By Brandon Balayan
Genocide is a heinous crime against humanity that brings death and displacement to its victims. Many things come to mind when talking about genocide. Whether it be deportations, forced conversion to a religion, or the systematic murder of a group of people, many agree that this is a crime punishable by international law. Some of these atrocities are overlooked, and among those is the recent genocide of the Yazidis.
The Who? The Yazidis; an ethnic minority of the Middle East which have survived more than 70 genocide campaigns in the past 13 centuries. They have roots to indigenous religious groups of Mesopotamia that existed more than 6,000 years ago. The plight of the Yazidi is nothing new. They are an ethnic minority without an autonomous state, and have been persecuted for centuries. They have been persecuted largely due to the fact that their religion, Yazidism, has been misinterpreted. The religion, Yazidism, still carries traditions of ancient cultures of Samaria and Babylonia, such as worshiping the sun and multiple other divine figures of nature.
The most powerful of these divine figures is Malak Taus. Their Muslim neighbors have misinterpreted Malak Taus for being the devil because he defied God to serve as a mediator between man and the divine. However, the Yazidi do not even believe in hell, let alone the devil. This all comes back full circle to August 3, 2014, the day ISIS commenced what was to be the most recent genocide of the Yazidis.
Within the next couple weeks more than 12,000 Yazidis were killed, and others were coerced into becoming sex slaves, child soldiers, and were even forced to convert religions or face death.
One man saw these atrocities occurring and decided that he could not sit back and watch as his people suffered. His name is Haider Elias; a Yazidi born in Iraq who would later move to Houston and eventually start Yazda, a nonprofit organization that helps with humanitarian and advocacy efforts of the recent genocide.
I sat down and had a brief conversation with Haider over the phone to get more of an idea on what is happening to the Yazidis and what people can do to help.
What is the story behind Yazda?
Back in 2014 I was taking pre-medical school classes. Then this happened to our community [in Iraq], and my brother was killed in the process and a couple of my family members were kidnapped. So we went to Washington D.C. and advocated for the Yazidi, created Yazda, and co-founded the organization. In the future, I still want to go to medical school, but for now I am going to put everything that is related to biology on hold. I am not going to pretend nothing is happening.
Has the United States helped the Yazidis?
The United States has helped with humanitarian efforts as well as providing air strikes, but in terms of immigration, other countries have done better. For example, Canada, Australia, and Germany. We’re trying to advocate that [the United States] can bring some of these survivors to the states, but that has not gone anywhere yet.
Haider is telling nothing but the truth. The only Yazidi communities in the United States are those in Lincoln, Nebraska, Houston, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona. Germany has been the most lenient with their immigration policies, allowing about 100,000 Yazidi to call it their home. The United Nations has helped, but Haider says they have not done enough.
How has the United Nations reacted to the recent genocide?
The UN is not very helpful. They are very distracted when it comes to helping the minority because they are afraid to hurt the feelings of majority Muslim countries. The recognition of genocide is one step, but it cannot stop there. There are other steps that need to be carried, such as bringing perpetrators to justice, providing resources to support the victims, and eventually protecting these minorities [from future genocides]. What is the benefit of recognizing the genocide if you don’t do anything about it?
Although they have recognized the Yazidi atrocities as a genocide, members of the United Nations, particularly the United States, have a long history of overlooking genocide and other crimes against humanity.
In 1975 Saddam Hussein launched Arabization campaigns to the Kurds of Northern Iraq. People were forced to convert religions, learn Arabic, and were even killed in the process. In about 1987, Hussein’s forces destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and killed nearly 100,000 Iraqi Kurds. Civilians were executed and gassed for simply being Kurdish or Yazidi.
The United States refrained from protest because they chose to back Iraq in their war against Iran. The US finally condemned Hussein’s regime, only after thousands of Kurds sought refuge in Turkey, a major NATO ally.
Before all of this, the United States supplied Iraq with $500 million per year in credits so they can buy American farm products. After 1988, Senator Claiborne Pell introduced sanctions on this program to punish Hussein for killing unarmed citizens. Instead of suspending the program, the administration doubled its commitment to $1 billion. The US did not want Iraqi oil reserves to fall into the hands of Ayatolla Khomeini, the religious leader of Iran. He was essentially the enemy of our enemy.
As time passed and multiple genocides ensued, ISIS rose to power and became the perpetrators of the most recent Yazidi Genocide. Thousands were killed, and others were forced to slavery or recruited as child soldiers, and there are currently about 320,000 displaced in Northern Iraq, Turkey and Greece.
Yazda has saved some of these people from their adversities, but it has not always been easy.
Has Yazda had instances where child soldiers or sex slaves have been rescued and have had to assimilate them back into society?
Yes, that is a tough one. We have had only a handful of those people. Some of them are hesitant to come to us and others are okay with social therapy. Some of them talk back, show symptoms of violence, and even consciously read verses from the Koran. This is no doubt going to affect them for the rest of their lives. It is challenging, of course.
To further their help to survivors. Yazda has developed education projects, women’s centers, health and medical services, and even small business help.
The education program helps provide a basic education and instills a sense of identity that has been lost to many young Yazidi. They help these children by advocating how important humanitarian efforts are to the Yazidi people, and hope to be bringing up some of the future leaders of the their community.
The women’s center is for those who have survived enslavement and captivity. These women were exposed to rape, violence, forced conversion to Islam, and marriage to ISIS militants. Each survivor is provided with a case manager to track their progress throughout the program, and this psychological support aims to help women assimilate back into society.
These atrocities are still occurring today, so Yazidi activist are constantly pushing for the advocacy of their communities hardships.
Have there been cases where journalists have been threatened or killed when talking about the Yazidi genocide?
They have been arrested for sure. They do not need to kill them, this would be political suicide for the Kurdistan Regional Government. They have arrested many Yazidi for speaking the truth. The Yazidi speak more against the Kurdish authorities, who they feel betrayed them.
The Kurdistan Regional Government was in charge of Sinjar, Iraq when the most recent genocide broke out; the Iraqi central government was not. As ISIS commenced their attack on August 3, 2014, the local Kurds refused to fight their “Muslim brothers” to protect the Yazidis.
It is illegal to learn or talk about the genocide under the KRG education system, but Haider says that Yazda is rebellious when it comes to learning about the truth in their education programs. It is also not stopping activists like Haider from spreading word on these atrocities himself.
What can other people do to help?
Help spread the message of the Yazidi through social media to help bring awareness. People can also donate; 100% of the donations go towards helping survivors.
Yazidis have been constantly persecuted but haven’t received much support from western nations. Thus, they like to say that “they have no friends but the mountains.”
Well, the Yazidi people have won over my friendship and hopefully yours. Cultures like theirs are vulnerable against attacks of genocide, so we should do all that we can to help preserve their traditions, beliefs, and people. These atrocities can be stopped. It will take time, but that is not stopping me from lending a hand out for these people to survive.
For more information on Yazidi humanitarian and advocacy efforts, visit www.yazda.org.