[Published here July 14, 2019]
On the floor of her stuffy, dimly-lit tent in Iraq, Yazidi survivor Layleh Shemmo nimbly tugs floral pink fabric through her sewing machine, stitching together a living for her broken family.
Working in the Khanke displacement camp in the country’s northwest, Shemmo glances down at the name tattooed on her left hand: Kero, her husband, still missing five years after the Islamic State group rampaged across the Sinjar region.
At the time, IS killed Yazidi men en masse, took boys as child soldiers and sold women as “sex slaves”, with survivors streaming into ramshackle displacement camps.
They remain unable to return to Sinjar, where IS destroyed the fields and farming infrastructure that were the backbone of the ethno-religious minority’s livelihoods.
While it had long been frowned upon for Yazidi women to work publicly, survivors found themselves deprived of their family’s traditional breadwinners and with little state support.
So, they took matters into their own hands.
Dresses for a few dollars, baby clothes for the camp’s newborns, custom-made pillow cases — mother and former IS captive Shemmo can make them all, using a sewing machine and fabric donated by Sikh NGO Khalsa Aid.
“If I was sitting here with one hand on top of the other, I’d be constantly thinking about what IS did to me, why my husband isn’t here, where my two kids are, about my nine relatives still in IS hands,” says Shemmo.
“With the income from the sewing machine, I’m taking care of my son and daughters — my sister and brother-in-law, too,” she says, her eyes shining proudly behind edgy translucent glasses.
Abducted by IS when seven months pregnant, Shemmo gave birth in captivity, then was separated from her husband and children and trafficked by the jihadists, who consider Yazidis heretics.
– ‘In my heart, on my hands’ –
She and three of her children were freed, but her husband, two teenage children, and other loved ones remain missing.
“They’re always in my heart, but with these tattoos they’re on my hands too. I see them when I work,” Shemmo tells AFP.
Her pieces come in eye-popping colours: shimmering turquoise, swirling gold-and-burgundy patterns, or tropical satin prints, which she loves using for girls forced to wear head-to-toe black veils for years by IS.
“Hopefully when my daughter comes back, I can dress her in bright colours too, instead of black clothes,” she says.
But Shemmo says she will keep donning black herself until her husband, Kero, is home: “I’m still mourning.”
There is a striking absence of men in Khanke camp.
Scrawny kids dart between endless rows of tarp tents, chased by elderly Yazidi women heaving in the heat.
Over centuries and around the world, war has left communities without working males, and women step in to fill the vacuum.
The role reversal is particularly stark for the tiny, conservative Yazidi community.
“Before, in Sinjar, it was shameful for women to get jobs. Right now, it’s the opposite. Women are working more than men,” says Asima, 30, a make-up artist in the camp.
When IS attacked her hometown in 2014, her family spent nearly two weeks sleeping in the open on Mount Sinjar, before they secured safe passage down.
She has lived in Khanke ever since, opening a beauty parlour just two months ago with help from the Jinda Foundation, a local NGO which bought her makeup supplies.
“My family needed a breadwinner,” says Asima.
– ‘Girls can escape’ –
Of the 550,000 Yazidis in Iraq before 2014, around 100,000 have emigrated abroad and 360,000 remain internally displaced.
Roughly 3,300 Yazidis have returned from IS captivity in the last five years, only 10 percent of them men.
The vast majority of remaining returnees are women and girls forced by IS into “sex slavery”.
The closed-off Yazidi sect would have once excommunicated them for outside marriage.
But a landmark decree by Yazidi religious chieftain Baba Sheikh in 2014 demanded women survivors be welcomed back.
The community has yet to fully open up. Asima asked that her full name and picture not be used because her family remains conflicted about her working alone.
Around a dozen customers are packed into her salon ahead of a wedding, shouting gossip above Kurdish music and the intrusive hum of a generator outside.
Every few minutes, a power cut brings an abrupt halt to the buzz, but Asima doesn’t flinch as she daubs thick foundation and plants eyelash extensions on her teenage customer’s face.
Her makeovers cost around $8 (seven euros), while hair styling can run up to $35 for elaborate bridal updos.
But the space is more than just a business — women often come in for a reprieve from the monotony of tent life or to share tales of surviving IS, even if they’re not getting their makeup done.
“This is a place where girls can escape,” says Asima.