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After ISIS: A French priest is helping formerly enslaved and traumatized Yazidis


MikaelF | CC BY-SA 3.0

John Burger - published on 10/16/17

Father Patrick Desbois, who is documenting genocide and helping Iraqi natives overcome ordeal, will receive Lantos Human Rights Prize.

While many Christians in Iraq are trying to rebuild their homes in the ancestral villages the Islamic State group tried to take from them, for many Yazidis, who were also subject to the ISIS genocide, the focus is on overcoming pain and trauma.

French priest Fr. Patrick Desbois is trying to provide a bridge for them to do so.

“We opened a center in one refugee camp, to help the children who had been brainwashed to find back their identity,” Fr. Desbois said in an interview. “We opened camps in other places with sewing machines for women to teach them to recover hope and their dignity. These women lost their husbands, their sons, everything.”

“A girl who came to us was sold 25 times, to 25 men, raped, used for housework,” he said. “There are so many children who have been brainwashed. … They were converted to Islam by threat.”

Fr. Desbois, who founded Yahad-In Unum to research and uncover genocidal practices around the world, is the recipient of this year’s Lantos Human Rights Prize. He is being recognized for his work in uncovering the lost stories of over one million victims of the “Holocaust by Bullets” period of World War II as well as his continuing fight against anti-Semitism and genocide throughout the world.

The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice will present the prize at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on October 26, 2017, at the U.S. Capitol. Desbois joins distinguished alumni of recipients that include the Dalai Lama, Hillary Clinton, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and Vian Dakhil (aka “ISIS’ Most Wanted”).

Yahad-In Unum, which in Hebrew and Latin means “Together in One,” was initially founded with the mission of locating the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile killing units in the former Soviet Union. Fr. Desbois’ book, Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, is based on this work.

But he and his team have spent the last two years gathering testimony from survivors of the Yazidi massacres in Northern Iraq at the hands of ISIS. He collected hundreds of testimonies of Yazidi women and children, which are at the heart of his book, The Terrorist Factory: ISIS, the Yazidi Genocide, and Exporting Terror.

“We try to describe the strategy they had to train children and to brainwash them, so they would become killers,” he said.

The priest then opened centers to help women and girls enslaved for sex, as well as traumatized Yazidi children, transition back into society. Other Yazidis were kept as servants, beaten, forced to carry suicide belts or used as human shields. Having lost their husbands and fathers to the Islamic State, many Yazidi women have to provide for themselves for the first time, so one of his projects is to teach women how to sew. Every two months, 25 former captives are trained to make clothing. Psychologists are on hand to help them overcome their ordeal.

Psychologists provide support for boys, too, who struggle to get back to a normal life after being separated from their families and brainwashed into violence. Many were forbidden to speak anything but Arabic, the priest told Reuters, so his organization is helping them to relearn their mother tongue, which is northern Kurdish.

The jihadists considered Yazidis, whose religion is an amalgam of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, to be kuffar, or heretical, so they felt they could treat them however they liked. In 2014, as ISIS was grabbing headlines for its blitzkrieg across Syria and Iraq, they rounded up more than 5,000 Yazidis and forced into sexual slavery some 7,000 women and girls.

Fr. Desbois, 62, is a Braman Endowed Professor of the Practice of the Forensic Study of the Holocaust at the Center for Jewish Civilization of Georgetown University.  He has served as the director of the French Bishops’ Conference’s Committee for Relations with Judaism and as a consultant to the Vatican on relations with Judaism.

He said that the purpose of his research is not only to help people survive but also to “understand better who people are and to protect people against radicalization.”

His respect for the Yazidi has only grown. “They are very strong,” he said, “very strong to choose life. They are very respectful, peaceful people.”

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