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.

Credit…Jane Arraf

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 cardiotharacic 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.


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.

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

“ISIS decided for these women for more than five years,” Dr. 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, Dr. 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.


Credit…Jane Arraf

“She was driven,” her sister Nazdar Ghafouri, herself 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 on 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.

Dr. 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.

Dr. 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 ISIS takeover. Even after escaping ISIS, Yazidis were left for months with no shelter and no coordinated relief operations. Seven years later, more than 150,000 remain in displacement camps.

“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, Dr. Ghafouri is survived by her mother; five more sisters, Nergiz, Neshmil, Shilan, Chinar and Bijar Ghafouri; and three brothers, Diari, Ari and Karwan.

Dr. Ghafouri was evacuated to Sweden after contracting Covid-19 during the mission to reunite the mothers and children. On a ventilator, as her oxygen dropped to dangerously low levels, she continued to post political messages on Twitter before she was transported.

Two days before she died, Nazdar Ghafouri said, she and another sister tried to speak to Dr. Ghafouri by phone. A nurse held a phone to Dr. Ghafouri’s ear.

“Your sister can’t talk because she is on a ventilator,” the nurse said, as Nazdar recalled the conversation, “but she can hear you, and you can speak to her.”

“We said how much we love her,” Nazdar said, “and told her of the love from all over the world, and I promised her that her work will go on.”

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