During a trip to northern Iraq last week, I was reminded of the plight that the religious and ethnic minorities face three years since ISIS began its murderous march across the region. In March of 2016, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a resolution identifying the acts of ISIS against Christians, Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Just a few days after the Congress passed the resolution, Secretary of State John Kerry made an official statement recognizing that genocide had taken place. However, now that most of the Christian and Yezidi villages in northern Iraq, including Mosul, have been liberated, there is an ever-increasing concern that many of the ethnic and religious minority communities will be unable to return home or return to a sense of normalcy unless there is a concerted effort by the international community.
While in northern Iraq, our delegation travelled to Erbil, Duhok, Mosul, Sinjar Mountain, Sinjar City, Bartella, and Qaraqosh. Throughout the trip, I was again struck by the difficulties that many of the religious minorities face, particularly the women.
In speaking with a representative from one NGO, we were alerted to the increasing suicide rate that is threatening the lives of many Yezidi women and young girls affected by ISIS. Many of these women are unable to obtain proper psycho-social care due in part to a lack of available programming, but primarily as a result of a deeply entrenched honor culture that views psychological treatment as taboo and any form of sexual impurity as shameful. Even though Yazidi leaders have made an effort to ensure that girls taken by ISIS are able to return to their families safely, families and communities are still ashamed by the situation. Most of the girls fear that no man will ever take them in marriage, denying them financial stability and physical protection. The international community needs to develop unique counseling programs in order to assist women and girls suffering from the memories of their traumatic experiences.
One of the most heartbreaking personal accounts that I heard was that of a Christian woman, named Maryam*. She was sold as a sex slave more than 20 different times, raped hundreds of times, beaten and abused. At one point while trying to escape, she jumped out of a third story window and broke her leg. When her captor realized what had happened, he came outside, beat her and left her lying on the ground. When she was eventually smuggled out of Raqqa, she thought her family would welcome her back; instead, her family rejected her because of honor culture tradition. Now she lives by herself in a barren one-room apartment provided by a local NGO and is afraid to walk on the street in her own community.
Maryam’s story – and many of these victims’ similar plights – serve as vivid reminders of how much work must be done in order to help those who have been persecuted for their faith. However, more than just stories, these are individuals who have hopes, dreams and lives full of meaning. As Americans, I believe that we have a covenant to uphold. President Reagan said the words in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution were a covenant we have made not just with those gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787, but with the world. We have an obligation to advocate for those who are oppressed and persecuted. We cannot forget these individuals in a time of such great need.
Frank R. Wolf Distinguished Senior Fellow
(c) 2017 Wilberforce