Thomson Reuters Foundation

It was a lucky haircut that opened the doors of Iraq to Father Patrick Desbois.

In 2015, the French priest was trying to find a way to get into Iraq and help the Yazidi people fleeing Islamic State militants, after watching their suffering on TV for months.

 

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: French priest Fr Patrick Desbois visits visits a refugee camp in Dahuk, Iraq. PICTURE Yahad In-Unum/Kate Komberg

One winter's day, as he was in Brussels for a meeting and in need of a haircut, he stepped into the first open barber's shop and found himself being attended to by an Iraqi man.

"I told him I was very concerned about what was happening to the Yazidis and he told me: 'I am Yazidi, my father is teaching English in the (refugee) camps,'" Fr Desbois, 62, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We try to help them to reestablish their confidence in the future and even to think about the future."

- Fr Patrick Desbois

The barber helped him with contacts to go to northern Iraq, setting off a two-year journey that would see Fr Desbois open two centres to help women and girls enslaved for sex and traumatised Yazidi children transition back into society.

Many of the women had to provide for themselves for the first time, having lost their husbands and fathers to Islamic State and so one of his projects is to teach women how to sew.

Every two months, 25 former Islamic State captives are trained to make clothing in a sewing workshop where they are flanked by psychologists who help them cope with their ordeal.

"We try to help them to reestablish their confidence in the future and even to think about the future," said Fr Desbois.

More than 5,000 Yazidis were rounded up and slaughtered and some 7,000 women and girls forced into sex slavery, when Islamic State militants assaulted the community's heartland in Sinjar, northern Iraq in August, 2014.

 

Fr Patrick Desbois

French priest Patrick Desbois stands on the side of a street in Iraq in an undated handout photo. PICTURE: Yahad In-Unum/Emmanuelle Foussat

Fr Desbois said his organisation, Yahad In-Unum, which mixes the Hebrew and Latin words for "together in one", has so far trained 125 women in a refugee camp in northern Iraq.

For the boys, many of whom struggle to get back to a normal life after being separated from their families and brainwashed into violence by the jihadist group, there are professional psychologists who provide support.

In some cases, the first step is to teach the boys their mother tongue again, as many were forbidden to speak anything but Arabic by the militants, said Fr Desbois. Then they must be persuaded to accept family members who they may not recall or have been taught to reject.

"It is quite literally a process akin to reclaiming someone who has been brainwashed by a cult."

- Fr Patrick Desbois

"It is quite literally a process akin to reclaiming someone who has been brainwashed by a cult," he said.

Islamic State militants were driven out of the last part of the Yazidi homeland in May but most Yazidis have yet to return to their villages.

For many women and girls, the trauma is still too fresh.

"So many women and so many Yazidi in general were such in a bad condition psychologically," said Fr Desbois.

Yazidi women reported being sold over more than 25 times to different militants for sex, with devastating effects on their mental health, he said.

Others were kept as servants, beaten, forced to carry suicide belts or used as human shields.

"If you have been treated like an animal and sold over and over again it means you are nothing...you are nobody, so they are really reduced to poor slaves," he said.

 

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Yazidi women work at a sewing workshop run by charity Yahad-In Unum in northern Iraq in this undated handout photo. PICTURE: Yahad-In Unum

"They are not at a step to (re)enter into society. They are in a refugee camp alone in a tent crying all day."

UN experts have said the Islamic State's campaign against the religious minority amounted to genocide.

Fr Desbois is an expert in the field, having dedicated part of the past 15 years to documenting and uncovering mass killings of Jews and Roma by the Nazis in eastern Europe - an undertaking that won him France's highest award, the Legion d'honneur.

His work in Iraq has mirrored that done by Yahad In-Unum in Europe.

In his first year, the Frenchman methodically collected hundreds of harrowing testimonies of Yazidi women and children to gather evidence of Islamic State atrocities.

Nearly 3,000 women and children are believed to remain in Islamic State captivity. And even after the militants' retreat in Iraq and Syria, Fr Desbois said he was worried Yazidis were being forgotten.

"We really have to worry about them," he said. "Suffering stays long time after a genocide".