Brave. Resilient. Hopeful.
These are the words that Olivia Henderson uses to describe the young Yazidi women she lived with last summer in northern Iraq. Young women who, despite being brutally beaten, raped and bought and sold into sex slavery at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria regime, held on to a flicker of hope.
The girls and women, ages 10 to 38, represented the thousands abducted after ISIS captured Mosul in August 2014. They also are among the dozens who have found short-term sanctuary at a Crisis Response International-sponsored safe house in Kurdistan, where Henderson worked with some of the worst cases of unimaginable sexual abuse and trauma.
The Yazidis belong to one of Iraq’s oldest ethnic and religious minorities and have a long history of oppression and persecution. According to the United Nations, roughly 40,000 were forced to flee to Mount Sinjar in Iraq’s northwest region in August 2014. An additional 130,000 sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan to the north. ISIS killed most of the men and claimed that the Quran justified capturing and raping non-Muslim women.
A member of the Grants Pass-based Rebecca Bender Ministries team, the 21-year-old Henderson recalls story after story of “amazing” escapes and rescue efforts by CRI and a number of other humanitarian organizations.
They survived through sheer will and ingenuity, Henderson said.
One girl escaped after being moved to four different countries by ISIS, who sold her from one soldier to another. Another young woman tried and failed to escape her handcuffs six times, and on the seventh attempt managed to give her captors the slip dressed as an ISIS soldier. She went to a nearby hospital where rescuers disguised her as a Muslim woman and led her to safety.
Henderson discovered that many of the girls, whose average age was 14 to 18, were big fans of Bollywood movies, and evidently took their cues for escape from the films. She said a cellphone is often a girl’s lifeline to the outside world, and so they invented ways to hide their phones. Some dug out holes in the grout-lined tiles of their protective cells, while others re-wired and re-charged dead phones.
Henderson said she never thought of herself as especially courageous, even after learning that the safe house she served in was only an hour away from Mosul — the hub of ISIS activity and the headquarters for the regime’s sex slave market.
"We were so focused on the girls, intent on serving, I had no fear and I did not feel threatened,” she said, even when the American embassy issued alerts to stay out of the marketplace.
“Of course we went,” she said. “The girls had to eat.”
Henderson said she jumped at the chance when the opportunity to go to Iraq presented itself earlier this year.
“I said, ‘Sure, I'll sell my car; do whatever it takes.’ ”
Bender, herself a survivor of sex trafficking in the United States, has helped develop seven safe homes here and abroad. She assisted CRI when the Tennessee-based operation began working with the Iraqi government to organize a program for the victims of ISIS’s sex trafficking trade.
CRI offers a haven to 10-15 young women at each safe house. Although the organization is faith-based, there is no evangelizing in the predominantly Muslim community.
Henderson said that the girls’ basic needs are met first: shelter, clothing, blankets and food. The staff also includes a female doctor and a female trauma therapist.
“There is little food in the refugee camps,” Henderson said. Living conditions are extreme in the rugged, mountainous region where winter nights are frigid and summer days can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thousands of Yazidis have found asylum in Europe, and many of the girls and women who leave the safe houses will go to Germany, Henderson said.
“While others never want to see Iraq again, some choose to never leave Iraq,” she added. “They are holding out for the day when they are reunited with their families — even when they don’t know if they are dead or alive — and marry their boyfriends and become moms.”
The young women, many with just a third-grade education, couldn’t write about their experiences, and instead used art, games and dance to process their trauma, she said.
CRI estimates that more than 3,000 Yazidis are still in ISIS captivity. Suicide has become a way of escape for many of the girls still there.
“There are 17 (suicides) I know of,” Henderson said. “It’s hard to hear that.”
Since returning from Iraq, Henderson has shared her experience countless times. At first exhausted from “pouring out my heart,” she is now eager to work in any way she can to fight sex trafficking, whether in the U.S. or overseas.
And, when the funds allow, maybe return to Iraq.
“The door’s open,” she said.