London: Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi
Nemam Ghafouri, doctor and activist, is originally Kurdish. She left Kurdistan with her family at a young age when their hometown was bombed by the forces of Saddam Hussein. They first became refugees in Iran and then they left Iran for Sweden, where Nemam received her education and went to medical college. After successfully becoming a doctor, Nemam left the comforts of life in Sweden to go back to Iraq and Kurdistan and support victims of war and conflict in the area.
In an interview with Al-Majalla, Ghafouri talks about her experience in Iraq and Kurdistan, providing insight into what it is like to be on the ground in this war-torn country and elucidating the dire situation and challenges that the victims currently encounter.
What has motivated you to leave Sweden and go back to Iraq and Kurdistan to help the victims of war and conflict? How did it all start?
Before going back to Kurdistan I was doing some charity work in other countries, for example in India or Africa. In July 2014 I went down to Erbil, the capital city of Kurdistan, to do a 2 weeks’ mission in a camp called Kawergosk- which is just outside Erbil for Syrian refugees. And at the end of my stay we heard about what happened in Sinjar and how ISIS had attacked the area after taking over Mosul. So my friends and I said let us go and see what is happening. We were hearing really disastrous news about how people have been walking for 10 days in 50 degrees’ heat. We went there up to the boarder between Iraq and Syria, because people from Sinjar had taken the escape way to Syria and were then coming back over the Tigris river towards the Iraqi side. When we got there we could not believe our eyes. It was an ocean of disaster and nobody knew how to tackle the situation. We immediately saw the need for rehydration. Luckily, we were doctors, and we talked to our colleagues in Sweden with an urgent call for oral rehydration tablets that contain the salts and minerals necessary for rehydration. We received tons and we started helping people. And then we saw the need of clean water, so we immediately distributed thermoses. Subsequently, we saw the dire need for bread and came up with the idea to build a bakery. We built a bakery in one of the camps that was supposed to be a temporary camp at the time. It is called Bajed Kandal Camp and it is in the triangle border between Iraq, Turkey and Syria. But the camp became permanent. And nobody wants to go there because it is really hard to reach. So we built the bakery there and we were giving bread to 18,000 people everyday. This is how it all started.
Is that bakery you built with your team still standing?
Unfortunately, not. I am working for Joint Help for Kurdistan, and we are really dependant on private donations. And sadly after last year, when the migrants or refugees crossed the border and many of them reached Europe, the way that the media presented the refugee situation misdirected everything. Because of the few thousand refugees who arrived in Europe they forgot about millions who had stayed behind and wanted to stay. So we had to choose between running the bakery or running the clinic. And of course we to chose to run the clinic, because every month we have more than 3,500 patients. Just in October we had 3,986 patients that we treated free of charge and provided with medicine. Plus, it is not only the health centre. We take care of families who are coming back from captivity. The traumatisation of the Yazidi people is just getting deeper and deeper. In the beginning when they were coming back they were being sexually assaulted and raped. And then with the next wave they were coming back pregnant and or with a baby. Some were pregnant when they were captured but there were cases where they were pregnant because they were raped by ISIS. And now we have a new wave of women and children who have been kept in the dark for over a year or one and a half years. We have kids coming back not able to open their eyes because of the sun, because they have been kept under the ground for over one and a half year without without any basic life necessities.
But we are hoping that somebody will step out and give us a helping hand for opening the bakery because we are expecting a long war in Mosul and there will be more and more refugees coming from there. So we can supply fresh bread even to new arrivals that are coming.
Tell me more about the other services your team has been providing for the victims.
We are running the clinic. We also have child sponsoring and rehabilitation programs for orphans who have lost their parents in the war or those kids that are recently coming back from captivity. We additionally run a painting program, but we need to get funding for a proper psychologist and psychiatric to come from outside because when the kids paint they get flashbacks. And we need professional experts to take care of the flashbacks and help the kids rehabilitate. We are also the only ones who have 2 teams of football for girls, so we are looking for voluntary coaches who can come and train them continuously. And then we support education. We distribute paper and pen and we try to have voluntary teachers who can come and teach.
Where in Iraq does your organization offer its services? And which groups benefit from the support of your organization?
Our organization is mostly based in the Northern part of Iraq. It is a non-governmental, non-religious organization that helps everyone including Christians and Muslims. But the main work has been aimed towards Yazidis because they are the voiceless people. I can openly say that most of the time Muslims are helping Muslims, and Christians are helping Christians, while Yazidis do not have anybody. They do not even have each other because they have been divided into so many groups. We have thousands of kids in my camp- 36% of them under the age of 15- and they really need help. And nobody is out there to help them. They have lost everything. They are losing today. But you can at least give them a brighter future to build and start again.
