From Iraq To Israel, Helping Former Sex Slaves
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From Iraq To Israel, Helping Former Sex Slaves

Bar-Ilan quietly trains Iraqi female mental health workers in treating ISIS victims.

The author, right, with Professor Ari Zivotofsky, left, and Professor Marylene Cloitre, all of whom took part in the Yazidi workshops. Courtesy Bar-Ilan University
The author, right, with Professor Ari Zivotofsky, left, and Professor Marylene Cloitre, all of whom took part in the Yazidi workshops. Courtesy Bar-Ilan University

It won’t make major headlines, but Bar-Ilan University recently completed one of the most unusual and secretive conferences ever held in Israel. Quietly and with little fanfare, Bar-Ilan brought 18 Iraqi female mental health workers to Israel for a two-week intensive workshop in treating Complex PTSD and other trauma-induced conditions suffered by the Yazidi women at the hands of ISIS.

Held in secrecy until the conference at our Ramat Gan campus was over, the health workers came to Israel through Turkey since they couldn’t travel to Israel directly from Iraq, a country still at war with Israel. And this group had the opportunity to be trained by the world expert in Complex PTSD, Marylene Cloitre, clinical professor at Stanford University in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department and associate director of the National Center for PTSD Dissemination at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

The group, whose members represented the region’s predominant faiths (Yazidi, Christian and Muslim), came to Israel to learn how to treat former female captives of ISIS, many of whom were imprisoned and tortured. Tens of thousands of women, according to recent estimates, are victim survivors of the Yazidi genocide, but there are very few professionals to provide the help they need. There is an average of only one mental health care worker per 500,000 people in Northern Iraq.

The story began some four years ago, when my colleague, Professor Ari Zivotofsky, a neuroscientist, traveled to Kurdistan to look for remnants of the Jewish community. Together with other scientists at Bar-Ilan we urged him to try to reach Yazidi genocide survivors. He made contacts that eventually led to Dr. Mirza Dinnayi, a German-based Yazidi humanitarian and Aurora Prize laureate, who assisted in bringing 1,000 female Yazidi post-ISIS captives to resettle in Germany.

Participants in the workshop. The faces of the Iraqi women are blurred for security reasons. Courtesy Bar-Ilan University

With Dinnayi’s assistance, and together with Bar-Ilan, we conducted studies revealing that over 50 percent of the post-ISIS captives suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and 23 percent from standard post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). C-PTSD includes all PTSD symptoms plus a deeper form of disturbed self-organization (e.g., feeling worthless). However, in the best-case scenario in Iraq, the available treatments are for PTSD and may be detrimental if persons are suffering from C-PTSD. We also found a very high prevalence of insomnia, something that was hitherto ignored.

We felt a moral obligation to share our know-how in alleviating suffering. We first contacted Professor Cloitre, who was excited to share her expertise with workshop participants. We began tailoring interventions to Yazidi culture. We partnered with IsraAID for logistic assistance, and we felt we could actually pull this off.

But after planning the program, we were devastated to hear that the funding wasn’t there. After hearing of our problem, and with the help of the American Friends of Bar-Ilan University, some true “angels” from the West Coast stepped up to finance the conference and its continuation. Rachel Gindi and Alan and Barbara Gindi were the predominant funders along with the Hitter Family Foundation and Alan Zekelman.

The workshop was amazing. In the classroom we frequently broke into small groups to practice and implement what was learned. Our diligent and hard work comprising research, planning, and learning cultural and religious details paid off.

Cloitre taught STAIR therapy (Skills Training in Affect and Interpersonal Regulation), which she developed. During the workshop, we adapted STAIR to the Yazidi culture, obtaining real-time feedback from participants regarding what would and wouldn’t work in Kurdistan. We incorporated culturally relevant themes into a manual currently being written, such as Yazidi religious themes for suicide prevention, using winds as a metaphor for emotional regulation (gentle breezes) instead of waves (e.g., letting-it-roll) since they don’t have a sea.

We incorporated non-training activities to expose the health care workers to Israel and Judaism. One highlight was joining families for Friday night Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem’s Old City. After deliberation, we decided to take them to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center. It touched them. They repeatedly stated: “We want to learn from you how to move past, how to rebuild.” It helped them see hope for the future both as individuals and as a community/country.

Other Bar-Ilan faculty addressed them on topics such as sharing research on post-Holocaust memoirs, and learning how to document trauma on a national and personal level.

At the closing ceremony, Bar-Ilan University’s president, Arie Zaban, said, “Efforts like this are our responsibility as a university: to take our research, knowledge and understanding forward to generate a real, positive impact on the world.” In attendance was former Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, who was particularly interested to meet workshop participant Lamiya Aji Bashsar, a former ISIS captive who is a Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought laureate. Sharansky and Sakharov were close personal friends.

At the completion ceremony, I told a personal anecdote about each participant before presenting her with specially prepared, personalized certificates proclaiming her completion of the course. I told each of them that we were confident in their ability to deliver these interventions to their clients.   

But our work is just beginning. We intend to put the infrastructure in place for long-term follow-up, ongoing supervision and tracking the efficacy of our training by measuring improvements. Our Bar-Ilan University training model may be applied to other post-genocide populations.

Dr. Yaakov Hoffman is a senior lecturer and clinical psychologist at the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University.

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