Who are the Yazidis, the Ancient, persecuted religious minority struggling to survive in Iraq?
For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshipers by many Muslims – including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq – the Yazidis have faced the possibilities of genocide many times over. With the capture of the city of Sinjar by the extremist calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) in August 2014, in less than two weeks, almost all Yazidis people (estimated 500,000) of Sinjar fled and sought refuge in Kurdish territory, while thousand remained trapped in the rugged Sinjar mountains, awaiting rescue. Sinjar is (was) home to the oldest, biggest and most compact Yazidi community.
The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages. Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, this land holds deep religious significance, and some even make pilgrimage to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh.
As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to the Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation.
“It’s dilemma to convert or die”
The Yazidis’ religion is often misunderstood. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidis have an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zorostrianism, which is an ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, which is a mysterious religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims.
Yazidi society is organized into a rigid religious caste system, and many Yazidis believe that the soul is reincarnated after death. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local pre-Islamic beliefs.
Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.
Isolated geographically, and accustomed to discrimination, the Yazidis forged an insular culture. Iraq's Yazidis rarely inter-marry with other Kurds, and they do not accept religious converts. "They became a closed community”.
The Yazidis are not the only religious minority threatened by the Islamic State. Thousands of Christians have fled Mosul since the extremists captured the city in early June of 2014. For now, religious minorities are finding refuge in Kurdish territory in the north.
As ISIL sweeps through the Yazidi homeland, Kurds throughout the region are rallying to defend the embattled religious minorities. In the summer of 2014, Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey crossed into Iraq and joined with the Kurdistan Regional Government to push back ISIL and secure a safe passage for the Yazidis out of Sinjar.
Currently, the surge in violence between armed groups and government forces has resulted to over 3.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) across Iraq and left more than a million people in need of humanitarian assistance.
Many thousands of Yazidis shelter in IDPs camps – stuck away in the middle of nowhere or staying in unfinished buildings lent to them by the local communities.
Just on the outskirt of Erbil we met:
Noora – 7 year old girl, she smiled but her eyes were so sad, and her face was absent of emotion. She has already seen too much suffering in her short life. Her family survived the genocide in Sinjar that happened in August of 2014 – when Isis dragged Yazidi women off into sexual slavery and decapitated their children.
She lives in a precarious and dangerous place with limited access to water and electricity. The unfinished building has no walls, windows, doors or bathrooms and she lives in a makeshift room with just a plastic partition for any privacy.
In this place we met with Khfshy Khudida – who is a mother of 5 children – trying to take care of her children. Speaking with her I felt peace, authenticity, and kindness. I felt like she accepted the circumstances in which she found herself and her family but at the same time she was trying her best to persevere. This courage amazed me – while we were visiting she was busy with her two year old Saaud – he was cranky as he got cold and at the same time he was hungry. She was so patient with him and us (strangers). She invited us to her makeshift dwelling and served us some tea – suddenly some men appeared and we sat on the ground to have a chat about what happened to her and her family, and that they want an international protection.
Khfshy she did not sit with us but she was looking after her son and trying to comfort him and later she cooked some milk for him. Her being, loving and caring touch was something that struck me the most.
The next day we traveled to Dohuk a town of 280,000 inhabitants west of Erbil, and this region is currently hosting over 500,000 displaced people.
Many of them are Yazidis living in IDPs camps and some are hosted by local families, or sought shelter in any available spaces like the local schools, building sites, unfinished buildings, parks and gardens or they established “informal camps”.
Currently there are 9 official camps for IDP’s in the Dohuk governorate, hosting around 150,000 people.
Two of the main camps were built by AFAD (the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Agency) and three were built by the United Nations; and the remaining four were built by the Kurdish Regional Government. As a result, their standards of accommodation, facilities and services vary greatly. In Bersive camp that we visited, hosting over 10,000 people near Zakho, the tents are not fully insulated from the rain, there is no hot water and the number of toilets and showers does not meet the minimum standards for humanitarian response. To get to the bathroom from the tent where we were staying took me almost 10 minutes on foot.
Bersive IDP Camp.
Statistic: Establishment: 11/2014
No. of shelter: 2.500, Ind. 10.510
“playing music is very important to me – brings peace to my mind”
“my future is my book”
“the necklace is for my protection”
"I would like to travel to Europe"
Another camp which we visited was Khanke IDP Camp
No. of shelters 3,120
Here I met Roshan, young mum of four: three boys; Berhat 5 years old, Rohdk 3 years old, Shea 2 years old and 8 months old Yasema.
Speaking with her about the situation she said: “we just want to go back home.”
Hadea – with her family. She is a bright, smart young girl who just turned 18 years old. She speaks very good English as she said that’s the door to her future. She told me that she also got inspired by a book written by Anne Frank “The Diary of young girl”. She said “the world should not stop you, I want to see peace and to have the freedom to dream”
Below please see a slide show – portraits of people whom I met along this journey. Some of them are holding a burning candle as I want to shine a light on their issues.
When I was working at the field, I brought a candle with me to illuminated their stories and their plight, and I made those images. I truly believe if we can see each other as fellow human beings, it will be very difficult to tolerate the injustices and oppressions happening around us. Those images are not issues – those are people – real people – like me and you – all deserving the same rights, dignity and respect in their lives. I hope those images awaken a force in those who view them – people like you - and I hope this force of light is a burning fire, and that this fire sheds light on the refugees’ crises.