I do tend to bang on about how cake brings people together. I’m pretty sure that I bore people with it all the time, especially in response to that time old phrase ‘It’s only cake!’.
For me it is definitely not just cake. Making cake has created friendships and connections that I would never predict but even I didn’t expect cake to take me to a war zone in Northern Iraq. Nor would I expect it to create the most traumatic but memorable experience of my life.
It all began with a corporate cake commission for a store opening, The brief? To make a cake which they could present to a local charity. And that is how I met Ravi Singh, CEO and founder of Khalsa Aid International, a charity which he founded 20 years ago based on Sikh principles of serving others.
The vegan cake of Ravi, a modern Sikh Warrior riding to people’s aid, really hit the spot, and it was via this meeting that Ravi invited me to go with them to see the work that Khalsa Aid is doing with the Yazidi community in Northern Iraq.
It’s probably worth pointing out that I’m not Sikh, but something Ravi said really stuck with me. There are no Sikhs in northern Iraq. There are human beings, and when all is said and done, this is very simple; it’s not about religion or race but about humanity.
And the Yazidi people have seen the darkest side of humanity. What happened to them at the hands of Isis in 2014 has been officially declared a genocide. From living normal lives, they suddenly found themselves captured by Isis fighters, the Yazidi men murdered in mass graves, their community completely decimated and the girls and women abducted and enslaved in their thousands.
Isis declared the Yazidis as fair game! I remember seeing the reports of young girls and even children being kept as Isis slaves and being repeatedly raped and tortured. I remembered that I was aware of the situation but that the news reports dwindled and the headlines moved on. The Yazidi people, still missing thousands of women and children, cannot move on so easily.
Whilst I was having second thoughts about whether or not to accept Ravi’s invitation, something that he said really struck a chord with me. He said that politically and economically these people have nothing to offer the world and as a result they are probably the people who are most in need of help. Without that help they are being forgotten.
So I found myself thinking ‘What If?’
What if these missing girls were European? Would they have slipped off the news reports so easily? What if they were American? Would we be leaving them to their own devices? What if these were my relatives murdered or my daughters still held in captivity being raped on a daily basis?
I started to understand why Ravi had asked me. We may just ‘make cake’ but we have a big community, an audience. I have the ability to raise awareness of the situation – and yes I can also make a little cake.
My 21 year old medical student daughter, Lillie, was also touched by Khalsa Aid’s mission and was determined to join me; a frightening decision for any mother to accept but one that I am immensely proud of her for. Ultimately it would prove to be an education that she could not have gleaned from any text book or lecture. She would see seriously ill children, living in tents with little or no access to medical aid. She would see the hub of an aid organisation working on the front line and she would see what happens when people step up and act.
Travelling with Ravi was an inspiration. Within the Sikh community he is extremely well known. Khalsa Aid is all over the world supporting causes including Indonesian Tsunami Relief and Syrian Refugee Aid. They were on the scene supporting the Grenfell Tower survivors in London and will consistently turn up to unexpected disaster areas to offer help where they are able.
It was in this way that in 2014 Ravi Singh turned up in Dohuc, a Kurdish area of Iraq, immediately after the genocide. What he saw were thousands of Yazidi refugees taking shelter in every empty building, under every bridge and seeking shade under every tree. A community that suddenly had to help 70,000 displaced people who were in shock, had nothing to their names and were grieving for the incalculable loss of loved ones.
When Lillie and I arrived in Dohuc with Ravi 5 years later we could see the people who had been helped then by Khalsa Aid and importantly we could see the people who are in need of help now.
Our days were spent with the impressive local aid coordinator Suzan, A 24 year-old Khurdish woman who was not only fluent in many languages but also showed a competence well beyond her years. Forging relationships with a decimated and broken Yazidi community must take its toll. Interfacing with children who have been recovered after 5 years, with girls who have been brutally raped over that time would be hard to stomach for anyone, let alone a young woman. But this is what many people from the Khurdish community have simply become accustomed to whilst helping their Yazidi neighbours.
With Suzan, and our Yazidi driver Samir, we visited local government offices to collect information on the girls most recently recovered from Isis hands.
With information on these girls the charity can place aid where it is best needed.
We visited Besse and her family, taking shelter in a basic structure from which they would have to move imminently. Besse’s daughter Fadia was 11 and had been recovered from Isis just 4 days previously. Taken when she was 6 years old, Fadia now only spoke Arabic and had forgotten her native language. And who knows what she has endured? Some children were treated as slaves, some were raped and some married off to fighters. Just last month it was reported that a 10 year-old Yazidi girl who is still in Isis hands is pregnant. But how do you ask an 11 year-old like Fadia what she has experienced and her return to her family must be bitter-sweet. How clear is it in photos that we are the only ones smiling?
