The Syrian refugees who know they can’t go home

Long persecuted and accused of worshipping the devil, the Yazidis are a minority of a minority in the Middle East

The conical temples of the Yazidi holy site of Lalish, located in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
Ger Al Hamud Ser Bahger

SHARIYA, Iraq — Across the Middle East, Syrian refugees dream of returning to the homes they were forced from by war. 

Not 38-year-old Suleiman Rasho. Rasho is a Yazidi, a member of a small, ancient sect with roots in Iraq that has long been persecuted for a belief system far removed from other religions in the region.

As Syria continues to fall apart in the grip of civil war, Rasho does not see a future there for Syrian Yazidis, a community that numbered no more than 50,000 before the conflict. 

“It is impossible for Yazidis in the Middle East,” he said. “I do not think I will be able to go back to Syria.”

In the Middle East, the Yazidis’ small numbers mean they have little command over their destiny and have to rely on others for protection. As extremist groups increase their hold on parts of war-torn Syria, and Iraq edges closer to a civil war of its own, many Yazidis find themselves in a familiar spot: trying to flee or waiting in fear. 

“Wherever Yazidis go, they will be killed and persecuted,” said Baba Sheikh, the elderly spiritual leader of the religion.

A representation of the Peacock Angel, known as the highest of seven angels created to watch over the universe, according to the Yazidis.

The group’s history — which it claims stretches back 6,000 years — has taught Yazidis that persecution is often a fact of life. They count scores of attempts to wipe out their community, from the early expansions of Islam to mass killings endorsed by the Ottoman Empire to Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s.

The Yazidis find themselves a minority of a minority. Ethnically and linguistically Kurdish, they consider themselves the original Kurds. But unlike most of their fellow Kurds, they are not Muslim.

Their faith, its traditions passed down orally from generation to generation and practiced by fewer than 1 million people worldwide, incorporates an eclectic mix of Zoroastrian, Sufi, gnostic and Christian practices.

While some rites, like a prohibition on eating lettuce, may be considered odd by outsiders, it is their story of God’s deputy that has driven bloodshed.

The faith revolves around Tawus Malek, the Peacock Angel, the highest of seven angels created by God to watch over the universe. Ordered to bow down before Adam, Tawus Malek refused because God had commanded the angel to prostrate himself only before his creator.

The story mirrors that of the fallen angel Iblis in the Quran. As punishment for his refusal to submit to Adam, Iblis was cast away and became Shaytan, or Satan. The devil.

To many, the Yazidis are regarded as devil worshippers, a reputation that isn’t helped by images of snakes at Yazidi shrines, occasional secrecy about their beliefs and social isolation from other communities.

The Castle of Badre

Evidence of the hardships that have resulted from the Yazidis’ precarious position can be seen on the edge of this Yazidi town, near the borders with Turkey and Syria, where worn steps leading to piles of rubble announce a destroyed village at the foot of a hill.

This place was once called Kalebadre, or Castle of Badre, named after a structure that locals say once adorned the rocky hill’s ridge. 

But in April 1987, during its Anfal campaign against the Kurds, the Iraqi army arrived in Kalebadre and told residents they had to pack up and leave. The village’s inhabitants had been providing supplies and shelter to Kurdish insurgents hiding out in the hills. The army had shelled the village from time to time, sending residents running for the shallow natural caves behind their homes, but the Iraqis wanted to solve the problem for good. Troops moved in with bulldozers and forced the residents of Kalebadre and several other nearby villages to move to the center of the valley, away from the hills, where they could be watched and controlled more easily in a town laid out in a neat grid pattern.

Kalebadre ceased to exist. 

“We did not enjoy life at all. It was all suffering,” said 75-year-old Farha Hasso, who lived in the destroyed village.

Today, Shariya — as the town in the center of the valley is called — is a safe place for Yazidis, well within the jurisdiction of northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. But the town is still bearing witness to the saga of the Yazidis’ persecution as refugees stream in from Syria.

