Chaldeans rescuing others persecuted by extremists
By Weam Namou
A 2015 Chaldean Chamber of Commerce humanitarian award recipient, Rafed Yaldo has spent years helping Christians and other minorities, especially those who suffered as a result of ISIS. Since his first trip to Iraq in November of 2014, when he witnessed firsthand the conditions of the displaced, he has worked diligently with the St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Diocese to provide them with various types of assistance. Along the way he learned from his fellow volunteers in Iraq about a group he wasn’t previously acquainted with – the Yazidis.
“The Yazidis are mostly concentrated around Sinjar Mountain so I didn’t really know who they were,” he said.
When ISIS attacked this group, they executed the men and took the girls and children. They used the girls, between ages 9 and 12, as sex slaves and brainwashed the boys then sent them to do suicide missions.
“Over 300 children don’t want to come back because they’re brainwashed,” he said. “They say if we come back we’ll kill the whole family.”
What really disturbed Yaldo was why many of the enslaved girls couldn’t return to their homes. They were offered back for the exchange of money but sadly, their families didn’t want them back now that they were “dishonored” – a cultural tradition of that region.
After his return to the United States, Yaldo met with Bishop Francis and expressed his desire to do something for these “unwanted” girls. The Bishop blessed his endeavors and so, Yaldo prepared for a second trip in Christmas of that same year. During his flight, as the plane lifted off, he prayed his rosary out of his usual fear of flying. When he finished praying, he soon realized that the man in the aisle seat beside him was a Yazidi.
“There are only 3,000 Yazidis in the United States,” he said. “What are the odds of me sitting next to an American Yazidi who’s flying from Jordan to Erbil, going on the same mission as I was?”
Through this man’s connections, Yaldo was allowed to interview half-a-dozen Yazidi girls who had been rescued or escaped to safety. Many girls were killed in their attempts to flee. Some were sold back to their families after ISIS members no longer had use for them. Or they were brought to safety by smugglers who wanted to make a profit from them. With the assistance of HelpIraq.org, Yazda was established, a global organization which has received more than 800 enslaved people.
A Yazidi volunteer in Michigan later saw Yaldo’s posts on social media. She asked him to assist her in helping those girls. In January 2016, they traveled to Iraq together. The woman remained with the Yazidi community for six weeks while Yaldo returned to the United States after a two-week stay. She wanted to give the girls the proper assistance without male interference as that might make them uncomfortable and hinder their healing.
“She lived in the camps to really get a feel for the girls and understand their needs,” he said. “When she returned to the United States, we reconnected about this work but we couldn’t do much until ISIS was forced out.”
Yet, the political turmoil in those regions still prevents Yazidis from returning to their homes. In Sinjar, people can’t receive the same type of aid they would living in tents.
“The toughest girls to help are the ones who have children by ISIS members,” said Yaldo. “It’s difficult for them to return to their community because of the babies, now considered Muslim. That’s the dilemma we’re in.”
A lot of the women who have children think no one in the world wants them so they’ve stayed in Mosul. Or, they stayed in Mosul because they don’t have a home to return to, their parents having been executed. Some mothers have given up their babies to return to their families.
Yaldo, along with some Chaldean clergy and volunteers such as psychologists are trying to establish a program to assist the girls with psychological therapy and other basic needs such as safe housing, food, and clothing.
Chaldeans have reached out to him wanting to adopt the babies. Because adoption is not allowed in Muslim countries, Yaldo has met with politicians and influential leaders, even going to Washington, to see what can be done.
“My mission is to help that baby with or without the mother,” he said.
The work is monumental and requires much more than rescuing the women and children. A lot of the children are going through intense therapy. Yaldo remembers one woman who they tried to rescue. She was afraid to leave, thinking that ISIS was testing her to see if she would go or not.
Another story he’ll never forget is the woman who refused to let go of her baby so two ISIS members yanked it from her and executed it, then proceeded to rape her. She ended up escaping and she was one of the women he interviewed.
When Yaldo asked the girls what’s one thing they miss from their old lives, their first answer was “education”.
He was surprised.
“I always wondered why they’d choose education after all they’d gone through,” he said. “Years later my Yazidi friends explained to me that education was their escape from their environment and situation. It’s where they were able to dream.”