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Nemam Ghafouri, doctor who aided Yazidis in Iraq, dies at 52

Dr. Nemam Ghafouri (in red) with Yazidi elders at a temple in northern Iraq in 2019.
Dr. Nemam Ghafouri (in red) with Yazidi elders at a temple in northern Iraq in 2019.JANE ARRAF/NYT

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. Ms. 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.

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She died 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 group 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, Ms. 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 the Islamic State group. But when they were freed two years ago with the fall of the last piece of the Islamic State group’s 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 the Islamic State group’s fathers and view any reunions with their mothers as an existential threat to their religion. They accused Ms. Ghafouri of meddling in their affairs.

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While many of the mothers willingly left their infants behind, dozens of others have been devastated by the separation. Some have attempted suicide.

Ms. 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.

The mission ultimately succeeded after a former American diplomat, Peter Galbraith, who had close ties to Kurdish authorities in Iraq and Syria, obtained official approval for the reunification.

The Islamic State group “decided for these women for more than five years,” Ms. Ghafouri told The New York Times just before the reunion. “Let them be free human beings and decide where do they want to live, how do they want to live and with whom do they want to live.”

In the camps, Ms. Ghafouri arranged medical care, found jobs for many refugees and was a mediator with relatives. To follow her on her rounds was to be taken on a seemingly endless journey from tents to trailers as she joked, cajoled, consoled and helped the women make plans for futures that they had not dared believe could exist.

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“She was driven,” her sister Nazdar Ghafouri, a physician, said by phone from Sweden. “Many others treat refugees as passing victims; you go there with some help, and they should be grateful. She always treated everyone as an equal and said, ‘OK, what do you need me to help with now?’”

Nemam Ghafouri was born Dec. 25, 1968, in the Chnarok region of Iraq (now the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region), one of 11 children of Mahmoud Agha Kaka Ziad Ghafouri, a Kurdish resistance commander, and Gulzar Hassan Jalal, who relayed food and ammunition to the fighters while raising her children.

Nemam Ghafouri grew up near Tehran and in Naghadeh, in the West Azerbaijan province in Iran. Her family moved to Stockholm as refugees in the 1980s. She studied medicine at the University of Pecs in Hungary and at Umea University in northern Sweden.

In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, she designed and conducted one of the first epidemiological surveys on risk factors faced by conflict zone survivors.

Ms. Ghafouri engaged in wide-ranging relief efforts in recent years, including missions to Iran to help earthquake survivors. But her primary focus since 2014 had been dealing with the humanitarian crisis created by the Islamic State group takeover. Even after escaping the Islamic State group, Yazidis were left for months with no shelter and no coordinated relief operations. Seven years later, more than 150,000 remain in displacement camps.

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“She didn’t think it would last for so many years, but the more involved she got, she couldn’t leave them alone without any help,” Nazdar Ghafouri said of her sister. “She saw the disaster beyond the first emergency — food, water, medicine. Then she saw the catastrophe — all the life stories behind every tragedy.”

In addition to her sister, Nemam Ghafouri leaves her mother; five more sisters, Nergiz, Neshmil, Shilan, Chinar and Bijar Ghafouri; and three brothers, Diari, Ar, and Karwan.