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Addressing the Psychiatric and Political Needs of Yazidi Refugees

In 2014, the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked Yazidi settlements in Northern Iraq in their efforts to rid the region of non-Islamic influences. The Yazidi are an ethno-religious minority in Iraq, Syria and Turkey and have experienced religious discrimination and persecution for centuries. During the 2014 genocide ISIS committed heinous crimes against humanity by murdering over three thousand Yazidis and abducting even more Yazidi women and girls to force them into sexual slavery, while the abducted boys were trained and used as child soldiers for ISIS. This resulted in the displacement of the 400,000 members of the Yazidi community in Sinjar and surrounding areas. The atrocities committed by ISIS sparked outrage worldwide, but only a few Yazidis have been invited to resettle in Western countries.

Survivors had to live through some of the worst experiences imaginable: the murder of family and friends, torture, rape, slavery and the loss of their homeland. These experiences leave scars that last for a lifetime. But it is not only the survivors themselves who suffered but also other Yazidi groups around the world. Although dispersed and settled across many countries, the Yazidi community retains a strong collective identity. The genocide did not only affect those Yazidis living in Iraq at the time, it also sent shock waves through the Yazidi diaspora worldwide, many of whom still retain strong ties to the community in Iraq. With memories of fear, persecution and terror still plaguing the minds of survivors and further effects on the global community, mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and most notably post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) place a tremendous burden on the Yazidis.

Mental health treatments for PTSD that were developed in Western countries may not be readily applied to groups with experiences, cultures and languages that vastly differ from those of the patient groups they were originally intended for. Existing therapeutic approaches are therefore not readily applicable to refugee communities but require culturally sensitive adjustments. Language barriers have to be overcome, differences in attitudes towards mental health problems have to be taken into account, and issues regarding the accessibility of treatments have to be considered. It is not only individual trauma treatment that is crucial to overcome these horrendous experiences, but also the need for political support, justice, new opportunities and protection of a shared heritage that allows survivors to deal with the loss of their homeland and the assault on their culture.

The degree and type of psychological and political support available to Yazidis vary considerably by country with a clear need for consensus regarding approaches to treatment and humanitarian aid, respectively. In the coming months, we will be working on a comparative study looking at the availability and effectiveness of trauma treatments for Yazidis across the countries they fled to. We seek to systematically examine the evidence for rehabilitation for Yazidi refugees both in terms of psychiatric and political needs. We will collate academic literature, reports from governments and independent organisations, and interviews with representatives from Yazidi organisations. A challenge is the limited literature on the Yazidi case specifically, which may require us to supplement our report with evidence from mental health services for other refugee groups who have experienced similar horrors. The aim is to highlight existing needs, detail current practices and, if possible, guide future policy. Finally, we will view these findings in the context of future challenges in light of current political and societal developments, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the new refugee crisis.


Helena Gellersen is a PhD student in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Her research has involved projects on mental health, ageing and memory. Her work has led to several published systematic reviews and meta-analyses on treatments for depression.


Asha Elmi is currently a student doctor at the University of Liverpool with an interest in public health and health equality.

Imogen Davies is a final-year BA student in linguistics at the University of Cambridge with an interest in multilingualism in multicultural societies.

Alyssa Ralph is a final-year medical student at Cardiff University. She holds an undergraduate degree in epidemiology and a master’s in public health.

Jai Shende is a final-year BA student in history at the University of Cambridge. She has worked on projects on South Asian and Middle Eastern social and political history.

Maggie Zhang is a 3rd year medical student at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge and is currently doing an intercalated year studying pharmacology with a minor in the psychology of the family.


Dr. Naures Atto is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. She has a background in social anthropology and has conducted research on emigration from the Middle East to Western European countries. She is the principal investigator of the Horizon 2020 RESPOND project on multilevel governance of migration to Europe and beyond (

Further Reading

1. Allison, C. The Yazidis. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion.

2. Cetorelli, V., Sasson, I., Shabila, N., & Burnham, G. (2017). Mortality and kidnapping estimates for the Yazidi population in the area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014: a retrospective household survey. PLoS medicine14(5).


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