At an orphanage in Mosul, Iraq, the woman and the girl sitting on the long, gray sofa communicate mostly through touch — the girl leans against the woman, playing with her blue bead bracelet. The woman smiles as she removes the bracelet and puts it on the child’s own slender wrist.
There isn’t a lot of conversation between Kamo Zandinan, 40, and the 10-year-old girl she believes is her lost daughter. The girl, believed to have been kidnapped by ISIS when she was four, was raised by an Arab family. Zandinan, who is Yazidi, speaks only rudimentary Arabic — learned when she was forced to live among ISIS fighters who enslaved her in Syria six years ago.
Zandinan is sure that the girl, found in Mosul in March, is her daughter Sonya. The girl, until now, has only known herself as an Arab named Noor.
A DNA test will confirm whether there’s a match.
“God willing, we will get the results soon and you will have the best daughter,” orphanage director Amal Zaki Abdullah tells Zandinan. She assures her that the girl is quiet and well-behaved. “Reunions make us very happy,” she says. “God only knows what misery and sadness they have been through.”
Abdullah urges the girl to tell Zandinan about her art classes. In a soft voice, she reports she has drawn “flowers, a panda and a house.”
So far, this orphanage, currently home to 21 children, has reunited three other Yazidi children kidnapped by ISIS with their families. It posts photos of the children on Facebook and on local television, and follows up with DNA tests for possible relatives who come forward.
Zandinan examines the girl’s arm, looking for a small scar from a minor injury from a time when her family was intact before ISIS entered their Sinjar region of northern Iraq.
In the summer of 2014, she was a mother of six with a seventh on the way. Her husband Khalil was an Iraqi soldier.
ISIS roared into Iraq and Syria that August, slaughtering almost everyone who opposed it. They declared members of the ancient Yazidi religious minority infidels and embarked on a campaign of genocide. ISIS killed Yazidi men, enslaved women and kidnapped children, seeking to erase their Yazidi identity.
Several thousand Yazidis were believed to have been killed and more than 6,000 women and children were captured after Kurdish forces in charge of security withdrew. To this day, almost 3,000 Yazidis remain missing.
Zandinan’s husband and eldest son were taken away; she believes they were shot. ISIS fighters also took two of her daughters — Suzan, 13, and Sonya, 4 — ripping the younger girl screaming from her arms.
Zandinan and her four remaining children, then ranging in age from 3 years old to teenagers, were resettled in Canada as refugees three years ago. There, in March, she saw a Facebook photo sent by relatives, showing a girl found by Iraqi police in Mosul, rescued from an Arab family. Police have occasionally found Yazidi children as they look for ISIS fighters.
This child had Zandinan’s distinctive nose and the scar that her mother says she recognized.
A Canadian refugee resettlement organization agreed to pay for her ticket to return to Iraq. After pandemic restrictions eased in October, Zandinan flew to Baghdad with her two youngest children — six- and eight-year-old boys — for DNA tests to help determine whether the girl in the photo was hers. Two weeks after they arrived, the family gave more blood samples to try to identify Zandinan’s husband and eldest son Sufian from the remains exhumed from mass graves in Sinjar, filled with ISIS victims.
Her young sons, who now speak English better than their native language, don’t remember their father or eldest sibling. To them, Iraq is just the country they come from.
Like many Yazidi girls from poor families, Zandinan never went to school. Her first classes of any kind were the English lessons she took after she arrived in Canada.
The prospect of having her daughter back — she has no doubt of it — fills her with joy. But returning to Iraq has been difficult.
“Hard, hard, hard,” she says in her rudimentary English when asked what it was like to see her empty house and deserted village for the first time since ISIS overran it.
Zandinan says in 2014, the family twice made it to safety on Sinjar Mountain, where hundreds of Yazidis escaped ISIS. The first time, they received a warning from ISIS that if they didn’t return to their village, the fighters would kill all the young men still left there.
The second time, a trusted Arab friend persuaded the family to go back to their village and stay.
“He betrayed us,” she says in Kurmanji, which is spoken by Yazidis in Sinjar. “He told us, ‘Don’t go, I will help you and bring you food and I won’t let anyone touch us.’ So we returned and ISIS took us — we were more than 10 families.”
A few weeks after she and her family were captured and taken to the Iraqi city of Tel Afar, Zandinan gave birth in the house they were held in. Then, at gunpoint, ISIS took away her husband and eldest son.
“We knew they would separate us,” she says. “The only thing we wanted is to finish another day together — we never knew when it was going to happen.”
That was the day she lost Sonya too.
“The same day they took my husband and son, they gathered all of us in the yard,” she says. “They were going to kill all of us, but they sold some of us instead.”
Zandinan says her daughter Suzan, taken from her a few days later, was known for being unusually pretty, with delicate features and a heart-shaped face.
“I told them she is sick, but they tore her clothes in front of me,” says Zandinan. “It was so difficult to see her in that situation … We were holding onto each other but they beat me with a stick and she fell on the ground and I couldn’t do anything.”
“Suzan was crying and screaming, saying, ‘Mother, don’t leave me!'” Zandinan recalls, tears running down her face.
ISIS took Zandinan and her remaining children to the Syrian city of Raqqa, where she was bought and sold by a succession of ISIS fighters, including a Syrian and a Western fighter. She says some of the fighters beat the children. She tried to escape three times before relatives in Iraq managed to borrow money to pay smugglers to rescue her.
ISIS was defeated in Mosul, the capital of its self-declared caliphate, in a 2017 battle that flattened entire sections of the city. Iraqi forces are now firmly in charge, but most Yazidis are still afraid to go back.
Making the four-hour trip to the orphanage from a camp for displaced Yazidis where Zandinan stays depends on getting a ride or borrowing money for transportation. Her journey to Iraq this year has meant not only navigating the city where so many Yazidis were enslaved and suffered, but also trying to navigate the court system.
On the October day when she visited the Mosul orphanage, Zandinan also went to court to give power of attorney to her cousin, a shepherd, in case she had to return to Canada to care for her other children. The judge — seemingly unaware of what had happened to thousands of Yazidi women under ISIS — asked her why she spoke Arabic with a Syrian accent.
Three years after ISIS was defeated, thousands of Yazidi women and children remain missing. Some, enslaved and held by ISIS fighters, are believed to have been killed in battles across northern Iraq and Syria. But hundreds of others are thought to be living still with the families of ISIS members.
The younger children among them have forgotten they are Yazidi, if they ever knew it at all. There is no systematic effort by Iraqi authorities to screen children in camps housing displaced families who include ISIS members’ relatives.
Zandinan believes Suzan is still alive — living with an ISIS family like Sonya was, perhaps even still in Mosul.
“If there was serious help, I could find her,” she says. “I don’t know where she is, but my heart tells me she never left Iraq.”
Sangar Khaleel contributed to this story from Sinjar and Mosul.