Those We’ve Lost
Dr. Ghafouri helped survivors of an ISIS genocide and reunited formerly enslaved women with children taken from them. She died of Covid-19.
April 7, 2021
That Nemam Ghafouri was born in a cave might be one of the least remarkable things about her. It was the 1960s, and her mother went into labor in the mountains of what is now the Kurdistan region of Iraq as she was fleeing with her other children from Iraqi government forces.
Like tens of thousands of other victims of Saddam Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds, the family sought refuge in Iran before moving to Sweden as refugees. Dr. Ghafouri went on to study medicine in Sweden and in Hungary and become a cardiothoracic surgeon. She participated in aid missions in India and Ethiopia. Then she returned to Iraq, to help Syrian refugees flooding across the border to the Kurdistan region.
She died on April 1 in a hospital in Stockholm. She was 52. Her sister Nazdar Ghafouri said the cause was complications of Covid-19.
After the Islamic State took over large parts of northern Iraq in 2014 and embarked on a genocidal campaign against the country’s small Yazidi religious minority, killing up to 10,000 and capturing 6,000 more, most of them women and children, Dr. Ghafouri was one of the first aid workers to arrive at the border help the refugees, many wounded and traumatized.
She founded a small aid organization called Joint Help for Kurdistan and set up a clinic in one of the camps where thousands of displaced Yazidi families still live. About half of those captured are still missing.
In March, she helped lead an unprecedented mission to reach a dozen children being held in a Kurdish-Syrian orphanage on the Syrian-Iraqi border and reunite them with their young Yazidi mothers, who had been forced to abandon them.
The women had given birth after they were sexually enslaved by ISIS fighters. But when they were freed two years ago with the fall of the last piece of ISIS territory in Syria, Yazidi elders had forced them to give up the children if they wanted to return home to Iraq. The elders do not accept children born to ISIS fathers and view any reunions with their mothers as an existential threat to their religion. They accused Dr. Ghafouri of meddling in their affairs.
While many of the mothers willingly left their infants behind, dozens of others have been devastated by the separation. Some have attempted suicide.
Image In a school building in the town of Kocho in northern Iraq, photos are displayed showing some of the hundreds of villagers massacred by ISIS there. Most of the victims’ remains are still in mass graves waiting to be identified.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
Dr. Ghafouri had gone back and forth to the orphanage for more than two years, despite government opposition, the Yazidi community’s hostility and the inaction of large aid organizations in reuniting the women and children.