Survivors of ISIS Trafficking in Kurdistan-Iraq: Jiyan Foundation's Psychosomatic Clinic for Women
This story is also featured on HTS Blog (humantraffickingsearch.org)
Authors: Asmaa Ibrahim Co-head of Trauma Care and Health, Lavan Jalal Psychotherapist
*Indicates name has been changed to protect the identity of the survivor.
After the girls were captured from their villages and homes, ISIS terrorists took their pictures and sent photos over group chats to prospective buyers. Some girls scratched their faces in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to the buyers. The fear of rape and slavery among the captured girls was so strong, that rather than live through this nightmare, some girls cut their wrists, hanged themselves, or threw themselves from the building. The surviving girls were gathered in halls, dressed, prepared for sale, and blindfolded before being muscled into a car.
Each survivor has their own story to tell. Though these stories can be difficult to read, survivors like Sera*, whose story is shared below, volunteer to share their experiences in an effort to provide public awareness of their past and information to support pathways toward healing for other survivors.
In 2014, 23 year old Sera* was captured by ISIS terrorists as she ran to escape her home in Sinjar. For the next four years, she was held captive. The first month of her captivity, Sera was taken to Badush prison where she was held with no food, no clean water, and left without any privacy. After the first month, she was sold and purchased by an ISIS terrorist, who brought her to his home, raped her, and then sold her again to an old man who repeated this process until she she became pregnant.
Shortly after successfully giving birth to her first son while still in captivity, Iraqi forces liberated the region Sera was being held in, and she was able to return home. But, due to the circumstances of the conception and birth, her family denied her child, leaving her to choose between banishment from her family or giving up her newborn child. Reluctantly, Sera surrendered her firstborn to a local orphanage and hoped to move on from this traumatic experience. However, like many victims of sex trafficking, Sera started expereincing negative psychological affects caused by her abduction, sale, rape and birth experience. Anxiety, shame, fear, flashbacks, and nightmares were just a few of the symptoms Sera spoke about when she came to Jiyan Foundation’s Psychosomatic Clinic for Women in Chamchamal (Women’s Clinic).
Women in Iraq who are victims of trafficking and violence come to the Jiyan Foundation’s Psychosomatic Clinic for Women, where they and their children live together and participate in a four-week stabilization program designed to help them recognize and control the triggers and symptoms brought about by these experiences. After the program, survivors leave the clinic and return home to continue with psychotherapy treatment in their home village or city.
When Sera came to the clinic, she expressed her desire to be isolated, she felt ashamed and guilty, not only for giving her son to the orphanage, but for being raped. She felt as though she had somehow perpetrated this crime on herself. The dry callus on her knuckles, a symptom of overwashing, was something she admitted to doing because she felt contaminated and dirty. Sera said being around people made her feel like the events from her past would happen again, and in those moments she’d pull at her hair and bite her arms.
At Jiyan Foundation’s Psychosomatic Clinic for Women we have worked for the better part of the past decade to help survivors of the ISIS invasion of our homeland, learn how to live with the memories and effects of the cruelty they experienced, and move on from them. Sera’s story and her ongoing trauma are emblematic of the many Kurdish and Yazidi women we see in our clinic on a daily basis.
Survivors living in Iraq and Kurdistan-Iraq are among millions across the Middle-East who have witnessed decades of prolonged and recurrent wars, conflicts, and terror. Recent research revealed that over 350,000 survivors of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), surviving in a little more than 20 refugee camps continue to live with the effects of their experiences (Kizilhan & Noll-Hussong 2020). Common traumatic experiences include witnessing the killing of loved ones, forced religious conversion, forced marriage, forced labor, and countless other types of trauma inflicted by constant and recurring human trafficking.
Through the mental health work we do at the Jiyan Foundation, we have seen first hand how the effects of these atrocities linger long after the incidents occurred. A recent study assessed the prevalence of PTSD as well as complex PTSD among 108 female Yazidi former ISIS captives and found that 50.9% of them had probable complex PTSD, while 20% had probable PTSD. Traumatic experiences caused by human trafficking can also lead to cognitive impairment, memory loss, depression, and even suicide.
For Sera, and the thousands of formerly trafficked people being treated at Jiyan and in programs around the globe, there is hope and a path forward from these nightmares. One of the programs that proved integral to the path forward for women at Jiyan is the Stabilization Program which includes four weeks of 12 sessions on psychoeducation about trauma and PTSD symptoms, coping strategies, grounding, relaxation techniques, and reorientation. After these four weeks, patients return home to receive long-term treatment at their local Jiyan Foundation treatment center where they engage in individual, group, and art therapy programs.
Sera has since completed her four-week stabilization program and participates in bi-weekly sessions with a local psychotherapist. She lives with her family, who has also been educated on her conditions, helping her feel empowered and able to manage these conditions as she goes forward. While Sera still feels guilty about giving up her son, her nightmares have subsided and she looks forward to participating in regular group therapy sessions to continue on her path to healing.
Since its inception in 2015 close to 1,000 patients have been treated at Jiyan Foundation’s Psychosomatic Clinic for Women in Chamchamal, Kurdistan-Iraq. Approximately half of the beneficiaries are women and half are children or adolescents who stay at the clinic together with their mothers. Patients’ psychological symptoms are assessed at the beginning and end of the four-week stabilization program using standard symptom scales to ensure that treatments are having the intended effect. Jiyan Foundation’s assessments show that over the course of their treatment a majority of patients experience reductions in their psychological symptoms, such as depression and somatic symptoms. All psychosocial and medical support services are provided by Jiyan Foundation free-of-charge.
The work at Jiyan follows the core values set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We believe in human dignity and promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the declaration. We help survivors of human rights violations, regardless of their age, gender, ethnic or religious affiliation. Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights seeks a democratic society that protects the dignity of every human being. One where adults and children realize their rights to life and liberty, and all citizens are free from torture and terror.
On this International Women’s Day, we celebrate the strength of the women in our programs and around the globe, who have suffered trauma through human trafficking and have found the courage to share their stories and start down the path towards healing. Along with the international community, today we imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive to all. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. And a world where women are free from fear of harm or violence, like human trafficking. If we keep working together, we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.
Asmaa Ibrahim is Co-head of Trauma Care and Health at Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights and assistant lecturer at the Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology at the University of Duhok in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. Ibrahim is one of the first to graduate from the master’s degree program at the Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology in Dohuk. After graduating, Ibrahim began to work in Jiyan Foundation’s clinic where women who had severe mental disorders, survived trauma and violations from war were treated. She has recently written on the need for continued and sustainable mental health and medical support by the United States for survivors in Iraq.
Lavan Jalal is a Psychotherapist at Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights working at the Psychosomatic Clinic for Women in Chamchamal, Kurdistan-Iraq and across the region. Ms. Jalal focuses heavily on rehabilitation and psychotherapy treatment with Yazidi survivors of ISIS atrocities. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Koya University and is certified in art therapy, EMDR, psychotraumatology, and horticultural therapy.