Baran is a 55-year-old Yazidi woman living in Iraq’s Sinjar region. Baran 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 Islamic State (IS) attacked Sinjar – home to a number of Iraqi minorities such as Shia Muslims, Christians and a large community of Yazidis (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 the Sinjar mountains for protection, but her husband didn’t join them. He couldn’t face abandoning his village, so 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. Rumours spread that some men had been killed, but that some were still alive. To this day, Baran doesn’t know the truth about what really happened to her husband. She has never found his body.
Unable to return home
Baran and her family stayed in the mountains for eight days. IS soldiers tried to convince them to return back to the village, but Kurdish fighters pushed them back. Baran could recognise some of the attackers.
“Most of them were our neighbours,” explains Baran. “We knew them very well, and now they were with IS.”
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 Yazidis on their head.
The family finally found safety in Kurdistan. Baran’s family was one of the lucky few that managed to find refuge. Nearly 50,000 Yazidis 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. In 2020, they were finally able to come back to their village, but their life has not gone back to the way it was before.
The impact on Baran’s mental health
After the IS 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 a psychiatrist.
Coping with trauma
The psychiatric treatment didn’t help Baran. She couldn’t bring herself to talk about what she had lived through. Baran was then selected to take part in the group counselling sessions led by Action Against Hunger. These sessions are set up to help participants build confidence and resources and then tackle avoidance symptoms, which makes it easier for people like Baran to speak about their past. Baran’s family and neighbours helped her feel more comfortable at the sessions, and she finally started to open up. Since attending the group sessions, Baran has noticed improvements in her symptoms.
“I feel much more comfortable and relaxed, and my sleep improved a lot,” says Baran. “The group changed my way of thinking, I realised 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.”
Now, Baran is able to manage day-to-day life and her normal tasks. She’s less startled when she hears loud 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.
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.
Baran often reminds herself of the metaphor of the tree – something they often discussed during the mental health group sessions. She explains 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 UNDP, provided mental health and psychosocial support to 100 beneficiaries impacted by the 2014-2015 conflict in Sinjar.