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Bringing family together after the horrors of war

Hayfa is on a search to find her husband. She last saw him when they were separated by fighters in their Yazidi village, in northern Iraq.

WARNING: This story contains content some readers may find distressing

It's five years since Hayfa and her children last saw her husband and their father.

Hayfa is a Yazidi woman from the Singjar District of northern Iraq. In 2014 the world watched in horror as Yazidi communities were surrounded and attacked, with reports of mass murder, trafficking of women and children enlisted in the militia.  

Now living in the regional Queensland town of Toowoomba, Hayfa looks like the other young mothers in the playground. But the smiles and laughter are far from Hayfa’s previous life.

What she wants now is to build a life for herself and her two sons in Australia and finally find out what happened to her husband, Ghazi. She last saw Ghazi as fighters separated them in their village.

Hayfa with photos of herself and her husband taken on their wedding day

Survival in extremes

Through a translator Hayfa describes the dreadful day when fighters came to her home village of Kocho and captured the entire Yazidi community.

“They took all of us to the school. First they took our men – all of them. Then they took the girls. They took the old ladies. I don’t know what happened to the old ladies.”

Hayfa says she was taken and sold in a small group of women. In the days and weeks that followed, any woman caught with a mobile phone was killed.

It was the start of a three-year ordeal during which she estimates she was bought and sold as many as 20 times, experiencing sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her captors.

“I stayed with him [my captor] for one and a half years… I suffered a lot with him. He tortured me.”

Among many horrific episodes was a one-month ordeal when her captors took her son for a month. She was starved and beaten. Eventually they were reunited, only to be sold again the next week.

Eventually Hayfa was released. She arrived in Australia in 2018 under a humanitarian visa.

Hayfa receives support from the government-funded settlement program, including English language lessons.

Walking to school with her boys in Australia

Living for family

Hayfa says she feels relieved and safe living in Australia and her new life revolves around her two energetic young boys.

“I am living for my children. I am very comfortable here. Any person who comes here would be very comfortable and happy. I have stayed three years with ISIS. Three years of suffering. I am alright here, but I am still not complete. I am alone here. I don’t have a mother or father (as they are dead) but I don’t have my siblings.”

Hayfa is working with migration lawyers to have her siblings migrate to Australia.

Her other focus is working to trace what happened to her husband Ghazi.

Hayfa has opened a case with Red Cross to help her find out what happened to her husband since they were separated all those years ago.  

She says she is grateful for the support she receives from Sue Callendar, Red Cross field officer in our Restoring Family Links program. 

The pair have a strong rapport. When they meet up in a Toowoomba park, Hayfa hugs Sue and shares news of her boys.

Sue has supplies for the family, and passes on information about progress on tracing Hayfa's missing husband

Hayfa works with Red Cross tracing worker Sue Callendar to find her husband

Search for answers

Australian Red Cross is currently working on 60 cases relating to over 300 missing Yazidi people.

Searches are usually initated by loved ones who move to Australia.

 Australian Red Cross works with Red Cross and Red Crescent in Syria and Iraq to search for the missing and determine the fate of a large number of people from the Yazidi community, Red Cross Manager Protection, Migration Support Programs, Nic Batch explains.

“The impact on the families of the missing is enormous and can affect all aspects of their lives, with the pain and uncertainty of not knowing the fate or whereabouts of their loved one.

“It’s a big and important job. The vast majority of missing Yazidi cases we are working on relate to the attack on the Sinjar region of northern Iraq in August 2014. Many of missing family members are likely to be deceased."

In 2018-19, Australian Red Cross offered tracing services in 1084 cases, relating to over 2348 missing people.  Globally, by the end of 2018, Red Cross was following at least 139,000 cases of missing persons in the world. Sadly the number of missing people has doubled in 2018 compared to just three years earlier.

“This year we’re marking the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions which are the modern foundations of the laws of war," says Nic Batch.

"The right of families to know the fate of their loved ones and prohibitions against torture and sexual violence are all enshrined in these laws. While there’s been significant progress over the past 70 years, it’s clear we need to redouble our efforts to promote respect for the laws of war around the world to prevent stories like Hayfa’s happening to women who are living in conflict zones across the globe.

"We can and must do better.”

Story and photos: Susan Cullinan

If you would like to help refugees and asylum seekers living in Australia

Watch ABC TV's 7.30 report on our work to support Hayfa