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Save the Children International,The MHPSS Collaborative
The Yazidis are a minority group of Kurdistan that have long been persecuted for their religious practices and forced to convert to Islam. On 3 August 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) brutally attacked the Yazidi community living in Sinjar. Within a few days, 9,900 Yazidis had been killed or abducted, including hundreds who died on Mount Sinjar from starvation, dehydration or injuries. Half of those killed were children, as were most of those who died on Mount Sinjar from injuries or lack of food and water. Yazidi boys as young as seven years were separated from their families and sent to training camps where they were indoctrinated, trained and used in hostilities. Yazidi women and girls as young as nine years were abducted and forced into sexual slavery. In 2021 – seven years after the genocide – Save the Children Iraq Country Office initiated a multi-phase study to understand how the 2014 events continue to shape the current living circumstances, hopes, and aspirations of Yazidi children, who were less than ten years old at the time of the attack. Phase I of the study included a review of the existing research, which later informed focus group discussions with 33 Yazidi caregivers as well as interviews, group discussions and mapping activities with 117 Yazidi children. Children with disabilities could not be included in Phase I, so Phase II focused specifically on their experiences through journalling, mapping exercises and interviews with 20 children with disabilities. Phase II also included focus group discussions with 57 caregivers of Yazidi children with disabilities. While the 2014 attack drew enormous international attention, Yazidi caregivers described how, even before 2014, many people in the community experienced challenging living circumstances and deprivation. This is unsurprising given the historical marginalization of the Yazidi community and the disputed status and neglect of the Sinjar region in Iraq. Even so, the 2014 attack is believed to have caused destruction and suffering of a magnitude previously unknown. Echoes of the gruesome events of 2014 reverberate through the lives of Yazidi children today, affecting their wellbeing through ongoing violence and instability, denial of basic rights and services, and fragmentation of families and communities that serve as crucial sources of support. More than eight years later, Yazidi children are still facing many reminders of the attack such as the ruins of destroyed homes, schools and hospitals, and the ongoing presence of armed forces within their communities. They are still experiencing aerial bombardments by warring factions and loss and suffering from unexploded ordnance and witnessing recruitment of children their age by armed groups. Unsurprisingly, 39 out of 40 adolescents who participated in Phase I of the study said they do not feel safe where they live. They are afraid of their neighbours; loss of and separation from their families; bombings, abductions and recruitment by armed groups; violence and sexual harassment; losing access to food and safe drinking water; and homelessness.
Access to basic services such as education and healthcare is severely limited – schools and hospitals either do not exist or are unaffordable and far away. Access is even more limited for children with disabilities. Where health centres and public hospitals do exist, they are without specific provisions or reasonable accommodations to ensure inclusion, offering only basic care and lacking specialists and medication. Yazidi families in Sinjar are forced to rely on private hospitals that are far away, prohibitively expensive and not suited for children with disabilities who need ongoing care (e.g., physiotherapy sessions). Schools are also far away and hard to reach, especially for children living on Mount Sinjar. Access to schools is also affected by safety concerns, lack of identity papers and lack of knowledge of the local Kurmanji language among children recruited by ISIS and children born of war. Some children have not been to school since the attack or have never been to school at all. Public schools are not designed to include children with disabilities, with instances of schools denying children admission because they are not equipped to offer relevant support or are unable to make necessary referrals in the event of emergencies. Camps, where many Yazidi children still live, lack safe and accessible spaces, forcing children with disabilities to stay inside their tents, isolating them from their peers and communities, limiting their opportunities for learning, play and development, and forcing them to rely on their family and friends to spend time outside. The 2014 events have not only caused physical and material destruction but also ruptured the social and cultural fabric of the Yazidi community in Sinjar and undermined its traditional support systems. Widescale displacement has fragmented Yazidi families and split them into smaller units. Some families have members that are now dead or missing, and this has resulted in the loss of primary sources of material, social and psychological support. The loss of a breadwinner or male head of household is felt particularly deeply, not simply for financial reasons but also because of its effect on household dynamics and the wellbeing of the remaining caregivers and their children. Yazidi communities are now composed differently. Many people have lost or left their homes and are afraid of returning to Sinjar, while others who have returned feel isolated and alienated from their new neighbors and communities. Community involvement with armed groups and conflicting forces has created a rift between families and neighbours, cultivated feelings of mistrust, and negatively affected recovery and healing. Yazidi caregivers expect conflicts in Sinjar to continue, keeping their communities in a state of unrest and on the brink of yet another displacement. Each displacement presents children with the challenge of adjusting to a new environment and processing the loss of connections with their previous home and community. Some Yazidi children and adolescents are sceptical about any chances of their circumstances improving and consider emigration out of Iraq as the only route to a better life. The mental health and wellbeing of Yazidi children have been compromised, not only because of exposure to extreme violence and violations during the 2014 attack but also through a sustained denial of basic services and rights, frequent displacements and the associated challenges, ongoing insecurity and instability, and a breakdown in family and community supports. Caregivers expressed grave concerns about the future of their children and have noticed behavioural changes in them post-displacement, such as being less cooperative, less inclined to continue at school, and less motivated to do well at school. A few caregivers mentioned that their children recall and relive experiences from the attack and their resulting displacement, and some also perceived an increasing risk of suicide among children. The mental health of caregivers affects the wellbeing of their children, and children spoke of their distress about family conflict and the financial hardships their parents face. Some children also felt that their caregivers were depressed, withdrawn and lacking in empathy. Children with disabilities and their caregivers see exclusion as a key driver of distress. Unfortunately, stigmatization, discrimination and bullying of children with disabilities are common within peer groups, extended families and shared community spaces. This includes the use of stigmatizing labels (e.g., ‘sick’, ‘crazy’, ‘disabled’); peer bullying, physical aggression, and violence; and the inaccessibility of learning, play and other community spaces. To cope, children with disabilities often withdraw from their peers and community, which increases their loneliness and isolation and forces them to rely on technology to seek connections and learning opportunities. Children who were abducted by ISIS experienced grave violations, including sexual violence and exploitation, participation in combat and other roles, and forced disengagement from their Yazidi identity. Previous research has shown that children returning to their families after being held captive had physical and mental health problems and difficulties in reintegrating, including speaking and understanding the Kurdish dialect spoken by their families, obtaining or replacing missing civil documents, and accessing education after many years out of school.
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