Daesh/Islamic State (ISIS) launched an horrific massacre on the Yazidi people in Sinjar in South Kurdistan/Northern Iraq nine years ago, on August 6. Thousands of Yazidi men and boys were murdered and thousands more — women and children — were abducted by ISIS and traded as slaves. Many of these women were raped and sold on. Thousands of these abducted women are still missing and some are still being kept as slaves in Turkey and other countries.
It is hard to imagine the physical, let alone mental, challenges faced by the survivors of this genocidal act. Many survivors are still forced to live in refugee camps, while only a handful of the perpetrators of this atrocity have been brought to justice.
The Iraqi government refuses to recognise the autonomous administration in Sinjar set up by survivors with the help of Kurdish freedom fighters from Rojava (the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) and from North Kurdistan (in Turkey). As a result, much of the promised reconstruction aid is not getting through.
However, there are several volunteer groups that have been trying their best to work with Yazidi survivors. I spoke to Ryan Capozzi from Solidarity Minded, a mutual aid group specialising in mental health that is planning to work with Joint Help Kurdistan (Iraq). He trained as a therapist in the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
Solidarity Minded successfully carried out a similar project in Beirut, working with young Syrian refugees trying to survive while struggling with “a variety of things from PTSD, to depression, to wanting to trust others and open up but not knowing how”.
The basic principle of Solidarity Minded is to adjust the therapy to the needs, preferences and personalities of each person they do sessions with, while attempting to simultaneously be engaged in the community in a meaningful capacity.
Capozzi explained that refugees in Lebanon are “trying to find stability in a place where it arguably has not existed for half a century”.
“It is trying to heal in a place which constantly faces new trauma and crises, and has not yet healed itself — all while being priced out of essentially any kind of healthcare and external support structures.
“People are even priced out of residency, most refugees are not residents or even ‘refugees’ but ‘guests’, as the concept of a refugee doesn’t legally exist in Lebanon and purchasing this right is near impossible for most.
“It is trying to be free and experience youth in a place where there is so much discrimination in their schools which oppress them, where young people have to either work or take care of their families. All of this, while not having space in their home or outside their home for themselves and living with families whose working members labour for 10‒12 hours a day to bring home around US$50 a month.”
From March to June this year, Solidarity Minded did therapy sessions at 26 Letters, a democratic school and community space in Beirut supporting Syrian youth.
“I was there every day for most of the day. So in that time I would also teach, play football and organise games and talks where I was ... as there’s a massive amount of stigma around mental health, and therefore [around] therapists too.
“If there is someone who is already going to have a preconceived notion of the therapist as a strange authority figure who would judge or control them, while [they] already struggle with trust and elements of their self-concept, then you have a problem. This is especially the case if you’re a practitioner and a white foreigner.
“In the beginning, I would try to find an interpreter that someone would feel comfortable with, if they didn’t speak English. I try to set very clear expectations and state how long I will also be here for. I explain the therapy I practice in great detail during the first session while also talking about what therapy isn’t, and give people a lot of options for ways it can be utilised outside of just talking in one room.
“For example, sometimes people would draw instead as they felt they could communicate better in this manner, some folks would bring in lyrics for songs and the music, and we would listen to it and dive deeper into what it all meant for them.
“[It is essential to] address the power dynamic clearly since no matter what approach you take and who you are, there is undoubtedly an imbalance and it is important to tackle and challenge this notion.
“I try to follow it up by checking-in or discussing it further, or more importantly, levelling it in practice in the session and out of the therapy room with teaching, games, etc, as much as possible.
“Solidarity also comes by trying to connect people with resources or address problems that can be solved by either making a plan with these aids, and by communicating with staff within the school and family members.”
Bullying of refugees is rife in schools and sometimes the family relations can be pretty bad, Capozzi added.
In Solidarity Minded’s perspective, solidarity is a multiplicity of things done consistently and wholeheartedly. It is also trying to provide something stable while bearing in mind that situations and people all change too.
“As a therapist, I believe you have to be engaged with social struggles and fights against injustice, this is not to mention the intense struggles which girls and women face, and those who are trapped in the kafala [migrant labour scheme system] encounter.
“The psychological distress, economic inequities and destitution are natural products of systemic racism and capitalism — as a therapist, to not think about it or address it is like being a mechanic constantly repairing punctured tyres and broken wheels in cars without looking at the street to see the entirety of the road is littered with jagged potholes. If mental health practitioners don’t address racism or capitalism meaningfully, then we are doomed to struggle forever and to never make an iota of progress.”
Solidarity Minded’s therapies are in constant development.
“For healing in the conditions and environments which exacerbate and even create trauma, often from structural inequities, it is imperative to find the tools that can help give groups the potential to create and engage in their own form of collective healing.
“One that best aligns with their culture and can potentially connect with Indigenous, ancestral or religious values, too.”
Practical limitations, such as the group’s limited funds, visa and time constraints, means their work has also to “developing ways in which communities can have autonomy with their healing processes”.
This will be especially the case with their next project: working with Yazidi survivors in the Bajed Kendala camp in northern Iraq.
“This would feature a series of classes where anyone interested could attend and learn skills associated with active listening and bracketing (which counsellors learn), breathing and mindfulness exercises for the individual and group to use.
“It would include psychological information to work toward dispelling stigma, fun games to play, expressive exercises to encourage self-discovery, and a lot of collective discussions exploring communication, continuing the facilitation of self-discovery, but also helping the collective to identify their own needs that they would like to have helped in a future support group.
“The idea isn’t to create therapists, or, for these to be extremely clinical groups facilitated by clinical psychologists, as there are none in Bajed Kendala camp.”
[To help Solidarity Minded fund its project with Yazidi survivors, click here.]