“Their behavior, their appearance, was of broken birds.”
Lisa Miara, founder of Springs of Hope Foundation, tells me about a group of kids recently released from ISIS captivity who have come to her foundation’s Hope Center in northern Iraq. It took six months of coming to the Hope Center before they asked Miara and her team if they could have lunch together.
“Behind the scenes, we all wept,” Miara says of the request, because it sent a clear message: that they were ready to accept the love they were being given, and that they were ready to call this place and its people, home.
There is no such thing as a typical day at the Hope Center. Nestled inside Shariya Camp in Dohuk, Iraq, this center of healing for Yezidi women and children does not adhere to set guidelines. It does not follow a predictable pattern because healing looks different for every woman and child that walks through its doors. As with every Yezidi camp, the people of Shariya Camp are IDPs (internally displaced people) and include women who were trafficked and kids who were forced to be child soldiers with the Islamic State (or Daesh, as they are also called).
It was August 3, 2014 when ISIS fighters invaded Sinjar in northern Iraq, leaving thousands of Yezidis massacred and dumped into mass graves. Thousands of women and children were taken into captivity while yet thousands more were forced to flee the region and their homes. More than five years have passed since this invasion, of which the United Nations recognizes as a genocide. The victims still hold trauma and many have yet to even be released from captivity.
For the women and kids who were slaves and forced to fight on ISIS’s behalf, freedom from captivity has not meant the ending of a chapter, but rather the closing of one door while many more remain open. They have been left with Complex PTSD, a specific form of post traumatic stress that is a result of chronic trauma—trauma that continues or repeats for long periods of time. For the women and girls, this means frequent fainting—a survival mechanism for when their reality is too overwhelming, when it is safer for them to go someplace else.
The key to opening a center such as Hope Center is not labeling it as a place for trauma counseling. If it were labeled as such, Miara assures that no one would come. In a society where honor and shame are prominent themes, openly acknowledging trauma would only add to the shame the women and kids are already experiencing.
“In this society, more than a typical western society, it is vital to have a quiet, pleasant, noninvasive, nonthreatening method of storytelling—of personal, and of collective group,” Miara says.
While in the West we find individual therapy methods to be beneficial, it is not the case amongst Yezidis (and perhaps not the case in many societies). For kids who were grouped together in certain military units, it is most effective for them to process their trauma together. Group therapy sessions ease fears and offer reassurance that they are not alone in their experiences. The guilt or blame individuals might put on themselves will begin to dissipate when they realize they have the same experiences and feelings as their peers. Individual sessions are offered at the Hope Center, but only when the individual is ready and at their request.
The Hope Center is filled with this patience and understanding. It is applied under every circumstance, even for the kids who arrive having forgotten their mother tongues. In ISIS captivity they became fluent in Syrian Arabic and the various languages of their captors.
“One has to relate to them at that dialect when they first come, and then let them finally find their words and their language,” Miara says. “The aim is to bring them back into the Kurdish.”
Perhaps the most important aspect to remember about the healing process is understanding that kids will tell their stories only when they are ready to do so. Whether it takes four months or four years for one to begin unpacking their experience, patience is critical.
“It’s a method of unpacking and telling their stories when they are ready,” Miara says. “We have documented testimony from kids that is even four years old—of their escape from ISIS, their escape from Sinjar, of life in captivity. And we haven’t even necessarily asked them to explain everything, because this is their time. This is their story. And when they are ready, they will share all the details.”
Some children will bounce back to childhood within three months, but for another child, it could be two years before they begin to engage. Miara says some of the younger kids spend four months just playing with legos. She tells her team to leave them, to allow them to simply explore playing with legos for as long as they desire.
“We have to remember that the kids who are being released now, whether they are five years old and were born in captivity, as is the case of many, or whether they’re 25, they have lost five years of development,” Miara says. “(Activities such as playing with legos) is part of cognitive development now—restoring that which has been denied and stolen from them.”
Music, playtherapy, sports, art, computer science—these arts and activities allow for healing at the individual’s pace and provide space for creativity. They are particularly imperative for the younger kids and the cognitive development they have lost.
“Sports is vital because, particularly for the kids who were forced to be child soldiers and with the women who were raped and have an aversion (some of them) to their own bodies, it is vital for levels of aggression, violence, rage, confusion, frustration. They are used to functioning as a team. There is no individual in Daesh, there’s a team. That’s how they have lived, worked, functioned, and stayed alive for the last five years.”
