Huzna Said Yusef’s voice pierces the laughter and laboured breathing in the room as she yells instructions and encouragement to the handful of young girls jogging in a circle around her. Her voice, though loud, is not aggressive. It does, however, communicate an urgency well suited to the task at hand. She is teaching Yezidi women and girls in Duhok, Iraq – some of whom are former ISIS sex slaves – how to fight, quite literally, for their lives.
As she joins the girls for a final sprint, her cheeks become flushed and her smile widens. Yusef has always liked sports but boxing is something special. "It gives you power and it gives you courage to believe in yourself," she says.
"It makes women stronger, it empowers them to speak out and not feel ashamed of anything. It has impacted me a lot and I feel that I’m much stronger than before and I believe in myself much more," she continues.
Yusef is only 18 years old herself and dealing with much of the same trauma as the rest of the girls in her class. Perhaps this is what makes her so uniquely qualified to teach boxing to Yezidi women and girls who have survived genocide and sexual violence at the hands of ISIS.
Since the fall of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and the destruction of the last physical stronghold of the ISIS caliphate, there have been more arrivals in the Rwanga refugee camp and boxing class. The new arrivals stand out, and special attention is given to them while they attempt to reintegrate.
"When there are ISIS survivors we need time to spend with them to help them integrate in a better way with other women and girls who are participating in this sport," Vian Ahmed explains of the new arrivals. "Because their situation is different, they need special treatment to be able to get used to this new situation," she continues. Ahmed is the regional manager of Lotus Flower, a British nonprofit organisation based in Duhok which runs the 'Boxing Sisters' boxing classes in Rwanga.
Yusef, on the other hand, has been at the camp for several years, ever since ISIS attacked her village in Tal Qasab, Sinjar in 2014. After an urgent phone call from a relative in another village warning them of the approaching ISIS convoy, she and her family fled into the mountains where they stayed without food and water for one week.
"The most difficult time was when ISIS attacked the villages around us, because all our relatives and neighbours were there and they were attacking them," Yusef recounts. As she speaks of these events a shadow of pain falls across her face. Her family, like most other Yezidi families, lost many people that day.
Boxing Sisters launched in October 2018 in the Rwanga camp on the outskirts of Duhok. In the beginning, Muhammad Abdulbaqi, a male kickboxing instructor from Duhok city, would give classes twice a week for two hours, and on the remaining three days the girls would practise on their own, led by Yusef.
When not in boxing class, a handful of the girls also participate in 'Storytelling Sisters', a visual storytelling workshop, which includes photography, video and editing skills, taught five days a week by American-Italian photographer, Annelise Mecca.
And while most girls under 18 attend high school for a few hours during the day, there is little else for them to do other than cook for their families or clean their homes – usually a 10 foot x 25 foot ISO box or other makeshift structure.
Recently, however, because so many women were unable to finish their studies before the so-called Islamic State overran their villages, there are many students in their 20s attending high school as well.
When Lotus Flower first contacted Abdulbaqi to come and teach the girls boxing, he immediately jumped at the idea. "I was really excited because I knew it [would] be the first programme of its kind for women and girls in Iraq," says Abdulbaqi. But his position was always going to be a temporary one.
In April of this year, some of the girls began training to become boxing trainers themselves, led by Cathy Brown, a retired professional boxer from the UK. It was one of the initial goals of the project, explains Ahmed.
"The first graduates will be the trainers and we will be taking them to other camps to train the women and girls there," she says. "They will be the first female boxers not only in Duhok and not only in the camps, but in the Kurdistan region and maybe even in Iraq," she adds proudly.
But Boxing Sisters wasn’t always so popular with the families at Rwanga camp. "There was a lot of pushback," explains Ahmed, and some of the girls even left class after only a few sessions due to pressure from their families.
But Ahmed and others at Lotus Flower were determined not to let these young women and girls return to the seclusion of their tents and makeshift homes inside the camp. And they were determined not to let the programme fail. So they went from house to house and family to family, explaining the benefits of this activity for their daughters.
"We overcame this hurdle by making it normal, by explaining to them the benefit of boxing, and that boxing for women and girls is just like [for] men and boys and that there is no shame in it," she explains. Sure enough, little by little, things started to change. "The families of these women and girls are now really supportive of them," Ahmed continues.
The girls themselves have changed, too. "I remember that when many of them attended for the first time, they were really scared and they were ashamed of doing many movements and even joining in," says Yusef. "But step by step I see that there has been so much progress in the way they do boxing and [in the way] they believe in themselves."
Boxing Sisters is only one of the many rehabilitation approaches on a long and complex path to recovery for the Yezidi community at large, but it has had a considerable effect in a short period of time.
This is because, Abdulbaqi explains, boxing "gives them the strength and power to defend themselves while facing violence, [while] at the same time it helps them to release the depression and sadness from inside themselves as they have suffered a lot due to the conflicts happening in the region."
Furthermore, adds Ahmed, the act of hitting or punching something has a very specific, physical implication for many of these girls. "There are some ISIS survivors among these women and girls, and when you see them hitting, it’s as if they are seeing ISIS fighters standing in front of them and they are getting revenge for what the ISIS fighters have done to them."
And while boxing helps build self-confidence, physical strength and is a psychological release for these girls, it also changes the way the community and their families view them – no longer as victims but as strong women who survived the worst that humans can inflict upon one another.
"It makes even our families look at us differently," explains Yusef. "Before, they were scared about whether we should join [boxing] or not, but now they see how strong we are, how many things have changed in our bodies, how we behave and how we live our lives."