Yazidis are a minority religious group, mostly living in northern Iraq. Their religion is believed to have been founded in the 11th century, and is derived from combining elements of Christianity, Islam and an ancient Persian faith. They are also ethnically Kurdish, another minority group in Iraq.
There are around 700,000 Yazidis, despite their having faced years of oppression and threatened extermination. The group were subject to 72 genocidal massacres during Ottoman rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Iraq in 2007, following Al-Qaida sanctioning their indiscriminate killing, as many as 800 Yazidis were killed by a spate of coordinated truck bombs.
In recent years Yazidis have had to endure mass abductions, forced conversions and the rape of Yazidi women and girls by Islamic State militants. When Sinjar, a city which once had a large Yazidi population, fell to ISIS in 2014, Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar. Besieged by militants, 40,000 to 50,000 people were trapped, and hundreds of people may have died from starvation and dehydration before they could be evacuated.
In March this year US Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Islamic State was committing genocide in Iraq and Syria, including against Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims.
“The fact is [the Islamic State] kills Christians because they are Christians, Yazidis because they’re Yazidis, Shiite because they are Shiite,” Kerry said.
As many as 15% of Yazidis have fled Iraq and are seeking asylum in Europe. ADRA is leading the humanitarian response in one camp in northern Greece where there are around 1,000 Yazidis.
Seeking safety for their children
As we pull into the camp, children run up to the van, waving and calling out greetings. People are queuing to receive food, while others are already cooking on fires spread throughout the camp. Others are returning from the forest, carrying wood to make more fires.
Not long after we arrive, we are approached by a man, Erol, who is clearly agitated. He ushers us over to where his family is spread out on blankets on the ground, the women preparing a meal. He has 11 children, and one of the smallest is crying. Erol is distressed because his son is sick, but he doesn’t know how to help him. They were able to take him to the hospital where a doctor gave them some medicine. But Erol says the medicine doesn’t seem to be helping, the child still has a fever.
“We escaped from the war,” Erol says. “We want a safe place to live in peace. But here [in the camp] our life… My child is sick and I don’t know how to get him medicine. We ran away from death and now we’re in the middle of death. Look how we are now. These are my children…”
Erol’s son isn’t the only child suffering from illness or injury.
Next we meet Nahid, a 28-year-old mother who is travelling with her two children and three siblings. Her husband is in Germany, waiting to be reunited with his family. About 12 days ago, Nahid’s seven-year-old daughter Sana was injured when a pot of tea tipped over and burned her leg. Medical staff treated the burn, but there is little improvement.
The previous day, ADRA staff took Sana to the hospital to have her wound examined and treated. Hospital staff changed the bandages and gave her an injection. They said she needed medicine, and gave Nahid a prescription. But the medicine costs 30 Euros, and the family can’t afford it.
After returning the Nahid and Sana to the camp, the translator who had accompanied them to the hospital went back to the hotel, but found that he couldn’t sleep.
“She is very young but very strong. She knows that she burned her leg, but she was walking on it. She wasn’t scared of the doctor, but I was scared. The doctor wasn’t so gentle. He was hurting her a lot. She was screaming. I was holding her, I couldn’t look. I was kissing her head.
“The medicine is expensive. I wanted to help but I can’t. I feel ashamed. I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t help them. It was miserable for me, miserable. It was like my daughter. Imagine a little girl begging you, and you couldn’t help them.”
Nahid says we can take a photo of Sana and her brother, too, but before we do so she takes a few minutes to fuss over her children – washing their faces, combing their hair, tucking in their shirts.
While the camp is surrounded by woods, in the camp itself there is very little shade, and although its only early spring, it is already very hot. We take a break in what appears to be a picnic shelter, one of the few sources of shade. We are joined by some of the other children in the camp.
The girls play knuckles (very expertly, I might add) while we throw a ball around with some of the boys. One of the older girls speaks quite good English. She tells us that she was in Grade 5 in Iraq, and that English was her favorite subject. One of the boys wants to borrow my camera, and snaps a few photos of his friends.
On my last day in northern Greece, we return to the camp. We join two older men sitting on the grass. They tell us about how the Islamic State came to their area. They tell us about how Islamic State militants took their wives and daughters. How they burned their houses.
“The problem is my wife is alone,” Adiv, 71, tells us, fingering his prayer beads. “We only have each other and we are separated now. When [the Islamic State] came we were separated. I lost her and I didn’t know where she was.”
Adiv made his way alone from Iraq, through Turkey and finally to Greece. When he arrived here, an NGO helped him to find his wife, who is in Germany. They have been separated for one year. He is grateful to know that she is okay, and that now he has her number so they can talk on the phone.
We thank the men for talking to us. They thank us for listening.
“Send our voices to the world,” Adiv says.
Just before we leave, we talk to one more man. He tells us that when Islamic State militants attacked Sinjar, he and many others had to hide in the mountains for nine days. They had no food and almost no water – only a few bottles just for the children.
“Some of us died, but some survived.”
Names have been changed to protect identities.