Yazidis plead with Canada not to repatriate alleged ISIS members
The looming return of alleged ISIS members to Canada has brought trauma, worry and fear to people who were invited to Canada as a safe haven after the terrorist group all but destroyed their ancient community in northern Iraq.
"When I first heard the news, I felt the strength leave my body," Huda Ilyas Alhamad told CBC News in her Winnipeg apartment. She is one of 1,200 survivors of the Yazidi genocide who were resettled in Canada; she spent years as a slave of ISIS members.
"I had to sit down right away. I was heartbroken and terrified at the same time because on one hand they had promised to protect us and bring us here and give us safety, and on the other hand they're offering that same entryway for these very people who raped and tortured us on a daily basis."
The Yazidis are members of an ancient Kurdish-speaking farming community in northern Iraq who practice their own monotheistic religion. They were victims of one of the worst atrocities of the 21st century at the hands of the Islamic fundamentalist terror group, which set out to eradicate the Yazidi people in a brutal campaign launched on August 3, 2014.
'Heartbroken and betrayed'
Earlier this month, the federal government agreed to repatriate 19 Canadian women and children from northeastern Syria, where they have been held in Kurdish-run detention camps for suspected ISIS members and their families.
Advocates for the adult detainees say there is no proof tying them to ISIS, and no justification for allowing them to remain in Syrian camps.
"It's clear that the Canadian government has the ability to bring our Canadians home, and where there is evidence to believe they've committed an offence, charge them and prosecute them," lawyer Lawrence Greenspon told CBC News earlier this month.
The agreement to assist women and children to travel to Canada was followed a day later by an order from the Federal Court, instructing the government to also repatriate four men currently held in Syrian prisons, accused of ISIS membership.
Neither the government nor the court has disclosed the names of the10 adults to be repatriated.
Jamileh Naso, president of the Canadian Yazidi Association, said Yazidis feel grateful to Canada. Many have settled in Winnipeg.
"Canada was one of the first countries to respond to the plight of the Yazidis," she said. "And they couldn't be any more happy or grateful that they would come to a country like Canada where they could feel safe and protected, in a country that stood for all these great values of freedom, of rights, of justice, of accountability and all these things the Yazidi community wanted to see."
Naso praised the work of Winnipeg's Jewish community to help reunify families and privately sponsor Yazidi refugees, but she said others in the city have helped as well.
"This has really been a grassroots local community effort to reunite these families and this is what Canada is about," she said.
The repatriation order, she said, has left Yazidi families feeling "heartbroken and betrayed."
"A lot of them just broke down into tears because they thought this news was completely unbelievable. It can't be true," she said.
"We have submitted applications for family reunification to reunite with our family members who were in ISIS captivity. And here they are bringing the perpetrators of these crimes of genocide to Canada. And they know in most cases that these folks will not face trial. The evidence is not here and the witnesses aren't here. They are giving a free pass for their part in genocide and terrorism.
"It's really disappointing, not just for those in the Yazidi community, but for those across Canada who believe in liberal values, and that we should be a country that's standing up for victims and survivors."
A peaceful community destroyed
"Before ISIS arrived, we were very happy. We had 13 people in my family," Huda Alhamad told CBC News at her Winnipeg home. She was 17 years old in August, 2014, when ISIS attacked.
"It was always loud and noisy in the house, but I loved it. We would go to work, we would come home, we would have dinner as a family."
As ISIS closed in, Huda's family and thousands of others sought refuge on the slopes of the Yazidis' traditional refuge of Mount Sinjar. But they were captured, along with thousands of other Yazidi civilians. ISIS members then began to separate them by age and gender.
Huda said she believes the gunfire she heard as she was driven away after the initial separation of family members was the start of the massacre of older community members.
ISIS had different plans for different segments of the Yazidi population. The youngest boys were taken from their families to be converted to Islam and raised as jihadi fighters and suicide bombers. Thousands of older boys and men were murdered. Young women and girls, like Huda and her three sisters, were separated for sale to ISIS members as slaves.
The ISIS slave market
"They went around taking down names, ages, family members, who was connected to who, and then they started separating by looks," Huda said. "They came in like we were cattle, what looked good, what didn't look good. Who was too old, who had kids, how many kids they had."
"My sisters and I were taken to a separate room with a lot of the other young women and we were all sold.
"About 100 ISIS members came into the room. There were about 200 of us, and they all came in and started just grabbing us for themselves. And I, along with another young Yazidi girl, was taken by one of the ISIS members."
Girls as young as 10 were taken as slaves by ISIS members. After raping them for a time, members would often sell them on. Many girls were sold multiple times.
Huda's sisters were taken by other ISIS members. Years would pass before she learned they had survived.
Huda's parents and older brother were never seen again. "Other than the four family members I'm with here, and then my two sisters and my brother who are in a refugee camp now, I'm not sure what happened to the others," she said.
