Warning: Some details in this story may be disturbing to readers.
When Adiba Dasni* arrived at Toronto Pearson Airport last February, after a 15-hour flight from Iraq with two sisters and six children in tow, the Prime Minister was not waiting at the airport to greet them. There were no camera crews, no volunteers waving little Canadian flags. In fact, the Dasni family’s arrival paints a very different picture from the one conveyed by news coverage of Syrian refugees arriving to open arms in 2015.
The Dasnis are Yazidi, members of the small Kurdish-speaking minority that ISIS set out to eliminate as it extended its barbaric tentacles into northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. In a matter of days, some 10,000 Yazidi were tortured, executed, kidnapped or enslaved in what the United Nations has called an act of genocide. In February 2017, when Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, Ahmed Hussen, announced plans bring 1,200 victims of ISIS terror into Canada, he explained that, given the “unimaginable trauma, both physical and emotional,” the Yazidi had endured, they would be handled discreetly — no information about arrival dates or locations would be made public.
And so, when the Dasnis stepped off the plane, the Kurdish-speaking UN escort who had accompanied them on their flights (from Erbil to Amman to Montreal to Toronto) handed them over to agents from the Toronto settlement agency COSTI, who were standing at the arrival gate holding signs with the family’s name. They took the Dasnis to the taxi stand, divided them between two cars, handed the drivers written instructions and waved farewell.
The sisters sat frozen in silent terror. Three months earlier, they hadn’t even heard of Canada. Their decision to come here was a leap of faith; they had never been on a plane before, never crossed a national border. They had no money, didn’t speak a word of English and had left most of their family behind. Now they were separated from each other, and at the mercy of drivers whose beards and turbans triggered memories of the men who had raped and tortured them and killed their brothers and husbands back home.
Half an hour later, when they arrived unharmed at a hotel, they thanked God. But there was nobody there to meet them and the receptionist didn’t speak Arabic. The women sat down on the floor of the hotel lobby and cried.
A Lebanese guest of the hotel saw them and offered to help — “a complete stranger,” says Adiba, still baffled by his gesture. He translated for them and brought them food from the supermarket. With his help, they found their way to the two rooms COSTI had booked for them, and settled into one, afraid to be apart. The kids slept on the floor.
It’s tempting to assume that survivors of war and displaced persons’ camps would be grateful for the relative safety of a hotel room in Canada. But the Dasnis didn’t know they were safe. All they knew was what they didn’t know: where to find food, how to use the television, whether hotel staff could be trusted, who or what would come next.
“We cried for two days,” Adiba recalls. “It was worse than in the camps. Our cellphones didn’t work, we couldn’t communicate with anyone. My nephew stopped eating. I thought he was going to die.”
On the third day, there was a knock on the hotel room door. Adiba’s older sister, Hadiya, answered. The man introduced himself as Hayder Essw. He was the first person in Canada to speak to them in their native Kurdish dialect. Hadiya’s first words to him were: “Please take us back to Iraq.”
Essw was there to help, but he wasn’t a caseworker or government employee. He’s a member of the tight-knit Yazidi community in Toronto, a volunteer who, since the first Yazidi refugees began arriving in early 2017, has spent much of his time tracking newcomer arrivals.
Essw reassured the women that things were going to be all right. Now that they had been “discovered” by the community, help would begin to flow. And it did.
It came from the government, in the form of financial support and health care coverage, as it does for all government-assisted refugees. But the arduous process of the Dasni family’s settlement has fallen largely to volunteers. This kind of civic engagement reflects well on Canada, providing such volunteers exist and, importantly, have the newcomers’ best interests in mind. But it’s leaving a lot to chance. And it raises critical questions about the government’s ability to meet the needs of a brutally traumatized people. As Jan Kizilhan, a German expert on trauma and the Yazidi, puts it, “It’s not enough to just offer them a safe country.”
Yes, the Canadian government provides Yazidi refugees with free health care, but who finds them a doctor and shows them how to get there? Yes, ESL classes are free, but who helps them make sense of Canadian customs and culture? The government prides itself on taking in a “vulnerable population,” but who makes sure they are getting the help they need to come to terms with their past? Without that, they can’t begin to shape a future.
