Jewish experience of genocide helps heal victims of ISIS

Lamya Aji Bashar Taha: What I saw at Yad Vashem is similar to what happened to us.

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July 1, 2019 22:11
Genocide researcher  Frishta Kewe and survivor Lamya Aji Bashar Taha in Jerusalem last week

Genocide researcher Frishta Kewe and survivor Lamya Aji Bashar Taha in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

Israel is among the best places for victims of genocide to see how Jews have processed the trauma of the past, says Mirza Dinnayi, head of a German humanitarian organization that treats Iraqi children and terror victims. He is part of a group that came to Israel this month to support victims of the Yazidi genocide.

The shuk in Jerusalem is always a bustling mosaic of people on a Friday. In late June, however, it hosted a group of Iraqis who had survived the depredations of Islamic State. It was a unique gathering, and the clanging of the shops and bustle of people helped distract the survivors from difficulties they have faced over the years.

Five years have passed since ISIS was at the height of its power in 2014, declaring its “caliphate” in Mosul in northern Iraq. Today, ISIS has been largely defeated, but its victims still hold the scars of trauma from 2014. Thousands of Yazidis, a minority group, were systematically murdered, and women and children sold into slavery. Although 3,000 remain missing, several thousand were able to escape or were freed from the hands of ISIS.

One of those is Lamiya Aji Bashar, who won the 2016 Sakharov Prize alongside Nadia Murad, another Yazidi victim. Aji Bashar was wounded in April 2016 while escaping and went to Germany to receive assistance. She came to Israel as part of a Bar-Ilan University and IsraAid initiative. The two-week workshop took place at the end of June and included a closing ceremony with Natan Sharansky. The university says that for four years, it has been conducting studies on PTSD and other issues facing Yazidi genocide survivors.

Dr. Yaakov Hoffman and Prof. Ari Zivotofsky from Bar-Ilan University said that they felt a moral obligation to study the effects of genocide and to share the know-how that exists in Israel. Dinnayi, who runs the German NGO Luftbrucke Irak, has helped more than 1,000 Yazidis who escaped ISIS and have gone to Germany for assistance.

On June 27, the group visited Yad Vashem. Aji Bashar said she felt that the Yazidi experience is linked to the images she saw at the Holocaust memorial. “They killed the men, and it is similar to what happened to us,” Bashar said.

The vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Edwin Shuker, who has a keen interest in Iraq where he was born, said that the Jewish mission of being a light unto the nations can be seen in the connections with Yazidis and other survivors of ISIS crimes.

“We must remember that we understand this is our core mission,” said Shuker. “When I see what these kids went through and see them here and watch their faces smiling, you know we have done our mission.” Shuker was one of several people who came to the shuk with the Yazidis and Christians as they prepared to tour the Old City of Jerusalem.

For Dinnayi, the most important thing is that Iraq needs experienced professionals in trauma and psycho-therapy. “We began this initiative to help those who can help and create sustainability,” he says, adding that “I hope we can do a follow-up, and bring peace and solidarity for survivors of genocide.”

Frishta Kewe, a researcher in genocide, also accompanied the group. Born in Sulimaniyeh in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, she moved to Europe and then returned to Iraq. She said that the visit to Yad Vashem was especially impactful for the group.

Kewe is an expert on the genocide carried out against Kurds in the 1980s by the regime of Saddam Hussein, including the Halabja poison gas attacks. “This is so much to learn, and I hope to write about it and show the resilience and commitment that people here [in Israel] took care [regarding] their history,” Kewe said.

But it is an uphill struggle. Lisa Miara, president and founder of the Springs of Hope Foundation, which has worked in a Yazidi IDP camp for years, says that the visit can help those who work with youth back in the Yazidi camps. Even though ISIS was defeated in Iraq in 2017, many hundreds of thousands of Yazidis remain in displaced persons camps because they fear returning to Sinjar where the genocide took place.

There are many hurdles for the community, not only in terms of security and the required investment in their former villages that were destroyed by ISIS, but also in helping women who survived sexual assault and had children while under ISIS captivity. This sensitive subject has caused controversy, as some women faced challenges returning to their communities. Some of the children were also brainwashed by ISIS.

Miara says that she has seen 200 kids who were once held by ISIS and that some of them were even child soldiers, forced to fight by the extremists. “No one in Iraq has experience with child soldiers,” she says, in terms of psychological support for the kids. These are uncharted waters. Some 30 kids and 10 women were rescued in battles near Baghouz earlier this year, but it’s difficult to confront the way ISIS sought to program them to be extremists.


HOW DID a unique group of survivors from ISIS end up in Israel in the first place?

“I went to Kurdistan to do research on disappearing Jewish communities,” says Zivotofsky. Hoffman, who was studying PTSD, asked him if he could help bring a questionnaire to Yazidi survivors.

“We decided to help them. And as people who know what it is like to be without a home and at the whim of evil, like ISIS was for them – and let them know that people are here to help them – they view us as a role model,” Zivotofsky said. “There must be follow up if we bring them here – if we want the therapy they learned to be effective – so we hope to do that and have visits, and we are planning on this. Bar-Ilan is planning follow up.”

The group also learned about what Jewish child survivors faced after 1945, and heard a lecture from Dr. Sharon Shalom, an Ethiopian Israeli who also survived the difficulties Ethiopian Jews underwent leaving Ethiopia in the 1980s. The Yazidis and Christians were inspired by his lecture, asking for selfies and seeing in his message of hope, a message they could take home.

It wasn’t an easy trip to get to Israel. Some of the participants’ names could not be mentioned, and the process and bureaucracy to come was complex. But they surmounted the hurdles. But the real hurdle remains in the future.

“We haven’t received enough support from the international community,” says Aji Bashar. “But it has been an amazing experience.”


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