Zahura Sinan passes around wrapped candy to guests sitting on carpets in the family’s living room in a village in northeastern Syria. It’s to celebrate the first day of freedom for two Yazidi girls, liberated from the ISIS family who held them captive for two years.
“This is like their birthday,” says Sinan’s son Mahmoud Rasho, the Yazidi official who found the girls in a detention camp for ISIS families. For now, his family is taking care of the girls at their home near the city of Hasakah.
The rescue of two Yazidi girls — who survived a genocide that saw more than 1,000 killed and an estimated 5,000 more from this ancient religious minority held hostage — would normally be a joyous occasion.
But these girls didn’t want to be rescued.
Jeelan, 11, sits with her head bowed and her arms wrapped around her knees, a patterned brown-and-white scarf that had covered her hair wrapped around her thin shoulders like a shawl.
“I want to go back to Um Ali,” she whispers, referring to the Iraqi woman who had been pretending in camp that the girls were her daughters. “Um Ali is my real family.”
Her friend Watfa, 10, sits across the room, wearing sweatpants and a long-sleeved T-shirt in the heat and looking forlornly at the floor.
“I don’t want anything except to go back to Um Ali,” she says.
To protect their privacy, NPR is not using the girls’ surnames. Um Ali is the only name the girls know for the woman they consider their surrogate mother.
The girls speak in Arabic, learned from their ISIS captors. They’ve forgotten the Kurdish dialect spoken by Yazidis. And in these early days, still mourning the loss of the only mother they’ve known for the past two years, they say they don’t want to go back to families they barely remember.
Rasho found them in the sprawling al-Hol camp through information from another Yazidi girl he’d rescued there a week earlier. The overcrowded camp is home to more than 80,000 Syrians, Iraqis and other foreigners — most of them families of ISIS fighters.
Rasho believes there could be hundreds of captive Yazidis still with ISIS families. They include those too afraid to declare themselves Yazidi, women who gave birth after being raped by ISIS fighters and who do not want to give up their children — and some who were so young when they were taken captive, they have forgotten who they are.
Rasho, who holds an elected position in the Kurdish-led regional administration of northeastern Syria, had gone back to al-Hol the previous night, before midnight, with a female camp guard, under the guise of checking documents. Members of the group he was with blocked the entrance and exit of the large tent where Um Ali and the girls were living with dozens of other families.
“There was a woman who said, ‘Those are my girls,'” Rasho says, referring to Um Ali. “I said, ‘Come with your girls.’ We went to the camp directorate.”
Watfa and Jeelan were 5 and 6 when they were kidnapped. Neither remembers her own last name.
Rasho sent their photos to contacts in the Sinjar region of Iraq, where their families are from, and within 10 minutes the children had been identified.
The girls had a few minutes in the office to say goodbye to a tearful Um Ali before Rasho took them away, sobbing.
Jeelan and Watfa had been kidnapped with relatives but then were separated from them. They were being kept at a guesthouse for ISIS fighters when Um Ali, a widow, took them to live with her two years ago.
“She was selling girls. She was marrying them off when they were two or three years older than these girls,” says Rasho.
But Jeelan and Watfa saw her only as a maternal protector. They don’t remember being kidnapped by ISIS. Jeelan says Um Ali took them in when they had no one to care for them.
“She raised me. She would tell me, ‘This is OK — this is not OK. This is good, this is not good,'” she says through tears. Um Ali taught her how to read and write.
‘She was nice to us,” Watfa says.
Rasho asks Jeelan if she remembers Sinjar in Iraq, and if she wants to see her family — her father, her brother and sister, waiting for her there.
She says no.
Yazidi girls and young women don’t cover their hair, but Jeelan says she likes wearing the niqab — a black cloak that covers everything but the face — because “God says we need to wear it.”
She and Watfa have never seen TV. They used to watch a program on a cellphone about the lives of the prophets.
The two girls say they don’t remember anything about being Yazidi. They talk of following the Quran and seem to consider themselves practicing Muslims.