Over the course of several visits spanning four months, Adiba tells me her story. It’s hard, but she’s determined. She wants the Canadian government to do more for her people. She can’t let go of her relatives back in Iraq — in camps, in captivity or whereabouts unknown.
The family now lives in a randomly furnished bungalow — the lamps are still wrapped in cellophane, a Canadian flag hangs on the wall — on a quiet suburban street north of Toronto. Hadiya, the mother of six, runs the household; she is perpetually cleaning or cooking. There are two constants to our visits. One is her offer of sweet black tea or food from her busy kitchen. The other is Majed El Shafie.
El Shafie, a stocky 40-year-old with plump jowls and a quick smile, is the founder and director of the Toronto-based human rights organization One Free World International. With his bespoke suits and buffed leather shoes, he seems out of place in this modest suburban setting, but Adiba insists he be here for our meetings. “Without him, we would go back,” says Adiba, speaking through a translator. “He is the only one who is helping us with everything.”
Four months after they arrived at Pearson on that rainy February night, Adiba sits poised in her new living room. Her sister Shirin is curled up on a couch, scrolling through her phone. Adiba wears an ankle-length brown dress, Shirin is in leggings and a top; they both have long, dark hair, tied back. Their four-year-old niece is sucking a soother and playing on an iPad. Adiba grips a gold pendant hanging around her neck. Asked if it came from home, she says, “No, they took everything from us. Everything.”
Adiba struggles to describe her life before the summer of 2014. She uses her fingers to count through her 11 siblings. They lived together with their parents in a mud-brick compound on the outskirts of Sinjar town. Adiba’s father, blinded by gunshots to the face in the first Gulf War, was unemployed. Like many Yazidi, the Dasnis had a family farm and made a living with handiwork and in local factories. “It was nice,” she says. “We didn’t have much but we were happy.”
That all changed in June 2014, when ISIS occupied nearby Mosul, declared religious rule in northern Iraq and announced that non-Muslims in the region must convert — or face death.
Such threats are not new to the Yazidi of northern Iraq. Reviled for their ancient religion, which combines elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, they have been oppressed and attacked by regional powers dating back to the Ottomans. Branded “devil worshippers,” the Yazidi are further loathed for their refusal to convert or marry outside their faith.
ISIS’s plans went beyond persecution. Not only did the terrorist group vow to eliminate the Yazidi for good — to destroy their ancestral villages, temples and shrines, and slaughter their men — it also trumpeted its intention to use the women and girls as sex slaves: a brutal reward program for ISIS fighters that would serve to grow their numbers.
Adiba and her sisters stopped tending to the family farm; they abandoned the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants that they normally would have been selling in the local market. They stayed home and waited. The Kurdish peshmerga forces defending Sinjar reassured them that everything was all right. ISIS forces might take control of the local government, they said, but we won’t let them hurt you.
In the pre-dawn darkness of August 3, 2014, Adiba heard gunfire. Outside, there was no trace of their peshmerga protectors. Adiba’s family piled into their two cars. Like tens of thousands of other Yazidi across the region, they headed toward the top of craggy Sinjar mountain, to flee northwards. The roads were choked with cars.
When the Dasnis were stopped at the first ISIS checkpoint, machine-gun-wielding jihadists grabbed the men, blindfolded them and tied their hands behind their backs. Some were shot in the head, others dragged away. According to UN demographer Valeria Cetorelli, an estimated 3,100 Yazidi were killed or starved to death in the days after the incursion. Meanwhile, some 6,800 Yazidi, most of them women and children, were kidnapped by ISIS — Adiba and her sisters, nieces and nephews among them.
Corralled into the back of a truck, Adiba caught glimpses of her sisters, nieces and nephews in the crowd. Theirs was one of several vehicles hurtling down the road to Mosul. They were eventually deposited at a large building — an abandoned wedding hall — on the east side of the Tigris River.
Inside, it was hot and dark; the windows were boarded up, the air conditioning turned off. ISIS soldiers guarded the doors. Adiba and her fellow captives — she guesses there were somewhere between 500 and 900 of them — tried to get comfortable on the marble floor.
