Within hours of his arrival in Iraq, Boota Singh realized things were worse than he’d imagined.

“I didn’t expect it will be still that bad,” said Singh, a Victoria resident who traveled to Iraq on behalf of Khalsa Aid Canada, also based in Victoria.

Speaking on the phone from the Kurdish-controlled part of the country, Singh explained that little has been rebuilt since villages were destroyed in the civil war involving ISIS.

“They bombed the houses, they bombed the schools, you know colleges, hospitals, and people are living in the open and some of them have been living in tents and some of the villages, they are not there anymore,” said Boota Singh.

Khalsa Aid International has been on the ground for some time working on large projects such as trying to get schools rebuilt and get potable water to villages.

This is the first time the Canadian arm of the not-for-profit has been represented in Iraq. The focus of the trip is to help Yazidi women and children who fled ISIS.

The Yazidis are a religious minority persecuted by ISIS.

Khalsa Aid Canada is supporting a group of 14 Yazidi women who are starting up their own business.

One priority has been a simple effort to return some self-worth and a sense of independence to the women.

“Today we took them to the market and bought their clothing. Their freedom was denied for these women so we gave them freedom, the dignity to choose to buy anything they want,” said Singh.

The women escaped ISIS with no possessions at all.

"So we take them shopping there and just give them the ability to empower themselves to make choices. Just this gesture of 'Pick what you need to pick for you, no one is going to be picking any clothes for you,'" explained Jindi Singh, Director of Khalsa Aid Canada.

The freedom to choose their own clothes. It is something so basic and is also something most Canadians take for granted.

Boota Singh said the trip has made him realize all the things about Canada and Victoria he took for granted.

In Victoria there are medical facilities, there is space, fresh air and virtually no one lives in fear.

"What I want people to understand is that here in Iraq, people, they are living in fear, they are living in fear and from their own people because they don’t know who can be the ISIS sympathizers," he explained.

So why is a Sikh organization from Canada helping Yazidis in Iraq?

“It’s based on the Sikh principle of service, helping others. Our motivation is our faith but that doesn’t mean we just help our own, our faith preaches, you know, to recognize everyone as part of one big family so if we know someone needs help, we will go in and try our best to help on the ground," said Jindi Singh.

Their efforts are flung far and wide.

They run nine orphanages in Haiti, and organized a food drive for the Rainbow Kitchen in Victoria, among other projects.

Boota Singh said he will head home to Victoria with memories which will stay with him forever.

In particular: A 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 and just escaped last month. She was on the shopping trip with the other women.

“She wasn’t even talking to us, she was so scared. But we didn’t ask any questions about how she was when she was with ISIS and all that because we could tell from her face that she was still in that trauma.”