She was thousands of miles from Syria when the call came, but the voice on the line took her back.
The caller spoke in Arabic, addressed Melkeya by name, threatened her. “I know who you are,” he said. “Just you wait.”
Her first thought: ISIS.
In 2014, the Islamic State swept through Melkeya’s hometown in northern Iraq, killing and kidnapping thousands of Yazidis, an ancient religious minority group, in what the United Nations called a genocide. Many ended up in Syria, where the fighters claimed a capital.
At a time when others were closing their doors to refugees, Canada stepped in to help, offering to resettle more than 1,000 of the Islamic State’s most vulnerable victims, particularly Yazidi women and girls who, like Melkeya, survived sexual enslavement.
Interviews with more than two dozen people, including five Yazidi families, settlement workers, doctors, volunteers and officials, show how the Islamic State continues to haunt them, even as their caliphate crumbles, even in quiet, Canadian suburbs blanketed in snow.
“After I got that first phone call, it was like I was put back in that place,” Melkeya said. “All of those fears returned.”
The Washington Post is identifying adult refugees by only their first names to protect their safety and privacy, as well as the privacy of their children, some of whom were also enslaved.
Yazidi newcomers live with profound and persistent trauma. Some suffer rare, seizure-like episodes. They struggle to access treatment and when they do, they often find care workers, though devoted, are ill-equipped to help.
They relive their trauma through menacing messages from men who claim to be Islamic State militants, or from videos of their time in captivity, or through social media posts from the front lines.
Their pain is compounded by the fact that most have family members still held by ISIS, or missing, or languishing in refugee camps with no way out.
Melkeya was among those held as sex slaves.
When ISIS surrounded her village, Kocho, she was nine months pregnant with her first child. Days later, she gave birth to a boy and named him “Hawar” — a name used to signal a cry for help.
When the fighters moved on Kocho, they killed the men, including her husband and his brothers and father. Boys were taken to Islamic State training camps for indoctrination. Melkeya and other women and girls were loaded into buses and trucks and shipped across the territory for sale.
She and her son spent 2 ½ years in captivity before escaping to a refugee camp in northern Iraq, where she put her name on a list to come to Canada. They landed in 2017.
Melkeya and her sister-in-law, Basema, compared resettlement to being pulled from a fire. Canada rescued them from an inferno. Now they watch, skin still blistering, as others burn.
Seizures and reliving rape
Melkeya and other Yazidis arrived in Canada with fresh wounds, some just months out of captivity, and many with family still enslaved or missing.
Canadian settlement agencies, the nongovernment organizations tasked with supporting newcomers, are used to working with exceptionally vulnerable people, but they were shocked by the condition of the Yazidis, according to interviews with agencies in Calgary and Toronto.
“We were working how we normally do, which is to help refugees towards independence and empowerment, but we were doing that too soon,” said Mario Calla, executive director of the settlement agency helping Yazidi newcomers in Toronto.
Two years after the first arrivals, there are new and better programs in place, but Canada is still struggling to meet their needs.
Yazidi refugees display symptoms that most care providers are scarcely prepared to treat, including seizure-like episodes that leave women writhing on the floor, as if reliving rape.
Merely witnessing these episodes can be so troubling that care workers need support of their own. “The squealing — ” said Bindu Narula, a settlement and immigration manager at Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, pausing. “No matter who you are, it’s traumatic.”
Mohamad Elfakhani, a psychiatrist at the London Health Sciences Center hospital and professor at Western University in London, Ontario, treats Yazidis with symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, including dissociation and extreme sleeplessness.
He said their symptoms exceed what he’s seen, even compared with recent Syrian arrivals, because the concentration of extreme trauma is higher and they have less support.
There are several health and social services for Arabic-speaking newcomers to Canada, but some Yazidis have refused to receive treatment in Arabic, the language of their former captors.