The days became indistinguishable from the nights. Every now and again, the jihadists handed out bread, hard-boiled eggs and plastic water bottles that had been baking in the sun outside. There was never enough to go around. After a week or so, women with children were taken away; Adiba said goodbye to Hadiya and her children. The unwed women who remained were virgins, premarital sex being an absolute taboo among the Yazidi. They were divided into categories: “beautiful, medium and ugly.” Soon after, Adiba and a few other women were taken to the basement of a house on the outskirts of Mosul. ISIS men processed in and out, surveying the women and claiming them, one by one, as sex slaves.
After about a month, Adiba’s first captor resold her. Her photograph was posted at the local courthouse with a phone number attached. This happened six times over roughly a year. Sometimes she was sold for money, sometimes for cigarettes. Sometimes she was a gift. Adiba remembers the names and faces of all the men who raped her; their wives, who beat her; the toilets she drank out of and the leftovers that were thrown to her on the floor. “I tried to kill myself a few times but they would not let me,” she says with a blank stare. “Life is hard when you have no honour.”
El Shafie reaches over to hold her arm. He talks to her in Arabic. Whatever he says makes her smile. Taking over the narrative, he describes Adiba’s escape. One afternoon, when her captor’s household was busy, she stole the family’s car keys and took off. She ran for an hour through half-demolished Mosul before coming across a man standing outside his house, wearing jeans and smoking a cigarette — signs that he was not with ISIS. She begged him to help.
The man took her to another house and called the phone of her father, who had ended up in a displaced persons’ camp near the northern Iraqi town of Zakho. He named his terms: pay US$15,000 or she’ll be returned to ISIS. Then he raped her repeatedly for the three weeks it took Adiba’s father to scrape together the sum.
When her father had the cash, the men arranged an exchange and Adiba was taken to the camp at Zakho, where she was reunited with surviving members of her family.
She learned that her sisters had both escaped ISIS after three months. In accordance with ISIS’s depraved laws of enslavement, Hadiya, being a mother, had been made a servant rather than a sex slave. She was allowed to keep most of her children with her but ISIS soldiers had tried to kill the baby, by smashing her head against a rock. Now the child was suffering from seizures. Meanwhile, Hadiya’s oldest daughter, 11 at the time, managed to flee from her “fat monster” after giving him a glass of water laced with sleeping pills.
Life in the camp was miserable. A photo shows Adiba and Hadiya standing in the mud outside their tent in a heavy snowfall. Wearing sandals and winter coats, they make the peace sign.
After about a year, Hadiya’s phone rang. A Kurdish translator speaking on behalf of a government official summoned the sisters to a camp office. After being interviewed, they were told that they might be offered asylum in the U.S. or Canada.
The sisters decided that, if given the choice, they should request Canada because “the U.S.A. was so far away.” Canada, on the other hand, they had never heard of. They laugh, covering their faces in embarrassment, as they recount this now.
The women were summoned every two weeks for medical exams or interviews with Canadian officials, the last of which took place in the town of Dohuk. It was called an orientation, but the sisters didn’t retain much beyond the official’s reassurance that translation would be provided at every step of the way. Three months after learning of Canada’s existence, the Dasnis were boarding a plane headed there — to live.
El Shafie prefers not to discuss the details of Adiba’s release in her presence, but he put up half of the US$15,000 price tag and has promised to compensate Adiba’s father in full. Sitting in the downtown office of One Free World International, he speaks openly about the bleak — and controversial — business his organization has entered: buying back ISIS slaves. “That was the going price at the time,” El Shafie says, referring to the ransom. “It keeps going up…. But we’re talking human lives here.”
For El Shafie, freedom of religion must be defended at any cost. According to its website, his organization is active in 28 countries around the world and he is drawn to extreme cases, like that of the Yazidi. The mission is personal. Born into a prominent Egyptian family, he was imprisoned and tortured in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt for publicly converting to Christianity and promoting the faith. After escaping to Israel, he came to Canada as a political refugee in 2002.
Since the 2014 massacre, El Shafie has been working with Kurdish partners on the ground in Iraq to help Yazidi families buy back their daughters, sisters and wives. He estimates that One Free World has helped to pay, in part or in whole, for the release of 600 women. The funds come from donations to his organization, from fees from his speaking engagements and out of his own pocket.
