Displaced Yazidis Find Unlikely Safe Haven in Syria Refugee Camp

Reported killings, forced conversions and abduction of Yazidi men, women and children at the hands of Islamic State triggered a mass exodus of approximately one-third of Iraq's Yazidis.

Sofia Barbarani
Sofia Barbarani
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Yazidi refugees in Syria. August 2014.Credit: Sofia Barbarani
Sofia Barbarani
Sofia Barbarani

DERIK, SYRIA - Rows of dusty tents line a barren field on the outskirts of Syria’s northeastern Kurdish town of Derik, now home to an estimated 15,000 Yazidi refugees who fled Iraq’s violence this month.

The reported killings, forced conversions and abduction of Yazidi men, women and children at the hands of the Islamic State triggered a mass exodus of approximately 200,000 of Iraq’s estimated 600,000 Yazidis. While many of them found safety in the stable Kurdistan Region, others were led to an unlikely safe haven: Newroz camp in Syria’s Al-Jazeera canton.

Yazidis have been largely targeted throughout history because of their ‘unorthodox’ religious beliefs and the misconception that they are ‘devil worshippers.’

“We ran away when Da'ash (the Arabic acronym for IS) attacked. We went to the mountain. The situation was so hard, no food no water,” said 52-year-old Shevan, a Yazidi from Sinjar. He said he had seen IS fighters make their way into his hometown, assisted by neighboring Arab tribes.

Thousands of Yazidis were forced to take refuge on the Sinjar Mountains, a 100 kilometers-long mountain range west of Mosul, where they remained stranded for days under the scorching sun and searing summer temperatures.

Shevan starred at the carpeted floor, glancing up from time to time with bloodshot eyes. “A lot of families had to leave their children on the mountains and more than 400 elderly men and women stayed behind, because the road was too hard” he said.

His story resonated throughout the camp, as other refugees spoke of weak elderlies, wandering children and mothers forced to abandon the weaker children to save the stronger ones.

According to UNHCR, some refugees “backed reports of young girls and women forced to stay behind and being sold. Families say that their young men were killed.”

32-year-old Ghazal Qasam reached Newroz with all three of her children and her husband, but was forced to leave her older family members behind; they were too weak to make the journey. “We couldn’t take them…the hardest moment was leaving behind our family members,” she said, recalling that many babies died of starvation on the mountains when the mothers stopped producing milk.

Yazidi refugees in Syria, August 2014. Photo by Sofia Barbarani

Her husband, 40-year-old Mirza, was adamant that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had saved them. “[They] helped us, gave us a place, food and water. God and the PKK helped us,” he said in reference to the joint PKK and Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) rescue mission.

The YPG escorted thousands of fleeing Yazidis through a man-made ‘safety corridor’; stationed on either side of the pathway they fired at IS as the families made their way towards Syria. As a result of this, hundreds of Yazidis have volunteered to join the YPG in their fight against IS.

In the U.K., the PYD’s representative Alan Semo told Haaretz that it was natural for the Yazidi refugees to want to fight alongside the soldiers who saved them from likely death.

Shevan’s son, he said, had already joined the Syrian Kurdish forces. “We lost everything. Why shouldn’t we join the YPG and fight Da'ash? Everyone should join and fight Da'ash to clear out our area,” he said, looking around at his family members.

A young Yazidi refugee in Syria. August 2014. Photo by Sofia Barbarani

For Shevan, the hardest moment was walking through the perilous corridor with his family. “Da'ash and YPG were fighting and there were also airstrikes. A lot of people were injured and killed by snipers, we were so lucky to survive and for all the members of the family to be safe,” he said.

However, International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) Blake Dawgert said many others lost family members on the mountains. “We also have unaccompanied minors…we’re working with community leaders to try and find them safe spaces within the camp,” she explained.

In the IRC medical tent a child cried uncontrollably while a doctor hooked him to an IV to rehydrate him. “We have more than 400 patients a day, most of them are children,” said Dawgert. The effects of the ordeal were visible on the refugees’ faces; their skin burnt and scarred by the sun.

“They are suffering a lot from eye illnesses, because of the walking, the heat and the dust,” said Dawgert. Although the sun had hidden behind an ashen sky that day the wind was unrelenting, violently shaking the tents and forcing people to shield their eyes.

“We can’t stay in these tents, because of the winter, the rain and the snow,” said a mother of six. Her extended family had made its way to the Kurdistan Region’s northern cities of Duhok and Zakho. “We want to go back to Iraq, our cousins are there,” she said.

Asked if she felt safer in Syria than Iraq, the young mother shook her head in resignation: “My children are afraid here too, when there is wind and they hear the sound of the tents they are scared,” she said under the trembling tent, shaken by gusts of hot wind.

On August 14th UNHCR highlighted the psychological wounds inflicted by the violence, quoting one of their workers as saying: "I have not seen a happy or smiling child. None of the kids were playing or trying to hold your hand, give you a smile like other kids normally do. They were all walking aimlessly, either barefoot or just wearing sad faces.”

IRC’s Dawgert explained that while they had dealt with the immediate cases of dehydration and hunger they were also tackling huge psychological trauma. “They’ve suffered a lot of loss, they’ve suffered a lot of fear and violence,” she explained.

Speaking to Haaretz, UNHCR representative in Syria Tarik Kurdi called on the international community and donors to “extend help and assistance to the Yazidis and increase their financial support” calling the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria a “disastrous situation.”

“We have seen children separated from their parents, a baby who is only 20 days old, the family walked for five days by the time they reached the camp the baby was in very bad health conditions,” he said.

Kurdi also praised the locals for the support lent to the Yazidi refugees as well as the YPG fighters who “lost their lives to save the lives of other people.”

“Despite their own difficult situation, they open their land, they open their houses, they open their villages. I have visited a village, which hosts 726 individuals. They are very generous and have extended their support and assistance to the Yazidis,” he concluded.

That morning a group of men drove a truckload of items into the camp, causing a wave of people to rush towards them; scrambling for the pots, pans and clothes that had been donated by the local community. In a stark scene of desperation, men and women waved their hands in the air, trying to get a hold of anything and everything – most had fled home with only the clothes on their back.

“I left everything. I just wore my shoes, took my children and ran away,” said Shevan. When asked what hopes he had for the future, he softly replied: “I hope for our children to live in a safe place, a better place, whether it is here or elsewhere.” 

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