Iraq

Action Against Hunger helps Iraqis struggling with the impacts of ISIS

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After surviving devastating trauma, Action Against Hunger helps victims cope through psychological first aid and livelihood training.

By: Pauline Perret, MHPSSP CBE
Action Against Hunger, Iraq

Baran is a 55-year-old Yezidi woman living in Iraq’s Sinjar region. She and her family live off the small income her sons manage to gather as daily workers. Most of the time there are no job opportunities in the area.

In 2014, when ISIS attacked Sinjar - home to a number of Iraqi minorities such as Shia Muslims, Shabaks, Christians and a large community of Yezidis (a group indigenous to Kurdish regions) – Baran, along with thousands of others, had no choice but to escape her village.

Baran and her children fled to Sinjar Mountain for protection, but her husband didn’t join them. He couldn’t face abandoning his village, so he decided to stay and protect their home. A few days later, Baran heard the news she was dreading. She was told that all the men who stayed to defend the village had been abducted. Rumors spread that some men had been killed, and that some were still alive. To this day, Baran doesn’t know the truth about what really happened to her husband. She never found his body.

UNABLE TO RETURN HOME

Baran and her family stayed on the mountain for eight days. ISIS soldiers tried to convince them to return back to the village, but Kurdish fighters pushed ISIS back. Baran could recognize some of the attackers.

“Most of them were our neighbors,” explains Baran. “We knew them very well, and now they were with ISIS.”.

Soon, Baran and her children ran out of food and water, but luckily a shepherd kindly gave them food to eat. For clean water, Baran would filter water through her purple scarf, traditionally worn by Yezidis on their heads.

The family finally found safety in Kurdistan. Baran’s family was one of the lucky few that managed to find refuge. Nearly 50,000 Yezidis remained displaced on Mount Sinjar for the duration of the conflict - some remain displaced there to this day. Baran’s family moved to a camp for people who fled their homes, where they stayed for more than five years. Last year, they finally were able to come back to their village, but their life has not gone back to the way it was before.

“Before ISIS, life here was simple,” explains Baran. “We didn’t have a good income, but we were comfortable and psychologically, we were happy. Now, we think a lot about the problems in our lives.”

THE IMPACT ON BARAN’S MENTAL HEALTH

After the ISIS attacks, Baran started to show symptoms of anxiety, depression and trauma, which has also had an impact on her physical health.

“I was thinking a lot about my husband,” explains Baran. “I couldn’t do anything for my family. I felt startled every time I would hear a sound.”

“My blood pressure was so high and I had to go to the hospital for treatment because of it,” continues Baran. “I even used to have a nose bleed every time I would hear about someone’s death in the community.”.

When Baran started struggling to sleep at night, she sought help from Action Against Hunger’s mental health support services.

COPING WITH TRAUMA

At first, the psychiatric treatment didn’t help Baran. She couldn’t bring herself to talk about what she had lived through. When Baran’s family and neighbors helped her feel more comfortable at the sessions, she finally started to open up. Baran has started to notice improvement in her symptoms since attending the group sessions.

“I feel much more comfortable and relaxed, and my sleep has improved a lot,” says Baran. “The group changed my way of thinking. I realized that nothing would go back to the way it was, so we have to build a new life for ourselves, and cope with the situation.”

Since 2014, Action Against Hunger has provided support to tens of thousands of people in Iraq whose lives have been upended by ISIS. Many have experienced high levels of anxiety and fear. Mental health aid, like the assistance Baran received, has helped many return to their lives.

Today, Baran is able to manage day-to-day life and her normal tasks. She’s less startled when she hears noises and her blood pressure has returned to normal. Sometimes Baran still feels scared, but now knows the coping mechanisms and tools to calm her nerves. She tries to keep busy to distract herself or talks with her family members, which is something she couldn’t face before. Baran also practices the breathing exercises she learnt at the group sessions, which she finds very soothing.

HOPES FOR THE FUTURE

Baran is hopeful that life will get better for her and her family. “We’ll be spending our days peacefully and everything will go well,” she says.

Baran still feels anxious about their living conditions in the village after the attacks. She wants a stable income to be able to provide for her children, and wants them to have basic rights such as access to health services.

In addition to providing mental health support, Action Against Hunger provides families with training in essential life skills and gives cash grants to support communities to build professional careers.

Baran often reminds herself of the metaphor of the tree - something they discussed during the mental health group sessions. She explains that the tree that gets hit by a storm can seem like it’s about to die because it’s broken. Yet, as long as the tree has its roots and is taken care of, it can grow new branches and thrive.

“It reflects the fact that when we lose someone or something, we don’t give up,” says Baran. “It represents our lives. Life has to continue, and we have to keep taking care of ourselves to keep going”.

Action Against Hunger, in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has provided mental health and psychosocial support to people impacted by conflict in Iraq. We are also working with Stars Orbit to provide vocational training and cash grants to communities in the region.