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Widowed by ISIS: Yazidi Women Find Strength in Motherhood

Yazidi widows face solitude and restricted freedoms as single women, but find courage and strength to protect their children.

In a barren camp in north Iraq a group of Yazidi women from Sinjar discuss the daunting task of being single female heads of household in a patriarchal society.

As is the case for countless Iraqi widows, their husbands were violently killed by the Islamic state (ISIS) in 2014 when the militants took control of the Sinjar region, once home to Iraq's largest Yazidi population.

Over 5,000 Yazidi men were estimated to have been killed while thousands of women and children were abducted and sold among residents of ISIS' so-called caliphate.

Today their future is uncertain - marred by financial insecurities, the stigma of being single and restricted freedom of movement.

Above: A young mother of five, 23-year-old Haifa Haji Khudida was widowed when she was just 21 following ISIS' takeover of her village.

Erin Trieb

As women without husbands they cannot leave their homes without a male relative to accompany them, making them unemployable and therefore unable to provide for the family.

The unofficial camp where the women live is a spillover from the official Khanke camp nearby.

Unlike the U.N.-run camp, this cluster of tents is not gated, nor is there any security, highly increasing the women's vulnerability.

In spite of the challenges ahead and the solitude that comes of losing a husband, all seven women remained resilient and spoke of a common source of strength: their children.

 

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What gives me strength are my children, I love them a lot and wouldn't abandon them never.

Haifa Haji Khudida with her daughter Elin, 2.

Erin Trieb

When ISIS attacked he asked me to take my sons and daughters and go, he stayed to fight. I wanted to stay but I was worried about my children, so when he asked, I did it - he was killed that day.

Two days later our relatives brought his body back.

He was a very gentle and brave man with a kind heart. I'm very proud of him because he faced the people who wanted to take his honor.

It's very different for me since he left; I'm not a free woman like when my husband was with me. People don't visit me as much anymore and my movement is restricted.

 

 

Pakiza Melhem, 35, married her husband when she was just 12 years old. She wears black in mourning.

Erin Trieb

I wish I was the one who was shot that day because this life is hard to face without a husband - but my children help me go on. I stand by them and they stand by me.

[This situation] would be easier for him because he'd be able to remarry - I have nine children, I can't remarry. I would have to leave the children with my husband's family.

I will change [my mourning clothes] when I see my children get their own lives, grow and marry - when I'm happy again I will change.

 

Pakiza Melhem with four of her eight children Anwar Murad Khalaf, 7, Alin Murad Khalaf, 4, Avin Murad Khalaf, 5, and Marwa Murad Khalaf, 8. The rest of the children were in school.

Erin Trieb

We all fled to the mountain but he refused to come because he wanted to stay behind and take care of the cattle.

After two days I spoke to him on the phone, I asked him to come to the mountain. He was preparing to leave, but ISIS came to the house and forced him out, they told him to convert but he refused and they shot him.

 

Shireen Qassem Khudaida, 60, is a no-nonsense kind of woman - a result of having raised 13 children. She is matter-of-fact about the problems that she faces.

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One of my sons is a Peshmerga [Kurdish military] but he isn't getting a salary, another son used to have a job but now has back problems and can't work.

We used to depend on one million Iraqi Dinar ($900 US) from the government but that's finished too.

 

Shireen Qassem Khudaida and her kids, left to right: Nashwan Mirza Khudaida, 8, Sabah Mirza Khudaida, 9, Salim, 13, Sufjan Mirza Khudaida, 7 (behind mother), Serwan Mirza Khudaida, 6, and Hana Mirza Khudaida.

Erin Trieb

Shireen Qassem Khudaida holds a photograph of her children who she believes are still being held captive by ISIS militants.

Erin Trieb

My husband closed up the house and tried to find cars in which to place us so that we could escape to the mountain. We stayed on the mountain for one week.

It was very hard for me, many times I wished I was with my husband wherever he may be. For those who have lost their husbands, it would be better to have lost themselves.

When I think of him and how he left us I want to leave everything, but I think of my daughters and I can't leave them.

 

Fatuma Aziz, 21, lost her husband when she was only 19. While she fled to Mt. Sinjar with her two daughters, he stayed behind to protect the village. They have not heard from him since.

Erin Trieb

I need financial support, I sell the food the government gives us and use the cash for other needs like milk and clothes for my daughters.