When he is not meeting with officials in Brussels or Washington, or visiting a war zone, El Shafie spends much of his time with the Dasnis and roughly 20 other Yazidi families newly arrived in Toronto. He sees himself as a kind of godfather to the Dasnis. Some of what he has provided might be considered frills: outings to Canada’s Wonderland, Niagara Falls and Toronto’s harbour, which the sisters cite as the highlights of their time in Canada. But he has also played, in practice if not on paper, the roles of settlement worker and social worker: finding the family a house, acting as guarantor on the rental agreement, providing cash infusions for several months until government benefits kicked in, sourcing doctors and specialists, intervening at the local school and attending to personal emergencies.
“Freeing them was one operation,” he says. “But what they face now is tremendously difficult: the stigma, the shame, the memories.” He has lobbied Ottawa forcefully, appearing before and making submissions to the House of Commons immigration committee, asking the government to boost aid to the camps, bring more Yazidi into Canada and provide better mental health support once they’re here.
Germany, home to the largest population of Yazidi outside of Iraq, was the first jurisdiction to focus an aid program on the women and children who had escaped sex slavery. Beginning in early 2015, a small German delegation travelled to camps in the region, screening former ISIS captives for the Special Quota Project, an unprecedented program that brought 1,100 women and children to the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, where they were given protected housing and intensive medical and psychological treatment. After three years, they can choose to stay in Germany or return to Iraq.
Among the women selected for the program was Nadia Murad. Three years younger than Adiba, she had suffered a similar fate. On August 15, 2014, she watched her six brothers be slain in a mass execution in her village of Kocho, before being taken to Mosul to serve as a slave. After three months, she escaped through a door her captor had left unlocked.
Murad was not too broken to feel rage. In Germany, she spoke out, giving interviews to the media, insisting that the global community wake up and take notice. In December 2015, she addressed the UN Security Council in New York. Renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney offered to represent Murad and other former slaves in their quest to have ISIS’s crimes prosecuted before international courts.
In July 2016, a month after the UN declared the ISIS campaign against the Yazidi to be genocide, Murad addressed the House of Commons immigration committee in Ottawa. Her testimony left the hall in chilled silence. Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel was livid at the government’s inaction.
“When we say, ‘Never again,’ we have to match the rhetoric with action,” she says on the phone from Ottawa, referring to the post-Holocaust consensus on genocide. “It took so long for us to respond. We obviously don’t have adequate processes in place when a minority is being persecuted.”
In October 2016, the House of Commons voted unanimously to support a Conservative motion to recognize the genocide and to provide asylum to Yazidi women and children. In its plan, announced four months later, the government committed to bring 1,200 victims of ISIS into Canada as government-assisted refugees, and to facilitate private sponsorship of Yazidi refugees. The government-assisted refugees would receive financial support, health care coverage and settlement services. In addition, Pierre Deveau, a spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), explained that “due to the horrors they have lived through,” the department was “committed to providing them with the mental health and counselling services they need.” He also anticipated that many Yazidi would be eligible for the Joint Assistance Sponsorship program, reserved for “refugees with special needs,” which would extend their government support from the standard one year to two.
As of November 2017, the government says, 747 of the 1,200 ISIS victims it pledged to bring to Canada as government-assisted refugees have arrived. Most have gone to Calgary, London, Ont., Winnipeg and Toronto. Community organizations, many of them Jewish — such as Operation Ezra in Winnipeg or Project Abraham in Toronto — have sprung up to help.
But Mirza Ismail, who came to Canada as a refugee in 1993, is not impressed with the government’s efforts. He and Hayder Essw form the unofficial leadership of the Yazidi in the Greater Toronto Area, a community that numbers a few hundred. For him, the number of Yazidi that Canada has taken in pales next to the need, and he’s frustrated that the government has not involved Canada’s small but dedicated Yazidi community in its efforts.
“This is the 74th genocide against our people,” he says. “We’ve only survived this far by sticking together.” Round the clock, he’s on his laptop, communicating with his contacts in Iraq and across Canada, trying to track Yazidi arrivals. It was he who asked Essw to go looking for the Dasnis.
