Suicides spike at Duhok’s camps for Yazidis

Shamo Badil Suleiman took work wherever it was available. He would travel down the unpaved road leading out of the camp he had to call home, to Duhok, Zakho, and beyond, taking casual work as a builder. 

Qadia, also known as Rwanga camp, can be only accessed by a dirt road with dilapidated buildings and empty fields on either side. The entrance to the camp, population 13,000, is lined with shops selling everything from vegetables to wedding dresses. Further on is a photography shop, a barber, and a cafe, where a woman serves baklava from a caravan painted bubblegum pink. “Hope Cafe,” reads the Arabic sign outside. 

At Qadia, hope has its limits. Shamo, aged 22, died by suicide on January 8, one of eleven Yazidis to die this way in the three weeks since the start of 2021. The deaths by suicide have reignited calls for help from NGOs working at the camps, and spurred a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament to write to the Council of Ministers chaired by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to demand a committee be formed to identify the causes behind them. 

The current uptick in suicides is but one of many that the Yazidis, one of Iraq’s oldest ethnoreligious groups, has seen since 2014 – the worst year in the community’s living memory. The Islamic State (ISIS) was tearing through Syria and Iraq, and had the Yazidis, who they consider to be heretics, firmly in their sights. When they reached the community’s Shingal heartland, they killed and kidnapped thousands of civilians, including children. 

Heading for sanctuary in northeast Syria, hundreds of thousands scrambled up the Sinjar mountains in the baking August heat, some too weak to finish the ascent. Those who survived the week-long fight to survive walked to the Kurdistan Region through Syria and settled in one of the now 25 IDP camps, including Qadia, dotted across the Region. More than six years on, these camps are where the majority of Yazidis remain. 

Amid Qadia’s sea of tents and containers is a small shop, sponsored by an NGO in the camp, selling fruits and vegetables – but there is not enough work to go around. The camp has no school, leaving many young people in limbo. Residents with too many hours to fill and a lack of psychosocial support are left largely unaided with their trauma, and little sense things will get better. 

“Youths don’t see a future. Adults don't know what to do on a daily basis. The memories of what happened and the lack of opportunities in the future are virtually paralysing the community,” said Pari Ibrahim, director of the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF). Numbers of Yazidi deaths by suicide at Duhok’s camps since 2014 are hard to come by. Rudaw English contacted a host of NGOs, government offices, and healthcare officials, for an estimate that none were able to provide. 

The container Shamo once lived in, where his family still lives, is towards the end of the camp, where tents give way to rocky fields and mountains that much resemble those which sheltered the Yazidis fleeing ISIS in 2014. Inside, like in every Yazidi home, a velvet pouch carrying barat, balls of clay from Lalish, the spiritual centre of their faith, hangs on the wall. It is believed to bring protection and blessings to the home. 

Shamo’s family said his anxiety symptoms surfaced six years ago, not long after they moved to the camp. “In Shingal, he [Shamo] was okay, but when he came here he changed,” his nephew Hadi Qulu said. There were no psychiatrists in the camp for Shamo to see when his mental health deteriorated, so he had to travel to the city of Duhok for treatment. “There isn’t a single place we didn’t take him,” his brother Khudaida said. 

Manal Mohammed Fuad, the head of the Joint Crisis Centre (JCC) at Duhok’s migration directorate, told Rudaw that eight Yazidis at IDP camps in Duhok had died by suicide. She put the suicides down to each individual’s history and personal circumstances – not camp conditions. 

“There are social problems, maybe their environments have changed, the effects of social media … there are daily problems, the effect of education, family, and community, these could all be a possibility for their suicides,” she said. But camp residents, and those trying to help them, describe the situation in far more clear-cut terms. 

“The Yazidi community is suffering from acute trauma and mental health challenges. I don't know how to put it more plainly than that,” says Pari Ibrahim from FYF, which provides psychosocial support to Yazidis in the Sharya, Khanke and Sheikhan camps. “Our trauma team is overloaded with cases of Yazidis who have suicidal thoughts or depression.” 

Karzan Jasim Mohammed is a psychotherapist with the Jiyan Foundation, a Duhok-based non-profit caring for victims of torture, persecution and violence, including Yazidis in IDP camps. He says that a lack of work prospects and inability to provide for their families are also driving people to end their lives. “They have no salary, no privacy… they can't talk freely. There is no security in the camps. If those things are not fulfilled, how can someone adapt?” 

