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Inside Iraq

What women need most after life in isolation under ISIS

For two long years, women and girls in Mosul were kept inside by ISIS, away from the outside world—and each other. After escaping to camps east of the city, women say that what they need most is space to be together. Text by Zena Itani

  • Intisar is exhausted. When the battle for Mosul began in October, she fled in the night with her husband and six children. They finally got to Zelikan camp, now home to over 5,500 displaced Iraqis. 

    Like most women, Intisar brought with her painful stories. “[Before ISIS] we had a normal life. They drove it all away. I couldn’t leave my house; they would whip my husband if they ever saw me outside. Before ISIS came, my girls were in school. Afterwards, I didn’t let them leave the house.” Photo: Theresa Breuer/IRC 

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  • For women and girls, the camp is an unsettling new world, with rows of identical tents, shared toilets, and lines to get food and supplies. 

    Suzan Hasan, a clinical social worker leading the IRC’s mobile emergency response team in Zelikan, explains: “Women tend to stay in the tents. They don’t trust the outside, they are still afraid for their safety. Usually only men and kids are outside.” Photo: Theresa Breuer/IRC 

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  • IRC social workers and community mobilizers go from tent to tent in Zelikan, listening to what women need. Their biggest requests? Underwear, warm clothes, blankets and diapers. 

    The IRC provides kits with sanitary pads, underwear and soap to help women feel more comfortable. As they have their basic needs met, women begin to open up about isolation and abuse. Photo: Theresa Breuer/IRC

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  • At the same time, the mobile team creates safe places for girls to play and learn. In a week-long beading workshop, 20 girls pile into an activity tent for an hour each day to make jewelry. An IRC social worker facilitates the session, using a powerful combination of structured play and psychosocial support to help girls cope with the trauma they’ve experienced. Photo: Rachel Howard/IRC

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  • “If we stay in our tents, we just think about what happened to us. When we come here, we learn and get to know each other,” says one teen as she threads red beads for a necklace. “For some girls, this is the first time in two years they are seeing and playing with other girls,” says Suzan. Photo: Rachel Howard/IRC

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  • The activity is a hit. Girls show off their beadwork to applause from the group. Seeing their daughters thrive is another healing step for women. These mothers start to discuss difficult situations of violence and abuse with the mobile team. They also start to talk about their future. Now, they’re asking for sewing and literacy classes to build skills for the long-term. Photo: Rachel Howard/IRC  

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  • Two months after fleeing, and over two years after being cut off from each other by ISIS, women at Zelikan are reconnecting. Sitting in the IRC’s new sewing class, one woman looks at the group around her. “This is the first time in two years we can sit together and talk,” she says, her voice tinged with relief and appreciation. “We had to stay at home, alone. We forgot how to laugh and how to smile. Now, we are so happy to be together! We will try to forget what happened to us by spending time together.” Photo: Theresa Breuer/IRC 

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