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Iraq: Accompanying the Yazidis
11 May 2017

The Yazidis are a minority (approximately 700,000 worldwide) ethno-religious group mainly concentrated in northern Mesopotamia. (Kristof Hölvényi/ JRS MENA)
“I want this persecution to stop immediately. We need to be treated as human beings. We have the right to live our lives.”

Erbil, 11 May 2017 - April 19th was New Year’s Day for the Yazidis. It was a joy to meet with some of them in Sarsink in the Dohuk District of Iraq on that day, to greet them with a “Jajna ta Piroz”. Each family had a tray laden with several bowls filled with cookies, boiled eggs with their shells colourfully painted, candies, fruits, and for good measure, a packet of cigarettes too! They happily shared these, and some soft drinks, with those who visited them. The festivities continued the next day at Sharya-Khadima.

New Year’s Day for most people is a day of celebration. Unfortunately, it is not so for the Yazidis, who have been forcibly displaced from lands which they once called home. Many of them had to flee in August 2014 from towns like Sinjar (also known as Shingal) in the Nineveh Province of Iraq, to escape violence and persecution at the hands of ISIS. 

It is believed that more than 5,000 Yazidi men were massacred at that time. Many more were killed in the following months and more than 500,000 had to seek refuge in other places. Today, an estimated more than 3,000 Yazidi women and young girls are still being held in captivity by ISIS and are being used as sexual slaves. What has happened to the Yazidis is today universally regarded as a genocide.

Even as one partakes in the goodies that have been set before us, one listens to the pain and suffering that they have gone through. The elder Yazidi tells us how he and several members of his family had to hide in the mountains for several days, without any food and had to face both starvation and dehydration. Their journey to safer areas was replete with difficulties. For more than two years now, they have had to live in makeshift tents or in some unfinished apartments with meagre facilities.

New Year’s Day for the Yazidis is known as ‘Chwarshama Soori’, (literally meaning ‘Red Wednesday’ in Kurdish). It marks the day that ‘Tawuse Melek’, the Peacock Angel who is God’s representative on earth, descended on the holy site of Lalish to bless the earth with fertility and renewal. 

On this day this year, thousands of Yazidis gathered at the Temple in Lalish, nearly 4,000 years old, near Mosul in Northern Iraq to celebrate their New Year and to commemorate the arrival of light into the world. Since ISIS was recently defeated in some parts of their traditional homelands, this New Year’s Day was the first major gathering in Lalish since 2014.

The Yazidis are a minority (approximately 700,000 worldwide) ethno-religious group mainly concentrated in northern Mesopotamia. They practise an ancient faith called ‘Yazidism’ which they claim is the world’s oldest religion. Their faith is linked to the Mesopotamian religions of old and combines aspects of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam; there are also some similarities between Yazidi and Hindu symbols. The Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries because of their faith.

A UN Commission of Inquiry in June 2016, stated that “ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidis” elaborating that, “ISIS sought – and continues to seek – to destroy the Yazidis in multiple ways, as envisaged by the 1948 Genocide Convention. ISIS has sought to erase the Yazidis through killings; sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm; the infliction of conditions of life that bring about a slow death; the imposition of measures to prevent Yazidi children from being born, including forced conversion of adults, the separation of Yazidi men and women, and mental trauma; and the transfer of Yazidi children from their own families and placing them with ISIS fighters, thereby cutting them off from beliefs and practices of their own religious community”.

In a New Year message to the Yazidi community Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said the Yezidis are an “inseparable” part of the Kurdistan nation and they should no longer suffer persecution. 

“The Yezidi Kurds are a dear and inseparable segment of the Kurdistan nation. Their joys and plights are that of the Kurdistan nation. Throughout history, our Yezidi brothers and sisters have faced catastrophes due to their identity.” This certainly comes as solace to the Yazidis; though some are still upset claiming that the Kurdish Peshmerga military forces abandoned them in the wake of the advancing ISIS forces in 2014.

Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi woman, is today visible and vocal in the fight against ISIS and on behalf of her people. When she was just about twenty years old, ISIS abducted her together with her mother and siblings. Nadia was separated from her family, beaten and sexually assaulted. 

She managed to escape from the clutches of ISIS and eventually found her way to Germany. For the last couple of years despite her own trauma, she took up a global campaign to draw attention to the plight of Yazidis held in sex slavery by the Islamic State or remaining displaced in Iraq. 

Last October, the Council of Europe awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize to Nadia. When accepting the prize, Nadia said that she was exhausted by having to repeatedly speak out about what she has survived. Nevertheless, she also said she knew that other Yazidi women were being raped back home even as she spoke: “I will go back to my life when women in captivity go back to their lives, when my community has a place, when I see people accountable for their crimes.” 

Nadia’s painful story has captured widespread attention. Among the people who have come forward to champion her cause are former UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon and Amal Clooney, the celebrated British human rights lawyer, who now represents her, pro bono.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Iraq accompanies thousands of displaced Yazidis in Northern Iraq. The services provided include classes in English, Computer Education, and Sewing. JRS teams visit the displaced Yazidis in several areas and patiently listen to them and see how best they can respond to help better their situation. These family visits help to create a bond in keeping with the JRS core value of accompaniment. Psychosocial support also plays an important role in helping individuals heal their psychological wounds, which eventually may help to rebuild social structures. Food items and other essentials are provided to those in need.

Some of the JRS staff like Salwa are Yazidis themselves. Salwa belongs to the home visit team of JRS Sharya. She has been brought up in Sharya (a small town with a high percentage of Yazidis) and has completed her studies in basic education. Salwa reaches out to the Yazidi families who are IDPs, in her own inimitable way. The bonding is quick. The language is of the heart. 

Salwa says, “JRS has made a big difference in the lives of the displaced Yazidis. It has helped the host communities come closer to them”. 

Speaking about the tragedy, which has befallen her people, Salwa is emphatic, “I want this persecution to stop immediately. We need to be treated as human beings. We have the right to live our lives.”

In this next year, JRS continues to journey with the Yazidi community as we hope for an end to the persecution.  

- Fr Cedric Prakash SJ Advocacy & Communications Officer JRS MENA

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