Behar Ali is a woman with a mission. As a young woman, she lived through the infamous poison gas attack on Halabja in the late eighties in Iraq. When Saddam Hussein started another campaign of violence against the Kurds in the mid-nineties, Behar fled to the Netherlands where she specialised in women’s rights. After the fall of Saddam, she returned to northern Iraq to help rebuild her country.
That was some time ago, yet reconstruction is still vital in an Iraq now ravaged by the war against and atrocities of IS, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. “If the situation improves, then fewer people will flee,” Behar notes dryly. It is no secret that IS imprisons thousands of girls and young women, who are systematically raped and sold off by its fighters. This is especially the case in Mosul, the ancient city occupied by IS in the summer of 2014 and now under heavy siege.
Whoever is lucky enough to escape from the ‘caliphate’ can come to EMMA, the organisation headed by Behar that provides psychosocial support to victims of Islamic extremists. “Women come knocking on our door whose entire family was murdered by IS. The suffering that so many of them have endured is unimaginable,” says Behar. Lamiya Aji Bashar, one of two Yazidi women who recently received the prestigious Sakharov human rights prize of the EU, was taken in by EMMA.
Women raped by IS fighters often have nowhere to go. According to the prevailing mores in Iraq, their families’ honour has been sullied. Some former ‘sex slaves’ have even been murdered by their families because they became pregnant from rape. Honour killings in Iraq are sadly still a common phenomenon, so women are forced to resort to unsafe and illegal abortions. “Some do not survive this one way or the other,” says Behar.
Under these circumstances, EMMA – ‘we’ in Kurdish – advocates strongly for the legalisation of abortion and gives fugitive Yazidis shelter in a special centre in one of the many refugee camps around the Kurdish city of Duhok. There they receive treatment for trauma and are helped to set their sights on a brighter future through sports, music and learning new skills. With the war against IS in full swing, the tide of internally displaced people just keeps rising. This only motivates Behar to do more. “There’s so much more help needed. I dream of a second center in Sinjar,” she muses.
EMMA also provides Yazidi women with training in decision-making, conflict resolution and women’s rights. The latter is crucial, and for Behar a foregone conclusion: women who are victims of IS will soon play a pivotal role in the reconstruction of their region.