Settlement agencies are still struggling to find care workers who speak the Yazidis’ Kurdish dialect. In Calgary, one Yazidi immigrant serves as interpreter and supporter to more than 100 people in distress.
Allison Henderson, a family doctor at the London InterCommunity Health Center, said the small size of the Yazidi diaspora in Canada makes it harder for newcomers to heal.
Deeply traumatized Syrian refugees drew strength from the Syrian Canadian community, she said. For Yazidis, there are simply not enough well people to create a sense of collective health.
Canadian schools are trying to assist newcomers but are not generally equipped to deal with the impact of sexual enslavement or forced indoctrination on children, settlement workers said.
A teenager from Kocho, now living in Calgary, bore two children through rape while in captivity. When she was rescued, she left them behind, she said.
Two of her brothers, now with her in Canada, spent years living alongside Islamic State fighters. They were taught to fight and forced to renounce their faith and families, one said.
The youngest, a student at a Calgary school, has refused to see a counselor.
Threatening phone calls
In Canada, women like Melkeya have found refuge but scarce relief.
Melkeya and five other Yazidi women living north of Toronto reported getting threatening calls and messages on their Canadian numbers in January.
The callers spoke and wrote in Arabic, flooding them with calls, voice messages and texts that referenced their time in captivity.
Melkeya was just wrapping a day at her government-sponsored English class when she got the first call from an unknown Canadian number.
After she hung up, another man called back, threatening her again. She started recording.
Constable Andy Pattenden of the York Regional Police confirmed that six newcomers reported harassment by phone and WhatsApp. The incidents are under investigation, he said.
It is not clear who sent the messages. Police said “spoofing apps” make it tough to determine the origin of calls.
For Melkeya, the calls brought back the feeling of the siege, stirring memories of what happened in Kocho and in the months and years after.
In February, she and Basema flipped through family portraits taken at her 2013 wedding. Basema pointed to a portrait of their extended family, noting which men were killed, which women were missing.
“Everybody, ISIS,” she said, in English, dragging her finger across the screen.
Then, she said it again, with disbelief.
A hope for reunification
Over the last few months, as U.S.-backed forces squeezed Islamic State fighters into a tiny sliver of territory, Yazidi refugees have been glued to their phones.
They scour photographs and videos for faces they know, hoping to find out what happened to relatives. The Islamic State may have lost its territory, but the terror is not over, they know.
Guli, a Yazidi woman who was held captive, said the focus of her life in Calgary is to reunite with family still in Iraq. “I don’t need anything, just my brother,” she said.
There are believed to be less than 1 million Yazidis worldwide. Before the Islamic State came, many lived in close-knit villages, surrounded by extended family. By systematically separating families, ISIS sought to sever those ties.
Among refugees and the Canadian settlement workers, doctors, social workers and volunteers that support them, there is a broad consensus that family reunification is key to their health.
“The separation, and not knowing what is happening, just provides the perpetual trauma to the women,” said Rita Watterson, a psychiatrist who works with Yazidis in Calgary.
Until families are together, it “feels a bit like we are treading water,” she said.
The problem is that even those who escape captivity may not have a clear path to Canada.
Yazidis can apply to bring spouses or dependent children to join them. That often leaves many others — parents, siblings, cousins, in-laws — stuck in camps.
Advocates want to change that, arguing that for a community to survive genocide, they must be able to re-create a sense of family, community and continuity.
“We said ‘never again,’ but that rings completely hollow when you look at what happened to the Yazidis,” said Belle Jarniewski, a child of Holocaust survivors who helped found an organization that privately sponsors Yazidi refugees in Winnipeg.
She and others are calling for the Canadian government to allow Yazidi refugees to reunite with whatever family members they have left.
Melkeya wants that, too. She is speaking out, she said, because she sees family reunification as a matter of survival — and considers all Yazidis her family.
She can’t stand to watch what’s happening in Syria and Iraq.
“The fire is still burning,” she said.