COSTI did eventually show up at the Dasnis’ hotel. Adiba says the settlement workers apologized for their absence — it had been Family Day weekend, they explained. The Dasnis were transferred to another hotel that was set up for newly arrived refugees, with a kindergarten and a COSTI office.
“It was better than the first one,” Adiba says, “except for the bedbugs.” The Dasnis were there for nearly two months, fending off bites, filling out paperwork with COSTI and getting to know the other refugee families. Adiba found herself wondering why some Syrian families had been chosen over her people in Iraq. “We are very grateful to Canada,” she explains. “I just wish the government would help the people who need it most.”
It’s a question architects of refugee policy grapple with constantly: Who needs it most? And who decides what those people most need?
Jan Kizilhan has spent the last few years finding answers. As the chief psychologist on Germany’s Special Quota Project, the 51-year-old was tasked with selecting which 1,100 Yazidi women would come to Germany for treatment. He interviewed every single one of them and has supervised their therapy in Germany over the last three years.
“The Yazidi suffer intergenerational, secondary and collective traumata,” he says over the phone from his office at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University of Villingen-Schwenningen. “Their treatment requires a high degree of specialization.”
Kizilhan, the grandson of Yazidi killed by Kurdish Muslims in Turkey, emigrated to Germany in the 1970s. His expertise is unique, and Canada’s parliamentary immigration committee consulted with him via video conference in November 2016 while IRCC was formulating its plan for the Yazidi. Having been very clear about the importance of addressing their psychological needs, Kizilhan has been perplexed to hear from colleagues and friends in Canada that therapy is playing a minor role, if any, in their settlement. “If you don’t help these people with their health, they have no hope of integrating,” he says. “Mentally, they are not in Canada, they are still in Kurdistan, in Iraq.”
IRCC turned down a request for an interview for this article, but department spokespeople responded to questions by email. They emphasized that the Yazidi “are a very vulnerable population” and that the government is “conscious of not doing anything that may re-victimize or re-traumatize them.” They also stated that “all resettled refugees are linked to appropriate support services,” and that their health coverage, the Interim Federal Health Program, covers 10 hours of counselling sessions, with the possibility of more, if required. More recently, an IRCC spokesperson added that “the department is following families closely,” and that staff meet weekly to discuss how the families are adapting.
Ten months after arriving in Canada, Adiba and her sisters haven’t had a single hour of counselling — nor would they ever request such a thing, Kizilhan points out, given the cultural stigma associated with mental illness and the depth of their trauma. At a briefing of the parliamentary immigration committee in November, Dawn Edlund, a senior operations official with IRCC, noted that “fewer than five” resettled Yazidi had accessed individualized counselling since coming to Canada.
The figure elicited a loud gasp from Michelle Rempel, the Yazidi’s strongest advocate in the House of Commons. “Having no plan to provide them with the support they need to help them through this trauma is another injustice that humanity has placed upon their lives, except this time it’s being perpetrated by hands of the Canadian government,” she said. Edlund added that it was probably just a matter of time; the women’s mental health needs would likely “resurface” once the “initial euphoria” of arrival in Canada had passed.
The Dasnis’ entry into Canada can hardly be described as euphoric, nor have the dark shadows of trauma ever retreated. A few months after arriving, Adiba received a video of what she calls “sad songs” from someone “back home.” She wouldn’t let anyone else view the video, but El Shafie suspects it was footage from a rape. Whatever it was triggered what Shirin calls “one of Adiba’s episodes.” Soon Adiba was on the floor, screaming and scratching herself. Unable to restrain her, her sisters called Essw, who took her to the emergency room at the nearest hospital.
Adiba doesn’t recall much, but Shirin does. “Ten men held her down. They gave her an injection. Then they bound her to the bed. They put guards outside her room. They said they were going to keep her there.” Shirin pulls out her phone and scrolls to the video she shot of Adiba writhing on a hospital bed, her wrists and ankles cuffed to the rails.
Shirin refused to leave her sister’s side. By dawn they had reached El Shafie, who came to the hospital. He explained who the women were and where they were from. The hospital, which had wanted to admit Adiba and put her on suicide watch, agreed to let her go. After all, nobody on its psychiatric staff spoke Arabic, let alone Kurdish.