They ended up at the camp earlier this year, after the terror and hardship of the last days of the ISIS caliphate — airstrikes, mortars and near-starvation, as U.S.-backed Kurdish forces battled the group that had once controlled tens of thousands of square miles in Iraq and Syria.
Despite that, Jeelan says life was easier with her ISIS family than it is now. “More normal,” she says. She doesn’t understand these unfamiliar people, Yazidis, who claim they are her people.
Rasho and his family have opened up their home to almost 150 Yazidi women and children rescued from ISIS — some of them wounded; all of them traumatized. He and his wife and mother take care of them until the freed women and children obtain approval from Kurdish authorities to cross the border back to Iraq.
“Don’t cry, Jeelan. Don’t cry,” Rasho’s teenage daughter Haya, dressed in jeans and a pink T-shirt, tells the rescued girl. She tells the girls they will get them new clothes. Jeelan cries even more.
Rasho says when some rescued children go back to their families in Sinjar, they insist on wearing the niqab and saying Muslim prayers five times a day. He says this phase passes.
A Yazidi boy, rescued by Rasho a few days earlier from the al-Hol camp, lies sprawled on a foam mat in front of a television, entranced by cartoons. He was 7 years old when he was enslaved by an Iraqi ISIS fighter, who put him to work as a shepherd and regularly beat him.
Now 12, Haval has a ready smile and chipped front teeth. Despite the horror he has been through, he seems to be adjusting. He doesn’t speak Kurdish anymore, but says when he was alone, he used to remind himself that he was Yazidi and think of the village where he came from.
“Sometimes I would talk to myself about Sinjar, but I made sure they didn’t hear me,” he says.
His few Yazidi friends either disappeared or were killed in airstrikes. After that, he didn’t have anyone to talk to about Sinjar. When he wasn’t in the fields looking after sheep and goats, sometimes he would sit in his room and cry in secret, thinking about his family.
Haval says the ISIS family he was with kept trying to teach him the Quran.
“I acted like I can’t learn,” he says. “They told me, ‘When you grow up, you will fight the Americans.’ I would say ‘yes, yes,’ but in my mind I would say ‘no.’ ”
Haval is from a village near Kocho, the site of the worst massacre of the ISIS genocide against Yazidis in Iraq’s Sinjar region. Hundreds of men and older boys were rounded up and shot there in 2014. Haval’s family was captured by ISIS when their car broke down as they were trying to escape to Sinjar mountain.
Haval has no news about his father and mother, and a brother who is still missing.
He saw one of his sisters — a few years older than him, she was bought and sold by a series of ISIS fighters — just once in Baghouz, the Syrian village where ISIS made its last stand.
“They brought her to me and we sat for a little while,” he says. “And then they took her away.”
They asked each other if they had heard any news about the rest of the family. They hadn’t. The ISIS fighter who owned his sister drove her away on a motorcycle. Haval says he ran after them, crying, until he fell down in the street.
But now she is free and Haval is desperate to see her. She is waiting for him in Sinjar. In a video call with another sister, now in the Netherlands, he asks again if there is any news of their parents. There isn’t.
Rasho takes Watfa outside and up the stairs to a windy rooftop, where the reception is better for a video call with her mother and other relatives, now living in Canada.
“You don’t know Kurdish?” one of the relatives keeps asking. “You have to speak Kurdish, no Arabic.”
“They love you and they want to talk to you,” Rasho tells Watfa later. “Aren’t they better than Um Ali?”
“No,” she says. But she is smiling now.
Haya tells Watfa they can watch cartoons together — or a Bollywood film. The girls have never seen one.
Instead, Watfa puts on a pink outfit that completely covers her hair and body, to recite Islamic prayers. Jeelan retrieves the black niqab she was rescued in the night before. She clutches it anxiously and then puts it on, a serene smile on her face. Haya takes the younger girl’s hand reassuringly.
It’s hard now, says Rasho. But after a month at home, he’s confident the girls will remember who they were before ISIS.