Long-persecuted Yazidis find second homeland in Armenia

Happy in their adopted home, the religious minority watches in horror as ISIL pursues their people in their homeland

Vazir Avdalyan in Alagyaz.
Keegam Shamlian

ALAGYAZ, Armenia — Just an hour’s drive from Armenia’s bustling capital city of Yerevan, Vazir Avdalyan sat in his living room in this rural village and took a long drag off his cigarette, trying to concentrate on the task at hand. As the director of the village school, he should have been preparing for the start of the academic year.

But he had more pressing concerns on his mind: the plight of his people, the Yazidis, in Iraq.

Long considered a minority of a minority in Iraq, these previously obscure adherents to a religion influenced by Zoroastrianism, Christianity and the Sufi tradition in Islam found themselves in the international spotlight last month. Tens of thousands of them had fled into the ranges of Mount Sinjar to escape the murderous advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, prompting an international effort to bring them relief.

“We are one of the most ancient people in the world; we need to be helped,” Avdalyan said. “This religion shouldn’t be lost, even just for the sake of preserving history.”

It is a religion that has attracted persecution for centuries, from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, which forced them to flee to the Caucasus, to the destruction of Yazidi villages during Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq, in what became known as the Halabja massacre, when Kurds and other minorities were systematically targeted.

A statue of Melek Tawus, or the Peacock Angel.
Keegam Shamlian

The Yazidis believe in a deity called “Melek Tawus,” the Peacock Angel, who is identified as “Shaytan” in the Koran, the same name that Muslims have for Satan, which sometimes creates a misunderstanding by outsiders that they are devil worshippers.

Avdalyan watched the news unfold out of Iraq in August, horrified at the stories of what the militants of ISIL had wrought: hundreds killed, men buried alive, women kidnapped, young girls sold in markets, children starving or dying of dehydration. And the humanitarian emergency continues, as many families remain stranded on the mountain; others have fled to refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 Yazidi women and children have been captured by ISIL militants and are being trafficked for sex, according to a new BBC report.

Events in their holy land in northern Iraq, where the Yazidis have previously retreated during times of persecution, weigh heavily on Armenia’s Yazidi community. Hundreds gathered to protest in front of the Office of Foreign Affairs in downtown Yerevan, holding up posters of Iraqi Yazidi children and signs urging a stop to the violence.

The ISIL attack on the Yazidis was, for many outsiders, the first time they had heard of the faith, which has less than a million followers, the majority located in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. But there has been at least one safe space for one Yazidi community: Armenia.

‘There hasn’t been any place in the world that Yazidis have lived as normally as they have in Armenia. It’s probably because of this that I haven’t left yet.’

Vazir Avdalyan

director of a village school and a Yazidi

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 hasnt been any place in the world that Yazidis have lived as normally as they have in Armenia, Avdalyan said. Its probably because of this that I havent 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.

The headstone of a grave in a Yezidi cemetery in Armavir, Armenia.
Keegam Shamlian

Most Armenian Yazidis make their living from sheepherding and other forms of animal husbandry and live in the rural villages of Aragatsotn province, in the west, near Mount Aragats, the country’s highest point. Life is anything but easy here. Winters are unbearably cold, and the chill often manages to penetrate summer nights, too. Families burn cow dung to keep warm, recreational activities for children are virtually nonexistent, and many of the villages face enormous challenges when it comes to medical facilities and adequate infrastructure for schools.

Armenia’s high poverty rate and depressed job market have led to a serious emigration problem with all citizens, not just Yazidis. With close to a hundred thousand people interested in migration, many families rely heavily on remittances, Yazidis among them. In the villages of Alagyaz, Rya Taza and Jamshlu, Yazidi strongholds, the number of residents is dwindling. Many have gone to Russia and Western Europe in search of employment. A good chunk of them, village elders said, do not return.

Still, the connection to the South Caucasus country is deeply entrenched; when Armenian-born Yazidis die abroad, their bodies are sent back to Armenia for burial, according to several Yazidi village leaders in Armenia.

Though life for the Yazidis has been relatively peaceful in Armenia, there have been incidents of marginalization, too. A 2008 report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted that Yazidis in Armenia face problems with land privatization and land ownership, lack of political representation and social exclusion. 

‘In Armenia, everyone is a Yazidi, not a Kurd. Armenia was the first country to recognize Yazidis as a separate nationality.’

Khdr Hajoyan

Yezidi National Union

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. 

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, wait for aid at an abandoned building that they are using as their main residence, outside the city of Dohuk, Iraq, on August 25, 2014.
Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

“In Armenia, everyone is a Yazidi, not a Kurd. Armenia was the first country to recognize Yazidis as a separate nationality,” he said. “We don’t want anyone confusing Yazidis and Kurds with each other. They are not the same people. We have no ties with the Kurds.”

But not all in Armenia agree. “Everyone has the right to self-identity as they wish, but Yazidis are just one branch of Kurds. Some are Muslim, but we are the same people,” says Jasim Mahmudyan, an economist and Yazidi who was born and raised in Alagyaz. “As a man, as an individual, I identify as a Kurd, but as a Yazidi Kurd.”

But both sides are agreed on one thing: their frustration and grief over the situation of their fellow Yazidis in Iraq.

“My heart is bleeding when I see what is happening,” Hajoyan says. “This is genocide. The world is closing its eyes to genocide.”

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