It’s hard to look Lamiya Aji Bashar in the eyes. Through them you can see the hell this young Yazidi woman has went through, not to mention her scarred face. The eyes of our Kurmanji translator fill as she translates from this Kurdish dialect into English, proving a little distance from the story of a girl who was taken captive by the Islamic State at age 15.
This rare face-to-face meeting took place, surprisingly enough, in central Israeli Bar Ilan University’s psychology department. Aji Bashar is the only member of her delegation from Iraq who can reveal her face and name. That’s because she now lives in Germany, as part of a special rehabilitation programme for 1,100 women and children who survived Islamic State captivity.
Most of the 15 or so women in the delegation are Yazidi, but a few are Christian. And aside from Aji Bashar, they will return to Iraq following a special two-week course that was developed for them in Israel on coping with complex post-traumatic stress disorder – a term used for extreme cases of ongoing trauma, like captivity and severe abuse.
Of the 500,000 Yazidis who lived in northern Iraq near the Syrian border, mainly in the town of Sinjar and nearby villages, most fled after it was captured by the Islamic State in August 2014. They were housed in improvised camps consisting of tents with no infrastructure.
About 6,500 women and children were taken captive by the Islamic State. Some managed to escape or were liberated when the area was retaken from the organization in 2018. But around 3,000 are still missing.
Over the past few years, IsraAid has sent some 20 Israeli experts with dual citizenship to Iraq to help treat these psychological wounds.
The organisation was contacted by three members of Bar-Ilan’s faculty – Dr. Yaakov Hoffman, a clinical psychologist and researcher, Prof. Amit Shrira, a psychologist and Prof. Ari Zivotofsky, a brain researcher. All were studying trauma among Yazidi women, and Zivotofsky had even visited Iraq.
They proposed offering training in treating complex PTSD to people who deal with the traumatized population. Their plan was to adapt a therapy method known as STAIR, which was developed by Prof. Marylene Cloitre of California.
Thus was born a joint venture that, with Mirza’s help, brought 15 young women from Iraq for training in Israel.
The women have taken classes in dealing with depression, anxiety, nightmares and other sleep disturbances. They also visited the beaches in Tel Aviv, the Western Wall, and Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center. Regardless of the value of the professional training they received, it seems they also needed a vacation. They are returning to an extremely tough situation.
The Israelis behind the project, primarily Hoffman and Zivotofsky, have developed a strong relationship with the Yazidi people over the years. They’re excited that it has finally gotten off the ground and hope their efforts will make a difference. But given the situation in Iraq, they know this a small goodwill gesture tossed into a world of chaos.