Yazidis have lived in this predominantly Christian country for more than a century, practicing their customs with little interference. Perhaps that’s because they have a shared history of tragedy: In the 1915 Armenian genocide, in which 1.5 million people were killed, the Yazidis tried to help Armenians. As a result, many Yazidis perished.
Although the number of Yazidis in the country has decreased, due to emigration, the 2011 Armenian census shows that more than 35,000 remain.
“There hasn’t been any place in the world that Yazidis have lived as normally as they have in Armenia,” Avdalyan said. “It’s probably because of this that I haven’t left yet. We understand each other well.”
Virtually mono-ethnic and wedged between Turkey and Iran, Armenia has been an unlikely yet strong cultural center for Yazidis, a source of pride for community members who can name dozens of Yazidi intelligentsia in Armenian history. One such figure is Usub Bek, a member of the Parliament of the First Armenian Republic, in the early 20th century. The first ever film in Armenian cinema, 1927’s Zare, focuses on a Yazidi love story that takes place in an Armenian village. More recently, Armenia-born Yazidi Roman Amoyan, a champion Greco-Roman wrestler, brought the country its first Olympic medal in wrestling in 16 years with a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
In 2012, a Yazidi temple was built in western Armavir province, financed by a wealthy member of the Yazidi diaspora. It was the first religious site built outside of their holy land in Lalish, Iraq, to which Yazidis are expected to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
They’ve also faced a markedly different kind of battle than Yazidi populations in Syria or even neighboring Georgia, where many Armenia-born Yazidis immigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union. Issues of identity have long plagued the Yazidi community in Armenia, creating divisions for an already small and diminishing people. During the years of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s Yazidi population was not classified by religion, but by ethnicity. As a result, during those years, Yazidis were considered Kurdish.
While scholars mostly identify Yazidis by religion and Kurds by ethnicity, the Yazidi national movement that bubbled up in the late 1980s in Armenia sought to define Yazidi and Kurd as two separate ethnic identities. This effort was born during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, during which thousands of Muslim Azerbaijanis and Kurds were expelled from Armenia.
The Yezidi National Union, led by Aziz Tamoyan, is the main organization pushing the idea that Yazidis are separate group from the Kurds, not just on the basis of religion but also ethnicity. The group publishes its own newspaper, called Yezidkhana. Khdr Hajoyan, the vice president of the National Union, said that referring to Yazidis as one ethnic part of the Kurdish community simply isn’t accurate, especially in Armenia.