We delivered basic provisions of course but Khalsa Aid is also about helping families to move forward. The building of more permanent shelters for these and other families was on the agenda for this trip. The sourcing of materials to build platforms that would prevent tents from flooding. The contracting of building work to Yazidi people, thereby injecting money into their own community. The liaising with authorities to provide water and other essentials.
And when we went to see the site within one of the many refugee camps, the surprise to me was that what I had initially assumed was temporary accommodation was actually the more permanent living accommodation for these people. A tent with access to water and toilet is real improvement. Imagine that! That is the level at which they are aspiring to live at the moment and we watched as every aspect was organised by Khalsa Aid. This was a very hands on approach and we could literally see where all the money was being put to use.
We met Gaure who has lost 24 members of her family including her husband and 3 sons slaughtered in the initial genocide. She is indicative of so many Yazidi women who no longer have any men to take care of them, so Khalsa Aid does. And of course these women have no choice but to live with the overwhelming grief of the loved ones they have lost and the many girls still missing.
And now, years on some of these girls are being rescued. As Isis has suffered defeats in Syria they are recovering girls and children gradually and Khalsa Aid is supporting them.
Monalisyia showing off her work.
It seems a bit crass to talk about something as trivial as cake when people have suffered such catastrophic upheaval, however there was sense to Ravi’s thinking. 16 year old girls who have just given birth after being raped; 18 year old girls who have had to leave 3 babies behind with Isis; these were the sort of girls being cared for by Khalsa Aid. But if their life is being defined by their trauma and the basics of living. Their mental health is a real issue. They have little to hope for, so for a small part of our trip Ravi put me to use to take them out of the camps and do something fun and creative.
We would spend the days organising the essential provisions and shelter and a few hours in the evening playing with cake and it felt far from trivial. It felt wonderful.
Hosted by a local bakery we only had left-over ingredients and limited tools but the girls learned some piping and modelling and truly enjoyed themselves. To know of the stories of these girls was to understand what a difference a couple of hours of cake decorating made to their outlook. They lost themselves in their creativity. THEY SMILED! All of them smiled, and they said they wished we could go on all week. Frankly so did I.
We piped flowers, we modelled unicorns and the girls got to immerse themselves in their own creativity. It wasn’t ‘just cake’. It was light relief. It was therapy. It forged friendships and spirit and hope.
Despite news reports that Isis has been defeated in Syria, Isis still has a presence and still holds over 1000 Yazidi girls as slaves. They job of saving them very much continues even as the world assumes that it’s help is no longer needed. That is simply not the case.
Help is desperately needed.
But we were also seeing the direct results of the donations that people have made. The basics of course, but also the sensible investment to help the Yazidis become self-sufficient again. From the lady who has just been given a sewing machine so she can support her family to Hadia, the 18 year old that was given the same support years ago when her father died and she now supports her family with her little clothing business. She no longer needs the same level of support that she did thanks to the help that she has received.
We visited a school near Mosel, still a hotspot for Isis sympathisers. It was closed to house refugees after the massacre but is now being rebuilt by Khalsa Aid. We were seeing children learning again and true to form Ravi and Suzan were assessing and deciding on the issues that still needed resolving. No red tape. No delay. Just a decision and action.
We heard the personal stories that moved us to tears; sobbing as our driver Samir told us the details of how he had lost his father and 3 brothers. How they had found bodies in mass graves (we saw pictures of how they identified them) and how they eventually recovered his sister from the clutches of an Isis fighter. This was one story amongst thousands. We were worried we might be opening wounds too far. We asked if he minded sharing his story but his answer was clear. He wants the world to know. They all do. It’s important that they world knows. So I watched my daughter sob and we listened through the tears.
Much as Lillie and I went out to help where we could, we both returned feeling that we had gained so much. We are better people for what we had experienced. In the face of the worst of humanity we saw the best of humanity. We saw what happens when people stand up and support others.
My hope is that you might do what I did and ask yourselves ‘What if?’
What if you had lost everything? What if your daughters were missing? What if was your 10 year old daughter who was pregnant and in captivity.
Most importantly what if you just donated £5 or £10 or any amount that not only helps these people directly but also sends the message that they are not forgotten.
I have always said that behind every cake is someone’s story. My Sikh Warrior cake turned out to be my story, and Ravi Singh’s story and the Yazidi community’s story.
I would love it if you become part of our story too.
Lillie is running the Manchester half-marathon on 13th October in aid of Khalsa Aid. She hates running. But she loves Khalsa Aid.
Lillie would love your support by donating via this link:
And you can watch The Selfless Sikh, a BBC documentary about Khalsa Aid and the Yazidi on YouTube.