Yazidis told CBC News there is a misconception that the women of ISIS were less culpable or less violent than the men.
"The women were worse than the ISIS fighters. The women would beat us constantly," said Huda. "They would refuse to feed us. I would usually get beaten with a cable by the wives of the ISIS fighters, and they would laugh at me, they would spit at me, they would kick me, and that was on a daily basis. And then when their husband would come, he would rape me."
Naso said Huda's experience with the women of ISIS is common among survivors.
"Almost all of them can tell you that when they were in captivity, the women played as much of a role as the [ISIS] fighters did in torturing them, in keeping them captive, in keeping notes on them and saying what they were doing, constantly beating them," she told CBC News. "The females had just as much to do with the inhumane treatment of the Yazidis as the men did."
Yazidis continue to arrive in Canada as individuals struggle to reunite the surviving members of families torn apart by ISIS.
Ayad Alhussein is just 13 years old. He spent five of those years in ISIS captivity and three more in a displaced persons camp. He arrived in Winnipeg only two months ago, rescued by two older sisters he had forgotten he even had.
"I've only been told now how hard my sisters worked with organizations here in Winnipeg like Operation Ezra (a reunification program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg) and the Canadian Yazidi Association," he said. "How they submitted paperwork three years ago and went back and forth with the government and different people to try to get me here."
Ayad was young enough to be spared by ISIS when his family was captured. Twelve members of his family have not been seen since August 2014.
ISIS raised the youngest Yazidi boys to be jihadi fighters and suicide bombers. Ayad forgot his native Kurmanji and learned to live in Arabic. He doesn't remember his life before capture.
"I was five years old when I was captured, so I didn't really have an idea of who my community was or who my family was or anything like that," he said. "And like the other little boys around me, I just kind of did whatever they did. At first I was scared, but then it just became normal."
Normal, he said, included almost daily beatings (the boys were told they would make them tougher), military training, weapons drills and religious indoctrination.
"And that continued on until I met some others [slightly older Yazidi captive boys] who told me that I wasn't a part of this. I had family elsewhere," he said. "And then I started learning more and more as the years went by. And when I finally reached the camp after five years of captivity, that's when I started to learn my mother tongue."
WATCH | Yazidis fear repatriated ISIS members won't face trial in Canada:
Today, Ayad is in school in Winnipeg, learning English with the help of cousins. He said he's happy in Canada and hopes to become a doctor.
But recent developments have rocked the teenager.
"When I heard the news that they would be bringing ISIS members here, I was terrified. That had not been that long since I came here," he said. "The whole point of coming to a country like Canada was to be offered safety and security. If they're bringing those people here, those terrorists, how am I supposed to feel safe?"
'We don't believe the government understands'
Huda said the news has brought on anxiety and panic.
"If I see somebody who semi-resembles one of the [ISIS] members, my heart starts beating really quickly," she said. "Sometimes I cry, sometimes I just have to drop everything I'm doing and go home right away. And that's been the case for the past five years. This news has just doubled that and I feel that all the time now.
"I'm scared to send my kids to school. What if they recognize some of us?"
Huda said it hurts to see ISIS families being reunited while her own sisters are still living in dangerous refugee camps.
"That's all I could really ask for, if I could be reunited with my sisters here. We've worked on their paperwork, we've submitted for family reunification," she said. "But for the past almost three years now, we have yet to hear anything about how their file is going."
Like many Yazidis, Huda said she believes the federal government and rights organizations working on behalf of suspected ISIS detainees are naive about the nature of the people they're helping.
"We don't believe the government truly understands. I mean, we've tried to share our story multiple times. We told them about the atrocities we faced," she said.
"The government was the one who recognized it as genocide. They're the ones who said yes, what they were doing to the Yazidi community constitutes genocide. They are raping women. They are separating families. They're trying to annihilate this community off the face of the earth.
"And yet here they are, bringing these very members, these individuals who chose to leave this country, this security, these freedoms, and go there and join this group that is committing these crimes. And so it doesn't make sense to us."
Although talking about her captivity is wrenching, Huda said "it's more important than ever that people know exactly what types of monsters they are, and we're inviting them into the country with no repercussions."
"If the Canadian government or anybody has questions about what ISIS was doing in Iraq and Syria," she added, "you can come talk to me.
"If you have questions about what women and girls had to face, how they were tied up and treated like slaves, how were they were sold, how 10-year-olds were raped, how girls were ripped from their mothers' arms and taken into separate rooms and they could hear them being raped. If you want to hear about why we should keep people like that out, you can come talk to me.
"I feel like I could talk for days about what had happened to us and share stories of the horrors I saw. But with this decision to bring in those very people who caused all this pain and suffering, does it even matter if we tell our stories anymore?"