by Oliver Wedemeyer, Cohort 8
In August 2014, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked and conquered areas in northern Iraq, thereby targeting its religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Yazidi, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Sabaean-Mandaeans, Turkmen, Shabak, and Kaka’I.
The ethno-religious community of the Yazidi was singled out for especially brutal treatment, because, according to ISIS ideology, they were considered ‘devil worshippers’. In just a few days, more than 5,000 men and boys were murdered, more than 7,000 women and children were abducted and over 500,000 people were displaced, with most of them fleeing to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), particularly Dohuk Governorate. According to Al Jazeera, more than 3,000 women and children are still missing to this day.
In the aftermath of the Yazidi Genocide (one out of overall 74 genocides against the ethno-religious community in the past, as it is indicated in folktales and traditional folksongs of the Yazidi), the global Yazidi community responded immediately. Different NGOs were founded to raise funds and support the local Yazidi community in its recovery from the horrific events.
During my stay in Iraq, I was privileged to visit a German-Iraqi NGO that is called ‘Our Bridge’, which was founded in my hometown of Oldenburg and which operates in Khanke, KRI today. Starting off with opening an orphanage in 2017, Our Bridge has established an education facility in the meantime, offering free education to the most disadvantaged children in Khanke with, for the region, amazingly interesting and rather progressive approaches, such as meditation or environmental education. My internship organization is also among these new emerging NGOs and is called ‘Yazda’. Yazda is a multi-national and global organization that was founded in 2014 with its main branch in the United States, but is also registered in Germany, Sweden, the UK, Australia and Iraq. In January 2015, the organization commenced to operate in Iraq, both in KRI and Federal Iraq, and has provided, amongst others, humanitarian responses that include educational, health, legal, livelihood and psychosocial support to the genocide survivors. Besides these humanitarian responses, Yazda launched a documentation project, over the course of which the staff collects, stores and preserves evidence and information on the crimes committed against the Yazidi from August 2014 onwards by ISIS with the aims of preserving the Yazidi culture, facilitating legal accountability for perpetrators, and advocating on behalf of the Yazidi community.
Over the course of my internship with Yazda in Iraq, I had the chance to support the case management team. The case managers (operating in four teams: one in Duhok, one in Sinune, one in Shingal City, one in Bashiqa) support the genocide survivors by providing administrative support, for instance with the application for one-time payment programs for genocide survivors by international organizations such as International Organization of Migration (IOM) or other designated aid programs, with the application for resettlement in Canada, U.S.A. or Australia or in the procedure of family reunification with family outside of Iraq. They are further trained to give psychological support which they do in either individual or group sessions and which they provide continuously by following up on the cases even after the first assessment of needs is completed.
My tasks during the internship included writing donor reports about recent activities, writing project proposals for future projects and compiling and processing data. I further represented Yazda at different coordination meetings, such as cluster meetings of local actors in protection services in Dohuk Governorate and at a Round-Table meeting on the reintegration of children formerly affiliated with ISIS.
Astonishingly, the prevailing majority of Yazda’s national staff belongs to the Yazidi community and was directly affected by the genocide as well: either they lost family members, had to flee their homes which leading them to live in IDP camps under arduous conditions, where some of them still live to the present day or both. From the very first moment, I was impressed of what they have sacrificed and still sacrifice every day for the recovery of their local communities. Some of them abandoned a secured and well-paid permanent employment for the work with Yazda, risking their own mental well-being by being exposed to the fates of the survivors day by day, constantly being taken back to the most traumatic events of their own lives. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with these people and to have gotten to know them.
Resulting from my stay in Iraq, I am deeply worried about the current trends that the Yazidi community (and other minorities, for that matter) faces there, but also in Germany. In Iraq, even five years after the genocidal campaign, the IDPs and survivors still find themselves in a precarious situation. Hundreds of thousands still remain in IDP camps that are massively overcrowded, some of which do not have running water or electricity up to this day. I thoroughly remember a female survivor who was speaking in a panel discussion at a conference in Baghdad that Yazda organized on behalf of the 5th anniversary of the genocidal campaign. She stated: “After three years in captivity under ISIS, witnessing and experiencing the cruelest crimes one could ever imagine, I felt like, once liberated, moving from captivity to the camps was like exchanging one prison for the other.”
I am deeply worried about the current trends that the Yazidi community (and other minorities, for that matter) faces there, but also in Germany.
Not only the situation of the IDPs in the camps (let alone the situation of IDPs outside of the camps, where most of the IDPs live) remains highly problematic. Towns across Iraq are still in ruins; most of the Yazidi community and other minorities still cannot return, and do not want to return, to their homes in Shingal for multiple reasons: firstly, their homes are often laced with ISIS bombs and/or are destroyed and secondly, the threat of ISIS (and other militias) is not over yet. Even though ISIS was militarily defeated in its last stronghold in Baghouz in March 2019, ISIS members are still very much active all over Iraq, recruiting new members as well as carrying out suicide attacks, threating and killing community leaders, especially in Shingal.
In personal encounters with Yazidi in KRI and Shingal, the people revealed their fears but also their certainties that the genocide by ISIS is not over yet. This delicate development in Iraq, however, is not recognized by the German authorities. In Germany, the asylum policy towards Yazidi has become stricter over the last months and years, resulting in an increase of rejections of asylum applications. In a landmark decision taken by the Lower Saxony Higher Administrative Court in Lüneburg in July 2019, the court rejected an asylum application of an Iraqi Yazidi and his sister, arguing that a group persecution of Yazidi in the Shingal Mountains was no longer ‘sufficiently probable’, leaving them facing deportation back to Iraq. German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, who established the Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology at the University of Dohuk in order to train local psychologists to tackle the immense psychological needs of the local population after the horrific events of 2014, labelled the potential deportation of Yazidi back into the war zones of Iraq as a ‘fatal catastrophe’- a judgement that I share after my stay and my experiences that I made in Iraq.
German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan... labelled the potential deportation of Yazidi back into the war zones of Iraq as a ‘fatal catastrophe’ – a judgement that I share after my stay and my experiences that I made in Iraq.