Tell me more about the situation of the Yazidis. What have they been through? And what are the biggest problems they face today?
The Yazidis are being split and divided into so many fractions, which is really threatening their existence. For example, they try to take them in groups of 5 thousand, 10 thousand, and 15 thousand to different countries. And we all know what will happen as a result. The first generation will will remember their culture best. The second one maybe. But the third generation will be completely disconnected from their true culture and religion.
Also, the biggest problem that they are currently facing is that everybody is trying to say something in their name but in reality they do not do anything. In reality and up until today those women that come back from captivity end up in the camps with no support. For example, there are ladies and kids that came back last month and had been under captivity for over 2 years, and the only life that they have is sitting in broken cabins or tents, waiting for a small portion of food every month without any other needs being fulfilled. There are families who came back from ISIS and are dreaming about buying a kilo of tea or buying proper food for their children. So their situation is really really horrible. And most of the time I say their genocide becomes double genocide or triple genocide. Now, with the recent activities in Mosul, we have had examples of Yazidi boys who have been under ISIS captivity and were brainwashed and drugged. ISIS are using a lot of drugs to blind them and make them do whatever they want them to. They are using young boys as suicide bombers. Our organization has raised this issue in several meetings, and we are actually demanding for DNA testing in places where suicide bombings have been taking place to know how many of these suicide bombers are Yazidis. Families are still waiting to find out anything about their sons, their brothers, their husbands, their fathers, their uncles. We want to at least provide closure for these families.
What about Yazidi women, how have they suffered under the hands of ISIS?
Maybe we have heard a lot about all kinds of sexual harassment by other groups like Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. But, I would say that what happened to Yazidis is even beyond all what we have heard till now. It is not merely about torturing the person, the woman, the girl or the family. It is about destroying the entire society. And I have said this many times, if you call it genocide you have chosen a very easy and simple description of the situation. It is a triple genocide on Yazidis, because the aim is not only to destroy the person or the family. The aim is to destroy the entire culture, the entire society and beyond this the entire cultural inheritance in the region.
What are the daily lives of these victims like?
I would say beyond imagination. Imagine going through horrible captivity, sex slavery, being sold at least 8 to 20 times, gang raped, and raped even by doctors who worked in Mosul. And then you come back. What kind of life is awaiting you? A life spent in a horrible tent. Now that it is winter, they are getting up in the morning all crooked because they get frozen during the night time. And then the day starts, but what is the day for them? Nothing. News is all about war. They do not have money to buy medicine. They need to go to doctors but it costs them a return ticket by taxi, around 30-40 US Dollars and they do not have the money. Their kids have been in captivity for 1 or 2 years, and by the time they come back they are told they are too old for school. And they can’t go for lower grades because there are no places available. So they are not getting any proper education. And there are all kinds of difficulties. There is nobody out there to help them, to support them, to ease up the situation on them.
Six weeks ago, there was a young lady only 23 years old that came back with two of her kids. In the evening, she gets scared, she starts shaking. And till now evening is the worst part of the day for her, because this is when the fear, the anxiety and the flashbacks come back to her. And when the Mosul operation started she got even worse because she said: “what happens if they do not succeed to destroy and to eradicate ISIS? They will come back, they will become strong again, they will come after us again.”
To what extent are the victims’ medical needs being covered?
If you think about it, in the North part of Iraq- the Kurdistan region- we have close to 2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees. And just in Dohuk, which is part of this area, 800 of 1.2 million people are IDPs and refugees. So the proportion is almost 1:1. Still, the Iraqi government had stopped sending money and medicine and everything to this area for the last 3 or 4 years. The whole system has been stretched beyond its limit. So when you look at this you would be amazed that despite all this hardship they are still able to provide something. But this something is not enough. You know once after the liberation of Shingal city, which is in the other side of the Sinjar mountain, they told me the Iraqi Minister of Defence of is there. I said I want to talk to him. The Yazidi men said “yes please, because we know that you dare to say these things because you are a foreigner.”
When I went to the minister I told him I have 4 questions for you. I said, as a minister, what have you done till now to rescue one single Yazidi girl that gives you the right to come and stand on this very holy land that has given so many lives? And my second question is that, forget about being minister, as a person, what have you done? What kind of support have you given to rescue a single child? A single Yazidi woman? And then I said, my third question is what do you do with these doctors whom you are still sending salaries in Mosul while they are raping Yazidi girls. I said come with me, I will take you to these Yazidi girls who have been raped by doctors in Mosul who you pay salaries to every month, while cutting the salary for people in Kurdistan despite the fact that they are helping these victims.