What of the government settlement services and “specialized supports” that IRCC said would be in place? COSTI staffers did not make themselves available for an interview for this story, despite multiple requests. The Dasnis say their COSTI settlement worker is nice, but not around much; for a while she was visiting them every couple of weeks, now it’s monthly. The agency provided the family with furniture and clothing and helped them with paperwork. But when there have been glitches — for instance, when the Canadian child benefits for Hadiya’s children were withheld because her husband (who was shot dead before her eyes) had not signed a form — El Shafie has stepped in. The Dasnis and many other newly arrived Yazidi also complain that nobody on COSTI’s staff speaks Kurdish; many Yazidi, including Hadiya, don’t speak Arabic.
After 10 months in Canada, Adiba and her sisters still can’t bring themselves to use public transit. Nobody has shown them how, and they don’t trust the drivers. Their preferred mode of transport is walking or cycling on bikes donated by an Iranian woman they met through the kids’ school. The sisters ride around the neighbourhood, helmetless. When Shirin was hit by a car on a major artery near their house, bystanders called the police. When she saw the men in uniform approaching, she fled.
The Dasnis are approaching the first anniversary of their lives in Canada. Over the summer, a neighbour mowed their little lawn; this fall they collected leaves with their hands and stuffed them into lawn bags; now they’re eagerly anticipating Christmas, something they know only from movies.
Now, when asked, “How are you?” Adiba responds in English with a polite, “Fine, thanks. How are you?” and a self-conscious little smile.
Their living room no longer feels barren. A handsome Persian rug gives the wooden floor warmth. Their house is beginning to feel like a home, but the Dasni sisters feel acutely the absence of their parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and fiancés. On one wall, they have created a photo gallery of relatives still in ISIS captivity. A black sticker with their WiFi network information is stuck to the corner of the Canadian flag: it’s their lifeline.
There is one constant source of pleasure in Adiba’s life, and it was Essw who introduced her to it. On a warm morning in September, she and Shirin pack up their knapsacks: pencil case, notebook, mobile phone, water bottles. “I love this,” says Adiba, with a huge smile that reveals a missing molar.
She and Shirin set out on a 40-minute walk through their neighbourhood. When they reach the community church, they trudge up the stairs to the second floor and a small classroom whose walls are covered with maps and photos of Canadian landscapes. Twenty-four adults of all ages and colours sit at desks.
Adiba and Shirin take two empty desks at the back of the room. Adiba is wearing a black down jacket. She’s feeling cold and has “stress in her stomach” but she’s used to it — she often can’t make herself eat, often can’t taste or smell anything.
When the teacher walks in, Adiba and Shirin sit up straight. They look like children anticipating a huge gift. She’s never done this before, never learned to read or write. Adiba knows this is the beginning of something. “If I can learn English, my future will be good,” she tells me. Last week, for the first time ever, she wrote a text message. It was her name, written in English. She sent it to El Shafie.
One day, she’ll be able to send messages back to Iraq, not just photos. She’ll be able to write the words she uses to describe Canada: “beautiful, peaceful, safe, with many nice people.”
She’ll be able to describe their current lives: How Hadiya’s kids are doing at school. That her toddler is now seeing a specialist at Sick Kids Hospital. How they sometimes have other Yazidi families over and sit on the living room floor, chatting and eating their way through one box of Pizza Pizza after another. Maybe they’ll even admit that, at El Shafie’s insistence, they have agreed to talk to a psychologist.
When asked what a normal day looks like for her now, she shrugs. There is no normal, yet. Asked if she can imagine her life here in 10 years, she thinks for a while. She says she would like to work in the area of human rights, to help other people. She will keep a clean and welcoming house, to honour the Yazidi tradition of hospitality. And maybe, one day, she will have a family of her own.
“Maybe,” she says, in Arabic. “God willing.”
*Last names have been changed.
Update: After this story was published, COSTI submitted a statement to Chatelaine about the role it plays in settling newcomers. Executive director Mario J. Calla noted that that when families first arrive, COSTI provides shelter and facilities staffed by full-time settlement workers, to help get them established. That role broadens when the families move into their new homes and communities to include working with volunteers. Privacy and safety concerns relating to extended family in conflict zones prevent COSTI from commenting on the services offered to specific families.