Fariborz Birjandian, a refugee himself and the leader of one of Canada’s largest resettlement agencies, has years of experience helping refugees from around the world adjust to life in Canada.
But nothing prepared him for the Yazidis.
Recently he went to an English language classroom in Calgary, where a young woman, Jihan, had just finished describing the screams of a young girl as she was raped by an ISIS soldier. Suddenly, she fell unconscious, her eyes rolled back in her head as she grabbed at her hair and began trying to bite herself.
The New York Times explains why the trauma faced by Yazidi women is considered the worst resettlement agencies have ever seen:
The woman, Jihan, is one of almost 1,200, mostly women and children, victims of the Islamic State who have been brought to Canada as part of a special refugee program set up particularly for Yazidis, members of a tiny religious minority from Northern Iraq that the militants set out to decimate in August 2014.
As documented by United Nations investigators, when militants of the Islamic State, or ISIS, descended onto Yazidi villages across arid Sinjar Mountain, they rounded up the men, either forcing them to convert to Islam or be killed. The Yazidis’ ancient faith made them apostates in the eyes of the militants.
Women and girls — some as young as 9 — were cataloged and sold into a codified system of sex slavery.
Jihan was sold so many times, she lost count. Like others interviewed for this article, she asked The New York Times to use her first name only to protect family members still held by ISIS.
She and a few other women in Calgary have had seizure-like attacks in which they drop to the ground and seem to relive their rapes.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Margaret Styczynska, manager of Calgary Catholic Immigration Society’s resettlement center. “They were suffocating themselves. They screamed like you are killing an animal. Some lasted 15 minutes or longer.”
The Canadian government oversees the country’s resettlement program by funding non-profits that help refugees with practical needs like finding housing, enrolling in school, and setting up a bank account. Those with mental health symptoms are supposed to get assistance from a family doctor, but that doesn’t always happen.
On top of this, Canada has a lack of interpreters who speak Kurmanji — the Yazidi dialect of Kurdish.
Mr. Birjandian, who runs the Calgary immigration society, said that “Our fear is the government will be scared of this population and won’t want to touch them. But really, this is the population we should help — if we call what we are doing a humanitarian effort.”
Adiba, a Yazidi refugee who was captured by ISIS and sold six times before escaping, faces constant trauma. “I am always in pain,” she said. “I’m never comfortable.” She is often in tears and contemplates suicide.
“What I saw, it wasn’t something small or simple.”