For the boys who were forced to be child soldiers, having them sit inside a classroom would shift gears on them too drastically because they are used to hard work and fighting. Sports engagement works with this energy, nurtures it, and applies it to a better purpose.
“They will become a team that is not serving the black flag caliphate, but that is serving health, rebuilding, and restoration,” Miara says.
Currently in the process of being completed is The Very Happy Playground, of which Miara says progress is going very well. Located next to the Hope Center, the playground has outside sports equipment (although more is needed), and football and volleyball pitches.
With all of the arts and activities available at the Hope Center, Miara says it is critical to let the children and adults choose to what they want to connect. A child might see a keyboard, and even though they don’t know how to play, they find comfort and joy by simply sitting down and tinkering around. The staff will observe what the child naturally connects to, identify it, and build upon that connection from month to month.
“As their change progresses, as the healing kicks in, and as the journey of normalization becomes, then the kids will actually be the ones that guide us as to their needs,” Miara says.
At the Hope Center relationships are also cultivated with extended family members, as there is a deep respect for the Yezidi culture and their tribal society. While women and kids have confidentiality, their families are consulted and cared for as part of the Springs of Hope community.
“We work with kids that were conscripted into the army. We work with women that were trafficked, raped, became pregnant—even as young girls. We cannot deal with issues of trauma, behavior, or education without pulling extended family in.”
Miara says they don’t necessarily tell families everything they are doing or ask for their permission, but they are visited in their tents or homes on a monthly basis. An hour or so is spent sitting with the families just drinking and chatting.
“Through this very informal, nonthreatening, noninvasive way, we’ll hear more about the lives of the kids and their needs,” Miara says. Still, the women and kids are the ones ultimately in control of their healing journeys.
“We live transparent and we live accountable, but we really let the kids, women, and youth dictate their pace in the healing of trauma. We obviously have to have permission if we want to do one on one counseling. Then, although the material remains confidential, we do go to the extended families and say, ‘this one is ready, will you agree?’ And they do.”
There is a stigma amongst Yezidis surrounding mental health, but Miara says it’s not a strong resistance and that it is still a new concept to a very basic tribal society. There is a resistance regarding themes of shame and honor, but there is also a desire to be healthy. Homeopathy and aromatherapy are used at the Hope Center and they are embraced. Everyone that comes into the center will at some point receive homeopathic treatment. Every class, session, and workshop opens and closes with breathing oils and relaxation techniques.
To understand the struggles they face today, it is important to understand that in the last hundred years there have been 74 genocides and nonstop ethnic cleansing of the Yezidi people. The aim of genocide is to erase—erase culture, language, and faith.
“Part of the nature of genocide is to convert—to force these people into submission so when they do procreate, they are procreating as Muslims, and not as Yezidis,” Miara says. In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Miara says Yezidi religion and culture has remained intact, with shrines in every village and meticulous observance of holy days, feast days, and fast days. The circumstances are different for those from Sinjar, where shrines have been destroyed by Daesh. “It is a story of genocide, and part of the genocide is the destruction of religion, the ability to practice religion ,and their places of worship,” Miara says, also noting that for the Sinjaris, “there is the realization that they will not return to Sinjar.” However, Miara says that rather than seeing their religion weaken as a result, she has observed the opposite effect. “With the Sinjaris, it has strengthened,” she says.
One common dream the Yezidis have is to see their families return from ISIS captivity. Because Yezidi society is based on tribes, with hundreds to thousands of families within one tribe, Miara says it would be rare to find someone that does not have a family member still in captivity. But today, there is a lack of information regarding their whereabouts.
“Connection with those still in captivity has been lost due to the shrinking of geopolitical positioning and tenureship of Daesh, and the transfer of some of the women and kids to other militant and terrorist groups,” Miara says.
Miara’s hope for the future is to see these women and kids receive a good education, to be empowered and able to open up small businesses (which she says will be part of the focus in 2020). She wants to see them living strong, getting married, and being productive members of their Sinjari society, and of Kurdish society. She says the women and kids at the Hope Center dream of being lawyers, because they want to see justice. They draw pictures of doctors and nurses.
“They have very specific dreams of the future—of hope. That is one reason why we invest in education. We invest in taking all of our groups, including kids who have just come out of ISIS, into Dohuk—into concerts and theaters, to connect with the students at the university. To sit in lectures, music rehearsals, drama classes, to sit in the students’ cafeteria. We seek to expand their horizons as much as possible.”
For more information about Springs of Hope Foundation, the Hope Center, and their many other projects, please visit and explore their website at https://www.springsofhope.foundation/ You can also find them on Instagram at springs_of_hope_foundation .