Yazidi Women Daesh
Iraq's Yazidi seamstress Shirin Ghaliyeh, 39, smiles while working at her shop in the Khonke camp for displaced persons in northwestern Iraq on June 24, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Khanke Displacement Camp, Iraq: On the floor of her stuffy, dimly-lit tent in Iraq, Yazidi survivor Layleh Shemmo nimbly tugs floral pink fabric through her sewing machine, stitching together a living for her broken family.

Working in the Khanke displacement camp in the country's northwest, Shemmo glances down at the name tattooed on her left hand: Kero, her husband, still missing five years after the Daesh group rampaged across the Sinjar region.

At the time, Daesh killed Yazidi men en masse, took boys as child soldiers and sold women as "sex slaves", with survivors streaming into ramshackle displacement camps.

They remain unable to return to Sinjar, where Daesh destroyed the fields and farming infrastructure that were the backbone of the ethno-religious minority's livelihoods.

Who are the Yazidi
The Yazidi faith emerged in Iran more than 4,000 years ago and is a "closed" faith, meaning one cannot convert to it.
Adherents believe in one God to whom they pray by facing the sun.
They also worship seven angels - especially Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.
In their traditional homeland Sinjar, this Kurdish-speaking sect relied mainly on farming to get by.
Their holiest site is Lalish, a serene stone complex of shrines and natural springs in Iraq's mountainous northwest where visitors must walk barefoot.
The faith is led by a five-member High Spiritual Council based in nearby Sheikhan, which includes both the worldwide "prince" of Yazidis and Baba Sheikh, their religious chief.
Yazidis are organised into three castes - sheikhs, pirs, and murids - and cannot wed across them or outside the sect. Children are Yazidi only if both their parents are.
Over time, the faith has integrated elements from other religions: children are baptised in holy water like Christians, boys are circumcised and men can take up to four wives like Muslims.

While it had long been frowned upon for Yazidi women to work publicly, survivors found themselves deprived of their family's traditional breadwinners and with little state support.

So, they took matters into their own hands.

Dresses for a few dollars, baby clothes for the camp's newborns, custom-made pillow cases - mother and former Daesh captive Shemmo can make them all, using a sewing machine and fabric donated by Sikh NGO Khalsa Aid.

"If I was sitting here with one hand on top of the other, I'd be constantly thinking about what Daesh did to me, why my husband isn't here, where my two kids are, about my nine relatives still in Daesh hands," says Shemmo.

"With the income from the sewing machine, I'm taking care of my son and daughters - my sister and brother-in-law, too," she says, her eyes shining proudly behind edgy translucent glasses.

Abducted by IS when seven months pregnant, Shemmo gave birth in captivity, then was separated from her husband and children and trafficked by the jihadists, who consider Yazidis heretics.

'In my heart, on my hands'

She and three of her children were freed, but her husband, two teenage children, and other loved ones remain missing.

"They're always in my heart, but with these tattoos they're on my hands too. I see them when I work," Shemmo tells AFP.

Her pieces come in eye-popping colours: shimmering turquoise, swirling gold-and-burgundy patterns, or tropical satin prints, which she loves using for girls forced to wear head-to-toe black veils for years by IS.

"Hopefully when my daughter comes back, I can dress her in bright colours too, instead of black clothes," she says.

But Shemmo says she will keep donning black herself until her husband, Kero, is home: "I'm still mourning."

There is a striking absence of men in Khanke camp.

Scrawny kids dart between endless rows of tarp tents, chased by elderly Yazidi women heaving in the heat.

Over centuries and around the world, war has left communities without working males, and women step in to fill the vacuum.

The role reversal is particularly stark for the tiny, conservative Yazidi community.

"Before, in Sinjar, it was shameful for women to get jobs. Right now, it's the opposite. Women are working more than men," says Asima, 30, a make-up artist in the camp.

When Daesh attacked her hometown in 2014, her family spent nearly two weeks sleeping in the open on Mount Sinjar, before they secured safe passage down.

She has lived in Khanke ever since, opening a beauty parlour just two months ago with help from the Jinda Foundation, a local NGO which bought her makeup supplies.

"My family needed a breadwinner," says Asima.

Welcoming the survivors

Of the 550,000 Yazidis in Iraq before 2014, around 100,000 have emigrated abroad and 360,000 remain internally displaced.

Roughly 3,300 Yazidis have returned from Daesh captivity in the last five years, only 10 percent of them men.

The vast majority of remaining returnees are women and girls forced by Daesh into "sex slavery".

The closed-off Yazidi sect would have once excommunicated them for outside marriage.

But a landmark decree by Yazidi religious chieftain Baba Sheikh in 2014 demanded women survivors be welcomed back.

The community has yet to fully open up. Asima asked that her full name and picture not be used because her family remains conflicted about her working alone.

Around a dozen customers are packed into her salon ahead of a wedding, shouting gossip above Kurdish music and the intrusive hum of a generator outside.

Every few minutes, a power cut brings an abrupt halt to the buzz, but Asima doesn't flinch as she daubs thick foundation and plants eyelash extensions on her teenage customer's face.

Her makeovers cost around $8 (seven euros), while hair styling can run up to $35 for elaborate bridal updos.

But the space is more than just a business - women often come in for a reprieve from the monotony of tent life or to share tales of surviving IS, even if they're not getting their makeup done.

"This is a place where girls can escape," says Asima.

Yazidis in numbers

Of the world's nearly 1.5 million Yazidis, the largest number - 550,000 - lived in Iraq, with smaller numbers in Kurdish-speaking areas of Turkey and Syria.

Decades of emigration have seen sizable Yazidi numbers spring up across Europe too, chiefly in Germany which is home to around 150,000.

Other communities can be found in Sweden, France, Belgium and Russia.

But since Daesh swept across Sinjar in 2014, around 100,000 emigrated from Iraq to Europe, the US, Australia and Canada.

Around 360,000 still live in displacement camps scattered across northwestern Iraq.

Only a few thousand have been able to return to Sinjar, where most homes remain in ruins and services like electricity, hospitals and clean water are scarce.

Long persecuted

Their status as non-Arabs and non-Muslims has placed Yazidis among the most vulnerable minorities in the Middle East, where Orthodox Muslims have derided them as "devil-worshippers".

Daesh and its aftermath

The group seized Sinjar in August 2014, unleashing a brutal campaign against the Yazidis that the United Nations has said could amount to genocide.

According to religious authorities, more than 1,280 Yazidis are confirmed to have been killed by Daesh, leaving several hundred children orphaned. Nearly 70 shrines were destroyed.

Since Daesh lost its last shred of territory in Syria in March, dozens of Yazidi women, girls and boys have been freed and reunited with their families in Iraq.

More than 6,400 Yazidis were abducted, of whom around 3,300 - mostly women and girls - have returned alive.

The rest remain missing.

More than 70 grave sites have been identified across Sinjar containing the remains of Daesh victims, of which 12 have been exhumed as part of a probe carried out by the UN, Iraq's government and other agencies.

Some women who had been forced to bear the children of Daesh fighters have left them in neighbouring Syria, as they would not have been accepted by the minority.