'The hardest thing you could ever imagine': Yazidi cousins who fled ISIS reunite in Winnipeg
Published Sunday, February 4, 2018 2:16PM EST
Two Yazidi cousins who went their separate ways in a frantic escape from ISIS have been unexpectedly reunited in Canada, where they’re hoping to build a new life in Winnipeg.
Laila Mishko and Hari Moussa never thought they’d see each other again after the Islamic State attacked their northern Iraq village in August 2014, capturing Moussa and forcing Mishko to seek shelter on the unforgiving slopes of Mount Sinjar. Both managed to escape the Islamic State’s clutches, but it wasn’t until recently that each discovered the other was alive and living in the same Canadian city.
“I did not know that Laila was here – that anybody we knew was going to be here,” Moussa said through an interpreter Saturday, at a gathering of Winnipeg’s growing Yazidi community. Approximately 450 members of the ethno-religious group now reside in Winnipeg, thanks to efforts from the federal government and groups such as Operation Ezra, a community-based initiative that privately sponsored many of the Yazidis to come to Canada.
Mishko was one of those who came over through Operation Ezra, following a harrowing experience on the run from ISIS. She was among the thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq who climbed Mount Sinjar to escape the forces of the Islamic State, only to face severe heat and potential starvation. Others, including Moussa, wound up captured before they could get away.
“It’s the hardest thing you could ever imagine, having to not only separate from your villagers but from your family members,” Mishko said through an interpreter on Saturday.
She spent seven days hiding from ISIS on Mount Sinjar, where there was no water and people were left to eat nothing but sand and leaves.
“Hundreds of children and elderly people died of starvation and dehydration,” she said. “Many committed suicide. Many people got killed on the run.”
The Yazidis’ ordeal on Mount Sinjar captured international attention, prompting U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish ground resistance against the encroaching ISIS forces. The U.S. also dropped aid packages on the mountain to help the Yazidis stay alive.
Mishko says those efforts saved thousands of lives, including her own.
ISIS was eventually driven away and Mishko wound up in a refugee camp, until Operation Ezra brought her over to Canada in December 2016.
Mishko’s cousin, Moussa, faced a longer road back, after falling into ISIS hands on the day of the attack.
“We were captured in the early morning,” she said. “By late in the afternoon, men were separated from the women and girls and they took us to another location where other ISIS fighters were waiting for us.”
Moussa, who was pregnant, was loaded onto a bus with her son, who was a toddler at the time. She lost track of her husband in the ordeal and still has not found him.
But Moussa didn’t have to wait long for a chance to escape. A passing helicopter spooked the ISIS fighters to run away from the bus she was in, and another prisoner leaped into the driver’s seat and drove them away from their captors altogether.
Moussa later walked 30 kilometres through the mountains as part of the escape, before winding up in the refugee camp system.
Moussa just arrived in Canada as a government-sponsored refugee with her sister, who was also captured by ISIS and did not escape for three years.
Moussa says she is depressed, but trying to see hope in her reunion with her long-lost cousin.
“It’s good to know that you have family members who’ve welcomed me and who are telling me it’s OK,” she said. “The dust will settle and everything will be OK.”
Mishko says she’s thrilled to have family members from her old life present to help her build a new one in Canada. “We are beyond excited and I could not believe when I heard that my cousins arrived here,” she said.
The cousins are now hoping to bring Moussa’s brother-in-law over to Canada, so they can add one more piece of their old life to the new one they’re building in Winnipeg.
With files from CTV Winnipeg's Sarah Plowman