When Elham Salah first began her training to be a psychological counselor, she thought that she would be helping local women cope with the effects of domestic and other gender-based violence. However, after almost three years of working at the Jiyan Foundation—a small group in Iraqi Kurdistan that specializes in women’s issues—she has become intimately acquainted with the fallout from the region’s brutal wars.
Almost all of her patients now are Yazidi women who have been liberated—or escaped—from captivity by ISIS, or the so-called “Islamic State.”
“At first, most of my patients were experiencing abuse from someone they knew,” Salah told The Daily Beast, carefully describing her clientele. “It was something we have seen before.”
“But since the Islamic State arrived, it has changed completely,” she said. “Now many are dealing with violent rapes from strange fighters, and the tension in religious differences. It is a completely new set of psychological challenges.”
Almost two years ago, ISIS stormed the mountains of northern Iraq, capturing and killing thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority, in what is increasingly being recognized as a genocide. While many of the men and the older, less desirable women were almost immediately murdered, the younger women were taken to areas inside of the Islamic State’s “caliphate,” where they were bought, sold and traded as sex slaves, among the Islamic State fighters.
“They gave us to them,” a Yazidi survivor recently recounted, while testifying at the United Nations about her experiences of being kidnapped and then auctioned to ISIS fighters in Mosul.
“He beat me up, and forced me to undress,” she continued, recalling her first experience being raped by an ISIS fighter. “He put me in a room with six militants—they continued to commit crimes to my body until I was unconscious.”
Since the time that ISIS first captured the Yazidis, many of the kidnapped women have been liberated—mostly by outside forces. Some also managed to escape their captivity themselves—fleeing to the areas of northern Iraq that they once called home.
However, now on the other side, many of the women are struggling to make sense of their experiences, and adjust to normal life.
“There is a lot of depression, and symptoms of trauma among the women,” said Salah, who both sees patients in her office, and visits women living in the nearby refugee camps as part of a mobile clinic.
“Some of the women appear fine, normal even, but then begin to shake, freeze, and panic when they try to recount their experiences.”
There are only a handful of organizations offering psychological support for survivors—the Jiyan Foundation, where Salah works, being one of them. Due to the dearth of services, and lack of capacity for outreach, many women are unaware that there is an opportunity for psychological support, or think that they lack the necessary funds.
For others, the combined taboo of losing their virginity before marriage—and then having to be candid about it—keeps them from seeking therapy.
“It is very important that we are all women working in the clinic,” Salah noted. “It allows women to talk frankly, and honestly with someone who can imagine the same experiences happening to them.”
However, for many women, the trauma is not over. Although they are free and safe—for the time being—many of them have family members that are part of the 2,000 Yazidi women thought to still be held captive by the Islamic State.
“The problem is that, though their psychological state is improving, many still have family that is still with the Islamic State [and] captured,” Salah said.
“Because of this, they will continue to have these feelings, these problems, and not fully able to escape.”