I no longer like to say that my heart breaks. That phrase is used so widely now, it’s as if all of us are walking around with hearts broken daily. People’s hearts break for Harry and Meghan, for losers in a contest or a reality show, for a TV show that’s been canceled or a movie that didn’t win an Oscar.
For me, heartbreak carries immensity. The heart isn’t just any organ; any organ breaking inside our body would be trouble enough, but a heart breaking? There’s power there, there’s depth there. It’s not just another way to be sorry.
And that’s what I felt when I read a New York Times article about Yazidi mothers reunited with their children. It’s about Yazidi women, kidnapped when they were girls by ISIS fighters (many after watching their fathers and brothers killed), then raped, given away, or sold by one ISIS fighter to another, and giving birth. When they were rescued, their children were taken away from them, put into a Syrian orphanage while the mothers returned to their Yazidi community in Iraq, which had barely begun to recover from its own genocide by ISIS. There they were given a choice: stay with their family and community without the children, or go back to Syria to reclaim their children and never return to their family again.
The article is about the mothers who chose to leave their Yazidi loved ones, the parents and siblings who survived, cross the border into Syria, claim children who don’t even remember their mothers, stay with them in a refugee camp, and hope and pray that a third country—not Syria or Iraq—will permit them entry where they could build a new life with the children of the ISIS fighters who so horribly abused them, even killing their families of origin.
The trauma of the Yazidi community is so great that no family wants those children there; some have threatened to kill the children if the mothers ever brought them back.
What women, I thought to myself. What mothers! Who can explain this? A young woman barely past puberty is raped and tortured, giving birth to a baby whose father may have killed the rest of her family, clings to that baby so deeply that she’ll leave the only place she’s ever called home, facing their outrage and suffering, hoping against hope that she’ll get a visa to a Western country where she’ll struggle to make a decent living for herself and that child in the midst of strangers.
The story seemed to cut through all the bullshit of day-to-day life, all the petty concerns, fears and antagonisms, the hyper vigilance and control, to say: Look what is possible in a human being. Look at what we’re made of!
At times, the desire to nurture life is even greater than the desire for life itself. These girls may well be illiterate; the only shelter and haven they know is their family and community, the bounds of their old, safe world, and they give that up to care for children conceived in rape and violence.
We’re made of stars, they say, but what can possibly compare with this? I couldn’t come up with a word to do it justice: Love? Sacrifice?
I have an aunt who wouldn’t surrender a tiny boy to Dr. Mengele and elected to go with the baby to the gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Had they lived, I have no idea what kind of mother she would have been, I simply know that that story—and of so many who chose like her—has been deeply embedded inside me since I was a young child.
Motherhood is available in this very flawed species; not just ours, I’m not so arrogant to believe that. Nevertheless, my heart broke, not because the article was sad but because it pointed to something deep and immense, to a group of young women, terrorized to the edge of their lives, who manage to be so human at such a cost.
One of the women who gets food cards from us has a prolapsed uterus, which means that the uterus has collapsed, torn through the cervix and now juts out of the vagina. The terrible thing is, she had no idea what it was or what was happening to her. A single mother with three children, the pain started four months ago and got worse and worse, and soon she was terrified by what was emerging from her vagina, which got bigger and bigger, making it so difficult to pee.
She works as a dishwasher in a restaurant and could barely lift the heavy pots and pans to wash them. She had no medical insurance so, of course, she didn’t go to any doctor.
Finally, she took a photo of herself, legs splayed, and sent it to Jimena, who showed it to me on Wednesday. I talked to a close doctor friend, who diagnosed her with a prolapsed uterus and said that at this point, after four months, she must go to Emergency. She did that today, I was told, and will undergo surgery. She’s scared about her three children, she’s scared for her job.
At times I want to ask Jimena stupid questions: Why is she a single mother? Why did she have three children? Smart questions on the level of social and welfare policy, but stupid questions at the same time. Why? Because she’s a mother raising her children alone. Because often uteruses collapse due to difficult and painful childbirths. Because she works her chops off to sustain life and nourish it at all costs even after the father’s gone, either on his own volition or because he was deported–I never did ask Jimena about that. It didn’t matter, she’s a mother, like the Yazidi mothers, like my aunt, like so many you know and I know.
If you could help this woman, please use the button below to help immigrant families. Jimena thinks that very soon she could get her insurance to cover medical procedures, but there will be other costs while she can’t work.
I am very grateful.
You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.