 15 days in August 2014 in a school, before she was given as a slave to an ISIS fighter. The fighters, who drew names for the girls, could do what they wanted with them, including giving them away to friends or selling them.
“We didn’t have any choice; we had to be with them,” Issa said.
She endured horrible conditions and humiliation, as well as having to cook and clean for dozens of people. Eventually, a Yazidi man named Hamad, a friend whom ISIS believed was Muslim, plotted to help her and 16 other women escape.
To this day, she doesn’t know what happened to the man who saved her.
To reach the Kurdish-controlled town of Zamar, they slept during the day and crept over a mountain at night.
From there, they made it to Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and finally to Canada, through the U.S. nonprofit Yazda.
Today, Issa is studying English and working at a local restaurant.
“I will never forget what happened, but I have to continue life,” she said.
Issa doesn’t like to talk about how her ordeal continues to affect her, but she often thinks about her parents and two sisters who are still in Iraq.
Omar Khoudeida, a Yazidi settlement worker at the Cross Cultural Learner Centre, who came to Canada from Iraq in 2000, said many of the mostly female immigrants are single. They lost their husbands or aren’t sure if they’re still alive.
“All were in captivity and experienced a horrible nightmare,” he said. “Most of them still have children missing.”
The Cross Cultural Learner Centre is receiving a $232,000 community vitality grant from the London Community Foundation during two years to develop a mental-health, peer-support program to help traumatized Yazidi refugees heal from the horror of ethnic cleansing.
About 1,300 Yazidis have settled in Canada since the genocide, and London is home to one of largest communities in the country.
About 70 per cent of those who arrived in London are younger than 30, the majority are children.
Marochko said the peer support program is a partnership involving CMHA Middlesex and Merrymount Family Support Crisis Centre, as well as the Mary J. Wright Research and Education Centre at Western University.
The funds will be used to build a network and establish programs to help the Yazidis overcome cultural and language barriers, he said.
“We hope it will have a big chance for success,” Marochko said. “Peer support models have been demonstrated to be effective in research we’ve seen. We’re trying to build on what works.”
First steps in the program would be for each person to undergo an assessment and begin to help them “feel safe.”
“It’s a young community, very eager to learn English and to help other people,” Marochko said.
Community vitality celebration:
The London Community Foundation is hosting its annual celebration Wednesday at the Hellenic Community Centre. Five community vitality grants will be announced, as well as the recipients of the foundation’s vital people award given to individuals who work for charities in London and Middlesex County. They will receive funding for professional development.
Other community vitality grant recipients:
Indwell: Hamilton-based non-profit creating affordable housing in London will receive $320,000.
Youth Opportunities Unlimited: Agency that provides temporary accommodation for youth while creating a path to permanent housing will receive $187,500.
ReForest London: Non-profit creating the Westminster Ponds Centre for Environment and Sustainability that will act as a hub for environmental advocacy receiving $190,000.
Forest City Film Festival: Receiving $53,600 to hire part-time staff to expand the event focused on Southwestern Ontario cinema.