And then I said I want to know whether you think ISIS is ‘kafir’? Because till today, Muslims do not dare to say ISIS are not Muslim, that ISIS are Kafir. And what bothers me most is that people on the ground are following what religious leaders are saying, while religious leaders have not yet condemned ISIS or said that what they do is not Islam. Even if you go on the street in any Muslim country or non-Muslim country and ask normal Muslim people, what if they think ISIS is ‘Kafir’ or not, they do not say ISIS is ‘kafir.’ They say “Oh we do not know we can’t judge.” They say “it is up to god to judge.” But if you ask for example any of them “is Obama kafir or not” they will easily say yes.
In California, I was there premiering our movie “the longest road” and there were people from Dubai- rich, high educated people. Even they could not say that da3esh is ‘kafir’, and it is horrible it is really horrible. Even today when I go to some villages they ask me “Doctor, what they say ISIS has done to Yazidis, is it true or just rumours to make Islam sound bad?” People try to be so blind. And this is what bothers me. If we say Islam is not what ISIS is doing, then we have to deal with it openly and come out. At the end of the day a majority of people are following their religious leader. And religious leader has to make clever decisions. They have to come out and tell people Yes ISIS is kafir.
But going back to the Iraqi minister he fortunately said yes da3esh is kafir.
What about the educational needs, to what extent are they being covered at the moment?
Unfortunately to a very small extent, especially for Yazidi people. I will give you the reality from my camp. From 11,000 people I have 4,700 students, and we have only 9 to 11 teachers. Most of them have to also work as secretaries or as deans of the school to do the administration. We have been trying with the voluntary teachers. But the thing is that the very highly educated people are not living in the camps because they are internally displaced. They live in cities, and they cannot afford to keep going back and forth. We are an hour form the biggest city and half an hour from another smaller city. So we need to pay people to come and go. But for those who are starting 1st or 2nd grade we have found voluntary teachers who have only themselves 6 to 8 years of education but at least they can come and teach them the alphabet. So the situation is really bad. And unfortunately, as much as we have been trying to highlight the situation nobody listening. And there is a tendency which is really dangerous. I have heard myself some people governing say that only food and shelter are the most important needs and the other things are luxury, among them education. This is a really dangerous way of thinking, because we will then do even worse to those in need. ISIS has taken away from them their past and their today. And we are taking away from them the future if we say that education is luxury.
How would you describe the consequences of the regime’s actions?
I think you find the answer just by looking at how many people have been killed till today, how many people have been displaced. And on top of those numbers, how many people who became refugees have been tortured, harassed and sexually abused on the path. Forget about those who have died. Those who are alive had to face on the top of everything sexual harassment and torture. This tells you a lot about the actions of a regime like Assad’s. And this is what I do not get. What makes a man’s mind so badly addicted to power and to the ruling chair that he can become so blind and not see how many lives have been wasted. Those kind of people who cannot see I do not see them as human, basically. They are just monsters, and it doesn’t matter where they are. They’re just monsters and they’re like a cancer cell that just tries to meta-size their poisoning behaviour as much as they could.
What do you think the future holds for the victims?
I am always a hopeful person. Fortunately, there are lots of humanitarians and activists out there and hopefully we will have a voice and we will provide a better future for people in the camp. We must. There is no other way, and there is no other choice. It is the only way to go.
How close have you gotten to ISIS while on your mission there?
I was in Sherfardin while it was surrounded by ISIS and they were doing anything in their power to destroy the temple Sherfardin in the area. I would say we were quite close. By knowing where I am, I have come as close as 4 km to their area. I once ended up by mistake in the the middle of ISIS area. I could hear how they were screaming “Allahu Akbar” and preparing themselves for something. I do not know what it was because when I heard them I just had to get to my rescuing instinct, turn back and run away.
Who have been your supporters? And what form of support have they offered?
Until now no governments or big organizations have supported us. We get support from small organizations- like LDS charity from the US- who step in every now and then and offer us some assistance. Otherwise, we are basically very much dependant on private donors. We go out and give seminars. And there is a group of humanitarian filmmakers and American veterans who have made a movie called “The Longest Road”, and they are the only group I have seen till now that come back and want to give the movie profits totally back to the people. They are supporting our educational institute in Sinjar, which offers an education program that we are hoping to start running as soon we get enough funding.