Freed From ISIS, Yazidi Mothers Face Wrenching Choice: Abandon Kids Or Never Go Home

May 9, 2019
Originally published on May 10, 2019 2:44 pm

It's the night before a group of Yazidi women and children freed from ISIS in Syria cross the border home to Iraq.

A pale young woman with shrapnel wounds stretches out on a mattress. An older woman in a velveteen housedress leans against the wall cradling her bandaged arm — broken by an ISIS wife who accused her of taking food in the last days of the caliphate.

On the floor near a small heater warming the concrete room, a 5-year-old girl has been crying for so long that her sobs have turned to jagged coughs.

Her mother, who is 22, sits on the floor holding the girl's head in her lap, smoothing the hair off her face as she cries. The woman's other hand reaches out to grasp the tiny fingers of her sleeping 2-year-old son. It will likely be the last night she will spend with both her children. Her daughter is the child of her Yazidi husband, murdered by ISIS. The boy, Ibrahim, the son of a Moroccan ISIS fighter who enslaved her, won't be allowed to go home with her.

Five years after the ISIS genocide against the ancient Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq, hundreds of women are being forced to choose between returning home and keeping their young children born as a result of rape by ISIS fighters.

While leaders of the conservative religion decreed early on that the roughly 3,500 kidnapped Yazidi women would be welcomed back, they have drawn the line at accepting children with ISIS fathers. Many of the women were held as sex slaves. Because of the deep stigma against victims of rape in the Arab and Kurdish region in which Yazidis live, the decree welcoming them back was unprecedented.

"It's been three years and he wasn't apart from me for even a minute, and I leave him in one minute?" says the boy's mother. "I love him just like my daughter, but my parents won't accept him. Nothing is in my hands." She starts to sob, and soon almost everyone else in the room is in tears. NPR is not using the woman's and her daughter's names because of the sensitivity of the situation.

The little girl has been crying since morning, when they made an earlier attempt to cross the border, leaving Ibrahim behind. They returned to the village when they found the border crossing closed for the day.

"My daughter was crying, saying, 'Why is my brother not coming with us? I want to go back to Ibrahim,' " says the woman. "When I came back, he saw the car, and he ran toward me and hugged me. It was very painful."

Fahima Suleiman, a Yazidi caretaker in northeastern Syria, sits with sleeping toddler Ibrahim, who is being separated from his mother. The boy's father was an ISIS fighter, and his mother is being forced to leave him in Syria when she returns to Iraq. "If [the children] go with the mother, the family doesn't accept them and the community doesn't accept them," says Suleiman.
Jane Arraf / NPR

"All the mothers cry because they are from the mother's flesh and blood," says Fahima Suleiman, one of the Yazidi women helping to take care of the women and children freed from captivity in Syria. "They don't want to give them up. ... But if [the children] go with the mother, the family doesn't accept them and the community doesn't accept them, so they are forced to leave them here."

She says any family in Iraq taking in a child from an ISIS father would be shunned by the Yazidi community: "No one will look at them. No one will drink their water. No one will visit them."

The young mother says that when she pleaded with her parents to let her bring her son, they told her they didn't even want to see what he looks like.

"I have so many friends that were freed with two or even three children, and their families won't accept them," she says. "My parents told me no one brought any of these children back and that applies to everyone."

Yazidi officials believe hundreds of children under age 4 have been born to Yazidi mothers kidnapped and raped by ISIS fighters. Some Yazidis put the figure at over 1,000.

For many, the children are a reminder of the men responsible for the genocide. For others, being forced to give up their young children is an added trauma.

"There are women who have been through so much during the captivity that every time they look at the baby, they will remember all the torture, all the horrible things they have gone through, and they don't want to keep the babies," says Nemam Ghafouri, the Iraqi-Swedish founder of Joint Help for Kurdistan, a relief group providing medical care to displaced Yazidis. "But for others, the only thing they carry is the love of a mother for a child. Where there is love between them, we should fight for them to have this life together."

The children are also seen as a threat to the ancient religion, in which only those born to two Yazidi parents are considered Yazidi. In an added legal complication, since the children's fathers are Muslim, Iraqi law considers them Muslim as well. It's an extremely controversial subject within the Yazidi leadership.

"There are maybe 1,000 Yazidi children still in the fangs of ISIS," says Hadi Baba Sheikh, the representative of the chief Yazidi religious leader, referring to children kidnapped with their mothers in 2014. "Why doesn't civil society ask about rescuing these children?"

Dozens of Yazidi women are believed to still be in Syria with the ISIS families that enslaved them, unwilling to leave for freedom because they would have to give up their children.

"If I wanted to stay with him, I would have had to stay with ISIS. I was told if we leave, they take the children away from mothers, and it's true," sobs the young mother about to return to Iraq.

Yazidi officials in Syria say Ibrahim, like other children of Yazidi mothers, will be left in an orphanage run by Kurdish Syrian fighters for a local family to adopt. No one would tell NPR where the orphanage is.

Ibrahim, 2, in northeastern Syria, plays with a Syrian Yazidi caregiver the day the toddler was left behind by his Yazidi mother when she returned to Iraq. He was born while his mother was enslaved, and his father was an ISIS fighter.
Jane Arraf / NPR

And while some women who give up their children in Syria are told they will be able to visit them or be reunited later, it isn't true. Once the mothers cross over to Iraq, they are not allowed by security forces to cross the border again. Without resources, they are almost completely dependent on their families in Iraq, who do not want them to bring the children back.

During NPR's return visit the following day to the village where the freed Yazidi women were staying, the young mother, her daughter and others in the group are gone. The toddler Ibrahim is still here. He plays with a set of blocks brought by a visitor and doesn't seem to realize that anything is wrong. A visiting Kurdish Syrian woman sweeps him up in the air, laughing.

Mahmoud Rasho, a Yazidi Syrian who helps place the children, says if Ibrahim went to Iraq, other children would always consider him a son of ISIS, and he would face discrimination. Rasho says those helping the children will find good families in Syria for them — Kurdish couples with no other children who can afford to raise them.

"The family we are giving them to must be a good family. Their thinking must not be radical Islamic," he says. "They must be secular and open-minded."

The new family will likely change Ibrahim's name. He doesn't know he was born in the ISIS caliphate and probably won't remember his mother. But his mother will remember. As she says, he is her flesh and blood.

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