What keeps me going are my husband and daughters, I hope my daughters will be able to see their father again - I think that he will come back.

 

Fatuma Aziz and her daughters.

Erin Trieb

When ISIS surrounded our village they took us to a chicken farm, there they separated us [women] from the men. They took the men away and that's when we heard the gunshots.

I knew they had killed them, the bullets didn't make the same noise a bullet makes when you shoot it in the air. [Then] I saw his dead body.

I ran away, hid in a village for three days and then climbed Mt. Sinjar.

Many things have changed [since then]. It’s hard, he supported me, protected us and raised the children. When he was at home many people would come and visit but now that he’s not here, I am alone. I am lonely.

 

Mayan Badal Khalaf, 45, and her husband were married for 27 years and had nine children. In August 2014, the couple was captured by ISIS and separated.

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I am strong but my heart is broken. My strength comes from my children, if I want to support them I have to be strong. I miss him but I do it alone, I tell my children: this is life.

It's the simple things - like when I need to buy something from the market, now there is no one to do it and I cannot go by myself. I have to take a relative to do the simplest of things.

I wish I had a salary to provide for my family, if I did I wouldn't let my daughters work. I worry because they could be attacked by men, but they have to work because we are in need.

Mayan Badal Khalaf with three of her nine children.

Erin Trieb

At 5am we ran to the mountain, I carried my youngest girl all the way to the Syrian border - I thought she was going to die of thirst or starvation.

We stayed on the mountain for seven days, sleeping in the open. I lost my mother there.

As an individual I was very strong before, but after what happened in Sinjar and the fears that we face I am scared inside, not for myself but for my children.

 

Airo Qassem Hayder was widowed in January 2014. Her husband, a soldier, was killed while on patrol in Mosul city. Seven months later she was forcefully displaced from her village by ISIS militants.

Erin Trieb

Sometimes I feel like there is no life after what happened [to us]. But I made a promise to my husband's soul: that I would take care of our children. During the day I take care of them, but at night when I go to sleep there are tears on my face.

It's a big challenge for a single woman to raise four children, [unlike a man] a woman can't find a job to support her family. If I was a man I would be married again and continuing with my life, as a woman I have lost my life - but despite that, I am raising four children on my own.

The thing that makes me strong are my children. My greatest hope is to see my children go to school, see for them a future that is better than what me and my husband had.

 

Airo Qassem Hayder and her three children.

Erin Trieb

My husband sent us away [to Mt. Sinjar] with other people and he stayed behind. He called us and said he was on his way to us - but five minutes later they caught him. We never heard from him again.

I don't go around by myself because people talk, it is shameful to go around alone. They'll say: at least she could take a man with her. But there is no one that can help because they are all busy with their own families.

It's unfair because there are so many women who don't have men to accompany them but they have to stand on their own two feet and provide for their families.

 

Layla Murad Yousef, 38, seldom ventures outside her tent alone in fear that her community might consider her immoral. Her husband's body has yet to be found, but he was likely killed when ISIS captured their village almost two years ago.

Erin Trieb

Each morning my son kisses me on both cheeks and says: it's one for your and one for dad.

I depend on my daughters financially. I've only two sons and they are both too young [to work].

Many people have told me to leave the country, I tell them I can't because I still feel that my husband will come back. I still feel that one day God will send him back to us, we've not lost hope.

 

Layla Murad Yousef and her children, Haani Azad Hassan, 13, Randa Azad Hassan, 8, Hyen Azad Hassan, 5, and Amar Azad Hassan.

Erin Trieb / Erin Trieb

My husband stayed behind to help open the way to the mountain - I rejected going to Mt. Sinjar without him but he forced me and promised he would come back.

We were together for four years, when I went to the mountain was the first time he ever forced me to do something - he was a good man.

 

Khansa Khudida Ali, 20, lives with her mother in law. Both women have lost everything and lean on each other for comfort.

Erin Trieb

Now I've no freedom to move, if I want to go alone to places it's shameful.

I need him to stand by me to bring up the children together, my daughter needs her father. He was the man that every girl wants as a father.

 

Khansa Khudida Ali and her daughter, Asima Yusef Khalaf, 1.

 

See more of NBC News' coverage of the ISIS terror threat.

Erin Trieb