‘We are always afraid’

Rasho fled from his village in Syria’s northeastern Hassake province with his wife and three children in February. Though most refugees arriving in Iraqi Kurdistan from Syria’s Kurdish areas settle in refugee camps, Yazidis often feel more comfortable among other members of their faith.

Before the war, there were 47 families living in Rasho’s village. Now only four remain.

The village was protected by the powerful Kurdish People's Protection Unit militia, but the surrounding area had seen fighting with the Al-Qaeda-linked groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The groups are known for their extreme interpretations of Islam and heavy-handed rule over captured areas.

“They think we are infidels and should be killed,” said Rasho. “As a Yazidi, if I tell you that there is no fear, I am lying. To be honest, we are always afraid.”

He and others from his village did not want to test their luck in case the tide of the battle shifted. 

In Syria, Rasho was a mukhtar, a local community and administrative leader. In Iraq, he works as a manual laborer when he can and struggles to make ends meet. For now, he and his family are resigned to life in the cold, spartan room they have rented, but they have ambitions of making it to Europe.

“I want to go to a society that has a sense of humanity, that is safe, that respects human beings,” he said.

In March, several members of Rasho’s extended family drowned as they tried to reach Greece from Turkey aboard a smuggler’s boat that sank. Now he is determined to find a safe, legal way out of the Middle East for his family.

Just a wad of cash away

For decades, Yazidis have found refuge in Europe. While Iraq’s Yazidis are in a much better position than Syria’s are, they still face discrimination and always fear the worst. In northern Iraq’s Yazidi communities, a smuggler is just a few calls (and a huge wad of cash) away. The exodus has made Germany home to the second-largest Yazidi population in the world, after Iraq.

“We have no other way, just to escape and flee the country for our own safety,” said Mirza Ismail, head of the Yazidi Human Rights Organization. 

Ancient religious minorities in the Middle East have faced increasing persecution in the past decade.
Ben Piven

As sectarian violence in Iraq reaches its highest levels since 2008 and the country slips closer to a civil war, Yazidis fear that the relative calm they have experienced in recent years could be shattered.

The last time civil war raged in Iraq, in 2006 and 2007, the Yazidis did not fare well.

In April 2007, gunmen stopped a bus carrying workers home from a textile factory in Mosul, dragged 23 Yazidis out of the vehicle, lined them up against a wall and summarily executed them.

On Aug. 17 of that year, truck bombs targeted the Yazidi towns of Kahtaniya and Jazeera in Sinjar province near the border with Syria. They were poor towns, and many of the flimsily built houses were flattened by the blasts. With upwards of 500 people killed, it was the deadliest attack of the war.

In recent months, Iraqi Kurdistan has seen a rash of once rare bombings, assassinations and foiled plots.

Fearing potential attacks, Baba Sheikh did not attend October’s weeklong Feast of the Assembly, the most important date on the Yazidi calendar. It was the first time the feast, held amid the conical temples of the Yazidi holy city of Lalish, had been canceled since the civil war.

Many Yazidis in northern Iraq benefit from the protection of their Kurdish Muslim neighbors.
Ben Piven

Large chunks of Iraq’s Yazidi population are heavily concentrated in some of the more dangerous areas of the country: near Mosul, a city where hard-line Sunni groups operate, and in Sinjar, along the Syrian border. Instability in these areas spells danger for Yazidis.

Although attacks against them occurred while U.S. troops remained in Iraq, the Americans’ presence was welcomed as a layer of protection.

“We thought they would do good things for the minorities and for the Yazidis,” said Baba Sheikh. “But what America did, America did for the political parties and not the religious minorities.”

Today many of Iraq’s several hundred thousand Yazidis live under the protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government. They appreciate this protection, but there are charges of discrimination and of attempts to strip the community of its identity. Many Yazidis feel there is nobody else to turn to in the Middle East, and that hope for a better life is pinned on outside powers’ taking an interest in them and pushing for their protection.

“There is no one else. We’re trusting only in Europe and the international countries,” said Baba Sheikh.

“The minorities in all the Middle East are in a struggle to survive,” said Ismail. “But we are being ignored by the international community.”

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