Yazidi survivors of ISIS rape told children unwelcome
TUNIS - Children born to Yazidi women raped by Islamic State fighters will not be accepted into the minority faith’s community, the religion’s top council said, dealing a painful blow to hundreds of women who must abandon their children or be shunned from their homes.
The statement, which seemed to contradict a ruling days before that “all survivors” should be welcomed back, brought to the fore sensitive issues regarding Yazidi identity that have compounded the problems of Yazidi women freed from Islamic State (ISIS) captivity.
Yazidis, a distinct ethno-religious group in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, were brutally targeted by ISIS in 2014 when the group ripped through the sect’s heartland in northern Iraq. Thousands of Yazidis were killed as they tried to flee and thousands -- mostly women and children -- were pressed into slavery.
After the group’s defeat, some Yazidis sought to return home to reintegrate with their community but women -- especially those with children born in captivity -- were often outcast in a society that prizes ethnic purity and forbids marriage or sexual relations with outsiders.
Such stigma served as “additional trauma” for former women captives, prompting them “to feel ashamed of their children” and, at times, “separate from their children,” said Yesim Arikut Treece, a psychologist with the Free Yazidi Foundation who works with Yazidi survivors.
The dilemma moved the religion’s leaders to act and, on April 25, the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council issued a landmark ruling: They would accept “all survivors” of ISIS’s crimes and consider their ordeal to have been “against their will.”
Many Yazidi activists and advocates, interpreting the statement to mean that children fathered by ISIS captors would be accepted, praised the decision as “brave” and “historic” but it received sharp resistance from segments of the Yazidi community that said it undercut the religion’s core customs and threatened the sect’s identity.
The council walked back the statement days later, saying the original edict had not meant to “include children born of rape but [instead] refer to children born of two Yazidi parents.”
This returned the discourse to traditional Yazidi doctrine -- only children with two Yazidi parents are considered Yazidi and the religion accepts no converts -- but left Yazidi women with children born in ISIS captivity with few prospects of reconnecting with their homeland.
At the crux of the issue, analysts and historians noted, is the Yazidis’ highly insular nature, which likely developed as a way to preserve their safety and identity in the face of centuries of oppression, including under the Ottoman Empire and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides or attempts at annihilation," Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago, told National Geographic in August 2014. "Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity.”
When it comes to ISIS, the memory of persecution is fresh and many Yazidis are averse to any connection with the group, including through children fathered by their members, activists pointed out.
“After speaking with many Yazidis, (many feel that accepting) children from ISIS into their own community is unacceptable,” explained Pari Ibrahim, founder and executive director of the Free Yazidi Foundation. “They feel that the blood of ISIS in these children will flow within the next generations and therefore be a threat to our community.”
Yazidis are also concerned, Barber noted in a recent blog post, that “focusing on children produced through enslavement will distract from the much larger number of Yazidi children who were kidnapped in 2014 and who remain missing today.”
Weeks after ISIS lost its final stronghold in Syria, some 3,000 Yazidis captured by the group remain missing.
To move forward, many Yazidi activists suggested resettling Yazidi survivors with children from captivity abroad, where they could receive adequate care and resources to rebuild their lives.
“Acceptance can take a while,” said Ibrahim. “We really hope these women and their children can be resettled elsewhere, where they have a chance to start a new life without judgment.”
For the mothers intent on returning home, however, the future is unclear.
Yazidi activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad has implored that survivors and their families have the final say on the matter. “If they decide to return with their children, we as a society must respect their decision, welcome them and offer them any possible help,” she said in a video address.
However Yazidi survivors choose to move forward, Ibrahim and the activists acknowledge it will be a tough road to recovery, full of difficult questions that reflect a community deeply pained and fractured in the aftermath of war.