Mountains serve as backdrop to a sprawling camp near the town of Sharya, Duhok province. Outside one cluster of tents is a crowd of men on an island of caked earth, a small sanctuary from the dust that surrounds them. Some sit on plastic chairs, thumbing prayer beads; one man, standing up, greets his island’s visitors. In the main room of the tent behind them, women gather around a middle-aged mother, Aishan Ali, who clutches a wrapped photo frame. She uncovers it at various intervals to kiss the photo collage of her 15-year-old daughter, Ahlam. Mother and daughter used to sleep together in a room where one now mourns the other. 

Aishan said things were going relatively well for her family before Ahlam, the youngest of her eight children, died by suicide ten days ago. “She was always smiling,” Aishan said. “She would go to Bahara Hevi [NGO], she would go out with her friends, she would go to the shop.” Ahlam was one of several people who died by suicide in the camp in recent weeks, her family said – contrary to figures from Duhok’s JCC, which notes just one since the beginning of the year. 

Like Shamo, Ahlam’s family hail from Tel Azeer, which, like other towns and villages to the south of Mount Shingal, is still riddled with mines and rubble. What happened in 2014 to the Yazidis in Tel Azeer and beyond was one of 74 genocides that the community counts against them. Just seven years earlier, Tel Azeer was subject to one of the world’s deadliest terror attacks – with al-Qaeda killing 796 people in a series of car bombs in the village and nearby Shiba Sheikh Khidr in 2007. 

Survivors who had no home to return to were housed in tents, a reality many would face once more in 2014. Ditches were dug around Shingal’s Yazidi villages to protect from further attacks, and the small community felt more vulnerable than ever. Four years later, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) warned of increased instances of suicide in Shingal, which it said lacked essential psychological services. 

Psychologists say the trauma that comes not just from our personal tragedies, but from our ancestors can be of serious detriment to mental health. The ISIS genocide has “resurfaced memories” of previous massacres, leaving today’s community suffering from “multiple traumatisations,” according to an academic study by psychotherapist Michael Noll-Hussong and Yazidi psychiatrist Jan Kizilhan. In a statement Kizilhan sent to Rudaw English on Saturday, he added that trauma is not the only factor driving people to end their lives. Camp living conditions, “sexual and familial violence, financial loss, and the loss of family members”, to name but a few, are also contributing factors. 

“Life in the refugee camps, the politically still unsettled perspective of a better life as well as the economic and social problems, including the current constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have all added to the psychological stress,” read the statement from the Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology at the University of Duhok, headed by Kizilhan. “Every suicide is a tragedy and suicides are preventable...every life lost to suicide is a life too many,” it said. “Preventative measures should be put in place – now.” 

Firas Suleiman, himself a displaced Yazidi from Shingal, is a lead psychologist with the Jesuit Refugee Service, which runs a centre outside of the camp providing free psychosocial support to both Yazidis living in nearby Sharya and further afield in Zakho and Duhok, as well as local Muslims and Christians. 

“We need help. We need professional help,” said Suleiman, who studies at Kizilhan’s institute – the only programme of its kind in the Kurdistan Region. Of more than 800 cases the centre has seen since its opening, he says 100 have been suicide-related, including suicide attempts. He estimates the number of psychologists in Duhok – a province of more than one million people – to be “eight or nine. 

Amid a lack of professional care in the province, the FYF deploys teams of Yazidis trained in psychological first aid to visit families tent by tent, and JRS provides education to the families of patients in an attempt to raise awareness of mental health problems. 

"Before 2014, it was a really, really big stigma to visit psychiatrists and even psychotherapists. But after our situation, when ISIS attacked our society... people understand that they need psychological support. But it doesn't mean they aren't facing challenges with stigma,” Suleiman said. “Many people are committing suicide in Sinjar [Shingal], I’m hearing from my friends, but they’re not sharing it with the media or other people because of stigma. In other cases of suicide, their families didn't allow them to visit psychiatrists because of stigma.” 

The Jiyan Foundation provides free treatment for IDPs at their Duhok office and in Khanke camp. Psychiatrist Mohammed said he saw more than 30 people in 2020 exhibiting signs of wanting to end their life. 

Social media posts and slapdash stories from news outlets are also contributing to the problem, the professionals say. “News of suicide is published in a matter of four to five minutes all across the Kurdistan Region and Iraq,” Mohammed said. “This is another reason...suicidal thoughts come back.” Kizilhan said “inappropriate media coverage which sensationalises suicide helps to increase the risk of copycat acts.” 

Back in Qadia, Hadi spoke of his wish to help his community, and others like his cousin. The 22-year-old is in his first year of classes at a college in the nearby town of Qaraqosh, where he is studying psychology. “I would like to be a psychologist and solve our problems in our society. If we stay here [at the camp], I would like to solve our problems here.” 

by Holly Johnston and Khazan Jangiz

Post a Comment