Supporting Yazidi Women, A Psychologist’s Perspective

Mavis Himes, Ph.D., C. Psych.

Mavis Himes, Ph.D., C. Psych.

Supporting Yazidi Women, A Psychologist’s Perspective

By Mavis Himes, Ph.D., C. Psych.

“One Free World International is a family.” That is what Rev. Majed El Shafie said to me at our first meeting last year.  “And now you are one of this family,” he added months later when I had become actively involved in this indispensable organization.  And indeed OFWI is a family, a family of committed and dedicated people who are prepared to devote their time for the universal right for freedom of religion. 

Last winter, I had heard a radio interview with Majed on CBC Radio in which he had been discussing the horrific plight of the Yazidis living in Canada. While I had been aware of the predicament of the Yazidis, I had not realized the extent of the trauma these people had endured nor the dire need for services to aid Yazidi women who had suffered extreme torture, rape and sex slavery at the hands of ISIS. 

This prompted an immediate phone call and, within a week I was waiting to meet Majed at OFWI’s modest office. I remember seeing a single line of Yazidi women of mixed ages file past me, their eyes downcast and their shoulders slouched. My interview with Majed who greeted me warmly was informative and inviting. I signed on to help out immediately, offering my services as a therapist to help these women as best I could.

I have been returning to this office regularly for months to meet singly for individual psychotherapy sessions with a number of women. I always meet with a translator, if not Majed, then another member of the family. To call the work I do psychotherapy is a misnomer for after many months, I would say that I am still becoming acquainted with them and their trauma, building up trust, confidence and acceptance. The lives and experiences of these women are completely dissimilar and in stark contrast to the privileged and stable life I have led here in Canada. My training and experience as a psychologist, and my formation as a psychoanalyst, had not quite prepared me for the extent of the tragic life circumstances of the Yazidi women I was meeting. 

Aside from the cultural differences and language barriers, these women whose bodies had been subjected to the kind of trauma that no human should have to bear were still survivors and were heroes in their own rights. They had endured pain and brutality that is blatantly unthinkable -  barbaric, why not say it!  Their torment was expressed through symptoms of PTSD (such as recurring nightmares, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks), sleep disturbances and a host of chronic bodily aches and disorders. 

I soon realized that the anguish and suffering I was encountering could not be treated in a normative or standard way but required a creative approach to healing. With my colleague Alyia, another therapist at OFWI and the support of Majed, we are reconfiguring ways to work with these women to bridge the cultural divide and to alleviate the emotional suffering. Colouring books, movement, breathing exercises, and outings are all alternative possibilities that will be introduced to broaden our scope. But all of these alternatives can only be introduced once relationships and mutual trust are deepened.

The demand for volunteers is great, greater than can be accounted for by the handful of professionals engaged In Toronto so far. The family of OFWI requires others for growth and expansion. A huge need exists to help these women whose desperate situation came only as the result of continuing the religious practices of their parents and ancestors, or simply, for being who they are.

One Saturday, as we all sat waiting for the translator, I asked the group of women sitting around the small board room table if they could follow me in an exercise of ‘sighing.’ Just breathe in and let out a big sigh, I said, as a fifteen-year-old whose language skills had been developed by her school, translated for me. And there they all were, ten women, breathing and sighing, an exercise they had been unable to perform a few weeks earlier. My eyes filled with tears.  

It is only through the effort of Majed and OFWI that these women have been rescued and given the opportunity to start a new life in Canada. Please help this family grow so we can do more

Mavis Himes, Ph.D., C. Psych. is a Toronto-based psychologist and author of "THE POWER OF NAMES: Uncovering the Mystery of What We Are Called" and "THE SACRED BODY: A Therapist’s Journey"