These amazing women-only units are helping girls who escaped ISIS

Andrea DiCenzo

DOHUK, Iraq—When Islamic State militants pushed into the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar in August 2014, they rounded up older boys and men from the Yazidi minority religious sect into nearby fields and executed them. Yazidi children and women were separated into groups and transported deep into ISIS-held territory. Nasreen Seedo, 28, and her family were among the lucky few who escaped.

“We were eating breakfast, but we didn't even get to eat it,” Nasreen told me. "Our neighbor came to the door to say that Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] was on the street. If we had left one minute later it would have been too late." After a seven-day journey on foot, Nasreen and her family arrived in the village of Khanki, where Yazidis have deep roots.


The Yazidi community is now calling for the ISIS attack on Sinjar to be recognized as genocide. Nearly every Yazidi has been affected: thousands have been exiled, abducted, raped or executed.

Before the war, Nasreen had a mundane job in government administration. But since the attack on Sinjar, Nasreen has joined a small group of Kurdish and displaced Yazidi women who travel throughout Iraqi-Kurdistan to locate and aid Yazidi girls and women who have escaped ISIS captivity.


These photos, which I took between June and October of this year, tell their stories.

Basima, 16, is from a village near Sinjar, but now lives on the outskirts of Shreya refugee camp. She was held by ISIS for five months before escaping on foot during the night. She and her sister have the option of temporary residence in Germany to receive psychological care but they do not want to leave Iraq until their mother, still believed to be in ISIS captivity, is released. The girls have not heard from their mother in five months.
Roujda Yunis, 24, and Nasreen Seedo, 28, chat as they drive to the Rwanga refugee camp on the outskirts of the northern Iraqi city of Duhok. Roujda, a Kurd from Dohuk, and Nasreen, a Yazidi from Sinjar, are a team with the Iraqi-German NGO WADI’s female mobile unit. The teams specialize in traveling to displaced Yazidi communities within northern Iraq to provide emergency care to women and children who have fled captivity from the Islamic State.
WADI team members shop for second-hand clothes to bring to girls they are visiting.
The female mobile teams locate victims who have escaped captivity by the Islamic State, provide social counseling for victims and help them reintegrate back into life with their families and their communities.
Nasreen and Roujda listen to a survivor of physical and sexual abuse describe her ordeal. Prior to ISIS’ attack on Sinjar, the Yazidis were considered a conservative community which rarely integrated with others. Having a Yazidi on the mobile team is vital to the unit’s ability to address the sensitive issues of escapees.
Sara, 6, cries for ice cream in the summer heat of northern Iraq. She and her mother were in ISIS control for nine months before their family paid ransom for their release.
For those women who escaped enslavement by the Islamic State, publicly showing their faces has become another source of terror. Escapees have reported torture by their captors as a result of their family members speaking openly to the media. Because of the fear of further torture to family members still in ISIS captivity, women do not show their faces to Western media.
Sara, 6, demonstrates how to tie niqab around her head; an act required of her when she was in ISIS captivity. Wearing niqab is not practiced by the Yazidi community, although wearing a headscarf, or hijab, is practiced although it is not a requirement.
Nasreen takes a call from another client, as Amo, who was held by ISIS, demonstrates the Muslim call to prayer movements that he learned while he was captivity.
Eyad, a refugee from Sinjar, has worked with a local smuggler to ensure the release of his family members from ISIS’ captivity. Hearing of Eyad’s plan, the WADI mobile team was able to provide access to emergency support immediately to his cousins after they were released.
Asya, 9, is another one of the team’s cases. She is the only member of her immediate family who was captured by ISIS. Her grandmother, mother, father, and two brothers all made it to the Kurdish region of Iraq safely, enduring months of painful separation.
WADI team members Sara and Susan getting ready to leave one of the prefabricated container homes where two ISIS escapees live.
Sara and Basima show off identical ink tattoos. Tattooing is a common practice in Yazidism, and many have the Yazidi word for Sinjar—Shingal—decorated on their skin. Sara fled Sinjar safely in August 2014. She and her family found refuge in Shreya village outside of Dohuk. Basima, one of Sara’s cases, was forced into sexual enslavement before family members paid her ransom 11 months later.
Before the siege on Sinjar, Nasreen worked as an administrator in a local government division. She says it was an easy job, although it was never was very important to her. Since joining one of WADI’s female mobile units, her entire day is devoted to visiting ISIS victims, speaking with them over the phone, and organizing upcoming visits.
Nasreen and her siblings hang out outside of the unfinished house they have stayed in since fleeing Sinjar.
Exhausted from a day of visiting the camps, Nasreen lies down before preparing dinner and making phone calls to plan the next day’s schedule.

Andrea DiCenzo is an American photojournalist based in Erbil, Iraq.
Andrea DiCenzo is a San Francisco-born photographer whose work focuses on humanitarian issues throughout the Middle East.

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