By Anna Martin
SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq, May 12 – Forced from their homes in northern Iraq by Daesh, a group of female Yazidi students found themselves in a refugee camp in Kurdistan glad to be alive but with little hope of continuing their studies.
Khawla Shammo, one of more than 400,000 Yazidis who fled Mount Sinjar in 2014, said it was impossible to study in the camp in Dohuk with no books or teachers so she jumped at the chance to join a new photography course offered by the U.N. agency UNICEF.
The two-month course taught Khawla and other female students photography skills to help them express themselves and as a route to employment, and now, a year after their training, several of the women have started to exhibit their work.
Khawla, 21, said her newly acquired skills enabled her to document the plight of her people, thousands of whom have been massacred, enslaved and raped by Daesh who view them as devil-worshippers.
The United States found in March this year that the attacks on Yazidis, whose faith combines elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam, amounted to genocide.
Khawla said she was told by the family of one of her subjects in the Khanke refugee camp that is home to about 18,000 people that had she not been a Yazidi girl, they wouldn’t have allowed their story to be told.
“If a foreign person came to the camp, and went into a tent, that family can’t tell that foreigner everything about their suffering,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We live together, we suffered and feel each other’s suffering, and we know how it is.”
OUTLET FOR SUFFERING
Khawla and other young women have been enthusiastic participants in photography workshops organised by UNICEF with funding from the Italian government.
UNICEF said the aim of the workshop is to empower young Yazidi women through photography and give them an outlet for the suffering they have been through.
The United Nations estimates hundreds of Yazidi girls and women are still missing, with many feared held by the militants as sex slaves.
Manal, 20, who declined to give her full name, has been learning photography for nearly two years and believes the suffering they have experienced is crucial to their work.
“We know our feelings, others don’t. No one can deliver our stories to the world better than us,” she said after her work documenting life in the Khanke camp was exhibited at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah earlier this year.
Though now an accepted feature of life in the Khanke refugee camp, the project initially faced opposition from the Yazidi community.
Tired of the constant questioning by the international media, people in the camp were reluctant to endorse yet more journalistic interference.
But Sheyda Hessami, the photographer who devised the course, said opinion began to shift as supporters explained the benefits of having their stories told from within their own society.
“Their photos have more impact … because they depict what they experience,” Hessami told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
“When a Yazidi woman stands before a Yazidi photographer who shares the same language and culture, they can feel and understand the little details of their lives, traumas and difficulties more than others.”
Though glad to be exhibiting their photos to an international audience, it has not been an easy journey for the young photographers.
Wearing traditional Yazidi dress and a digital camera around her neck, Zina, 20, said taking up photography had been difficult “because we don’t have a culture of imaging in our Yazidi society, and most girls aren’t involved in business”.
Despite these obstacles, the girls share a conviction that they are uniquely placed to tell the story of the Yazidis.
Since taking part in the initial training course, some of the women have gone on to help train other Yazidi girls, and are hoping to gain work as professional photojournalists.
“My dream is to succeed in this work and to help my people. That is the most important thing. No one helps us so we should help ourselves,” Khawla said.