WASHINGTON - An orphanage in Kurdish-administered northeastern Syria has been taking in children of Yazidi women who have been raped by Islamic State fighters.
Orphanage officials say their goal is to ensure these children are raised properly until their future is determined.
Ruken Ahmed, co-chair of the Women’s Liberation Committee, the group running the orphanage, told VOA that hundreds of Yazidi women and children were freed during the recent campaign against IS in eastern Syria.
“We have documented 210 children freed with their mothers during the liberation battle, most of them were kidnapped with their mothers. Currently, we are taking care of 36 children from IS fathers, all under (age) 5, in our orphanage,” Ahmed said.
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared victory over IS after capturing the last stronghold of the terror group in eastern Syria.
During that offensive, thousands of civilians, including many Yazidi captives, were freed from IS militants. SDF officials say about 850 Yazidi women and children have been rescued since 2015.
Ahmed said that children born to Yazidi fathers have been handed over to their Yazidi community, but those who were born to IS fathers are taken to the newly established orphanage.
The children's fate has been the center of debate recently. In April, the Yazidi Spiritual Council, the highest authority among Yazidis, called on its members to accept all Yazidi survivors of IS atrocities.
A few days later, however, the council issued another statement in which it excluded children born of IS rape.
This situation has left Yazidi women who survived IS with two options: abandon their children or remain living in Syrian refugee camps.
Orphanage officials said it is difficult for many Yazidi mothers to leave their children behind, but they do because “these children are a reminder of the ordeal and stigma these women have endured."
Ahmed added that some of the women have kept in touch with their children after going back to their families.
Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority of about 550,000 people, mostly residing in Sinjar, northern Iraq.
A Yazidi must be born into the faith. Conversion by an outsider is not accepted. The faith does not recognize marriage between Yazidis and non-Yazidis.
At its peak in 2014, IS fighters seized Sinjar. The terror group subsequently killed hundreds of Yazidi men and enslaved several thousand Yazidi women and girls in atrocities that amounted to genocide, according to the United Nations.
Once rescued, Yazidi women and their children are taken to the Yazidi House in Qamishli, northeastern Syria.
The Yazidi House coordinates with local authorities and community leaders in Sinjar to locate the women’s families.
“Some of these women have lost all their family members, so we look for any remaining extended relatives to take them in,” Hussein Hajji, co-chair of the Autonomous Administration in Sinjar, told VOA.
Hajji added that they inform the women they cannot bring their IS-born children with them to Sinjar.
“We have brought back about 730 women from Syria,” Hajji said. “We don’t have an exact number of children born of IS fathers, but I can estimate that roughly the number reaches 100 children.”
Yazidi officials and advocacy groups say more than 3,000 abducted members of their community are still missing.
Returning to their families does not end the ordeal of female Yazidi survivors, activists say.
Saad Bapir of the Yazda Organization, a Yazidi advocacy group, says the Iraqi government and Yazidi leadership have a responsibility to support the survivors and help mediate with their families to ensure a smooth reintegration.
If these efforts “reach a dead end, then the international community and the U.N. must step in and undertake the responsibility of relocating them in a country that welcomes refugees,” Bapir told VOA.