All of the Yezidi women in the art class in the Jinda (Kurdish for “New Life”) Center, a rehabilitation facility in Iraq, have suffered at the hands of ISIS, which in 2014 overran the Iraqi province of Sinjar and the village Telezair where the women lived.
I have previously organised art projects for Syrian refugees in refugee camps in Jordan through UNHCR and Relief International. However, working alongside Yezidi women who have escaped ‘Islamic State’s’ sex trafficking rings and hearing their stories has been one of the most heartrending experiences I have faced.
In Western media we hear barbaric accounts of rape, torture and enslavement of Yezidi women, who are constantly spoken for and presented through a lens of violence and victimhood. This was not the story the women wanted to tell through their paintings.
These paintings convey their dignity, resilience and unspeakable grief. One woman Leila said, ‘we wake in the morning and see no husband, father, mother or children … Our families are still in the hands of ISIS.’ Their greatest trauma is the ongoing anguish of loss and separation. The torturous unknowing of whether they will ever be reunited with loved ones again.
One young mother Basse painted an image of ISIS separating her from her six-year-old daughter: ‘I can never forget when they took her hands out of my hands.’ Basse escaped but her daughter did not. She explained that the red for the background symbolizes the blood of the martyrs. Many Yezidi men – including Basse’s husband – were executed when ISIS took control of Sinjar three years ago.
The other women painted portraits of themselves in Yezidi traditional dress of white robes, expressing their pride in their cultural heritage. They wanted the world to know about the Yezidi people, what they are going through and the true beauty that their religion represents. This is especially important considering the dehumanizing treatment they have experienced in the hands of ISIS.
Teaching these women to paint their portraits has been a way for these women, who have never been to school or learned to read and write, to share their stories with the rest of the world.
I will also be painting portraits of these eight Yezidi women to be shown alongside their paintings and testimonies. The hope is to give them a voice and ensure that their stories are not lost or forgotten.
To read an article by Business Insider about the project, please click here.