As the American air campaign over Iraq to defend the Yazidi
minority from an onslaught of Sunni militants shows signs of success, members of the
religious sect's diaspora community are coming to grips with a sinking
realization: No matter what happens next, Iraq will never be a safe place for
"There is no way to live there anymore," Ghanim Masto, a
30-year-old Yazidi man who lives in Houston, said. "I am 100 percent sure."
Masto and a delegation of Yazidis living in North America were
in Washington this week to appeal to the State Department and journalists about
the Yazidis' plight and to build support for the migration of Iraqi Yazidis to
the West. The plan is for Europeans, Americans, Canadians, and other Western powers to
help facilitate a mass migration of the Iraqi Yazidi community, which is
believed to number between 400,000 and 500,000. They are seeking any assistance
to achieve their goal: expedited visas, refugee status, and safe passage. While
America's humanitarian mission in Iraq is far too limited to encompass an
operation of that magnitude, many Yazidis say deserting their ancestral
homeland is the only way to guarantee their survival.
"It's become so obvious and clear now," Sebastian Maisel, a
professor at Grand Valley State University and America's preeminent scholar of
the religious sect, said. "They don't want to go back to any of Iraq's villages
because ultimately no one can protect them."
According to the U.N.'s refugee agency, some Yazidis stranded
on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq have already fled to Syria, while other Yazidi
families have scattered to various parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and Sinjar. The new
refugee data comes as the Obama administration takes credit for ending a siege
on the mountain by the Islamic State militants that threatened to exterminate
the Yazidis, paving the way for many to escape. "We broke the ISIL siege of Mt.
Sinjar," said President Obama in an address from Martha's Vineyard.
"The situation on the mountain has greatly improved."
However, just as Obama delivered his remarks, Kurdish officials and Yazidi refugees claimed
thousands remained in dire straits on Mount Sinjar. Many who managed to
escape showed signs of extreme hunger and thirst, according to the U.N., which
works with local NGOs and aid partners in the region.
"The refugees arrive exhausted and deeply traumatized, their
feet covered in blisters, having spent days on Mt. Sinjar in searing
temperatures without food, water or shelter after fleeing for their lives, then
walking many hours -- in some cases days -- to find safety," the U.N.'s Thursday
For many Yazidis, this latest bout of ethnic cleansing is the
According to Iraq's human rights minister, the Islamic State,
previously known as ISIS, has killed at least 500 Yazidis since occupying
Sinjar this month. Meanwhile, Yazidis say the number is well into the thousands. The
radical group is systematically forcing Yazidis to convert to Islam or face
execution. "Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the
earth," said Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.
Yazidis' troubles existed long before the Islamic State began seizing territory
in Iraq's Sunni- and Kurdish-dominated areas. Viewed as heretical "devil-worshipers" by many of their Muslim
neighbors, Yazidis claim to have survived more than 70 acts of genocide
throughout history. The source of this hatred hinges on a fundamental
misunderstanding dating back to the late 16th century.
The Yazidi faith, which incorporates aspects of Islam,
Zoroastrianism, and Mithraism, involves a central figure called Melek Taus,
the Peacock Angel who once defied God but now serves as an administrator of
mankind. To some Muslims, Melek Taus fits the profile of a Quranic character
known as Shaytan (aka the devil). The Yazidi faith holds that Melek Taus is a
force of good, not evil, and the two religious figures are completely
unrelated, yet that message still hasn't gotten across to the Yazidis'
tormentors, who persecute them for their faith.
"They've been brainwashed for centuries that we're
devil-worshipers," said Masto. "It's mind blowing."
Masto moved from Iraq to the United States in 2009 through a
State Department program that gives visas to Iraqis who
assisted the U.S. military during the occupation of Iraq. Between 2005 and
2009, Masto worked as a translator for the U.S. Army. Like many of the 1,200
Yazidis who now call themselves Americans, Masto has family who are in danger.
"My parents, five brothers, and three sisters are on the
mountaintop," he said. "All they want right now is to survive and get out of
Masto last spoke with his family on Aug. 2, the day they ran
from Sunni militants to Mount Sinjar, where they face blazing hot temperatures
and have little food or water. Masto is particularly concerned about the health
of his siblings' 1-year-old nephew and 3-year-old niece but has been unable to
contact his family since their cellphone's charge ran out on Aug. 3.
Masto and Imad Matto, another Houston-based Yazidi, said the
next step for Iraqi Yazidis is finding a permanent way out. "They cannot live
anymore in Muslim countries," Matto said. "Always genocide and killing and
raping of our women."
But the Yazidi expatriate community is not monolithic and some
flinch at the thought of losing their ancestral homeland. "We've lived there
for thousands of years," noted Mirza Ismail, head of the Yazidi Human Rights
Organization, a small network of Yazidi groups in the United States and Canada.
Northwestern Iraq is home to key Yazidi holy places, villages, and shrines that
hold profound religious significance for them. Yazidis around the world
pilgrimage to the holy city of Lalish, which is now some 40 miles away from
Islamic State-held territory. But Ismail conceded that for some, the constant
threat of violence and persecution often outweighs the value of cultural
heritage. "For many Yazidis, life in Iraq is a living nightmare and they need
to get out," he said.
Regardless, although efforts by the United States and allies
are significant, the humanitarian operation is unlikely to facilitate a mass
migration of the kind many Yazidis say is necessary. In his statement on
Wednesday, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the success
of America's air campaign meant that an "evacuation mission is far less
Sam Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, said the Obama administration would likely put the
Yazidis' fate in Kurdish hands.
"Our overall strategy is to back the Kurds and enable them to
take responsibility for protecting minorities," he said. Some Yazidis prefer to
live under the protection of Peshmerga fighters in the expanding territories under Kurdish control
while others say they have lost trust in the Peshmerga for their failure to
coordinate with Yazidis during the seizure of Sinjar this month.
"Kurdish Peshmerga groups did not give a warning" about the
militants' advance, Masto said. "My family didn't have time to collect their
stuff; they just started running to the mountain on Aug. 2."
Ismail went a step further and blamed the Kurdistan Regional
Government for complicity in the slaughter of Yazidis. "On Aug. 2, the KRG
ordered all its militia to fall back and refused to give Yazidis anything to
defend themselves," he said. "The Peshmerga left the Yazidis in the bloody
hands of ISIS."
The Yazidis of Sinjar, in particular, have lingering resentment
toward the Kurds for taking over their territory in northwest Iraq without
giving them sufficient autonomy, said Maisel, the Yazidi scholar.
Given the profound suffering the Yazidis have endured at the
hands of so many, the reluctance to trust Kurdish Muslims -- or anyone else in
the region -- is natural.
"In the long run, [an exodus] seems to be the only alternative
from a Yazidi perspective," Maisel said. "A humanitarian corridor may help the
Yazidis' immediate survival but what's next? The ISIS offensive might never