In Iraq, Yazidis seeking refuge at holy site feel helpless, abandoned

Aveen Khalf Kasim, among the displaced Yazidis in Lalish, Iraq, unties and reties knots in colorful fabric in a ritual at a shrine in the holy village.
Aveen Khalf Kasim, among the displaced Yazidis in Lalish, Iraq, unties and reties knots in colorful fabric in a ritual at a shrine in the holy village.
(Raja Abdulrahim / Los Angeles Times)

‎Aveen Khalf Kasim, 7, walked around one of the seven pillars at the main shrine of the Yazidi faith, hastily untying and tying knots.

“I was asking for the well-being for all the Yazidis,” explained the youngster, who was wearing a pink T-shirt bearing the words “happy” and “live” in English.

The Yazidis, who follow an ancient faith with links to Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity, believe that prayers made while tying a knot in the colorful fabric will be granted when another pilgrim unties them.


“All the Yazidis are coming here and praying for well-being,” said her mother, Laila Afdaal.

In early August, the Sunni Muslim militant group Islamic State rapidly advanced through western and northern Iraq and into Sinjar, where much of the Yazidi community has long lived. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled rather than face mandatory conversion or death.

Hundreds found their way to this mountain village in northern Iraq that is the holiest site for Yazidis, home to the tomb of their founder Sheik Adi and shrines to other leaders of the faith.

Afdaal and her family were on a one-day pilgrimage, visiting from a nearby refugee camp that has served as a temporary home since they came down from Mt. Sinjar, where they were trapped for 10 days in August with thousands of other starving and dehydrated Yazidis. Afdaal said they had to leave her 90-year-old father on the mountain because he was too frail to make the journey. Three days later, they learned that he had died.

“This is not a life, it’s very hard,” she said. “We expected there would be help, but the help didn’t come.”

Many families who sought refuge in Lalish remain here and new ones are still arriving, reusing blankets, pots, mattresses and tarps left behind by families who have moved on to refugee camps, which offer only a modicum more of stability and services.


Last week was to have been the Yazidis’ annual pilgrimage to Lalish for celebration and prayers. But the faith’s leaders decided to cancel the Eid this year because of the massive displacement of its people as well as thousands still missing or held captive by Islamic State. Rooms across the holy village normally used by pilgrims are now packed with displaced people.

On Sunday, Islamic State made the first public admission that its fighters have enslaved and sold hundreds of Yazidi women as concubines in addition to their children. Since the militants first rampaged through Yazidi towns, the minority sect and rights groups have reported mass cases of forced religious conversions, forced marriages and sexual slavery.

“Our hearts are broken this Eid. What else can we do? The people are tired, the people are poor,” said Pirs Saeed, a religious leader at Lalish who has dedicated his life to the faith, forsaking marriage and worldly concerns. From the window of his room he can look out at International Organization for Migration tents erected on the roof of a shrine.

In August, on the day President Obama authorized targeted airstrikes and a humanitarian effort to save Yazidis trapped by Islamic State militants, he declared, “Today America is coming to help.”

And though aid continues to stream in from various governments and humanitarian agencies, many displaced Yazidis say they feel abandoned nonetheless and remain at risk as long as Islamic State has a presence in Iraq.

“When is President Obama going to help all the helpless people? When the homeless Yazidis are walking through the streets of New Jersey and California and South Carolina?” asked Sulaiman Shaybo Sedo. “When is he going to be our hero?”

“I can’t live like a sheep among a flock of wolves,” said Sedo, a father of nine. “To be honest, we are pessimistic.”

Sedo, who worked for eight years as an interpreter for American troops during the Iraq war, has been living with his family under a highway overpass since mid-August, along with members of 12 other families. Some have tents, others only carpets to sleep on.

Even if Islamic State were to be expelled from Sinjar and surrounding Yazidi villages, they would be afraid to return.

Viyan Yousif, a Kurdish pharmacist and head of the Kurdistan Medical Charity Foundation, came to Lalish last month to treat those cut off from medical care since fleeing their homes.

“The problem wasn’t in the mountains; the problem began when they came here,” he said. “In the mountains they had God. Here no countries have come to help us, including the United States. Don’t send me planes to strike ISIS — that doesn’t solve the problem — send me aid.”

The plight of the Yazidis is representative of the grave refugee situation facing Iraqis of all faiths: Islamic State is a threat to any group that doesn’t believe in its severe interpretation of Islam. Shoddy tent communities have sprung up to house various ethnic or religious groups.

An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced and 850,000 are in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, said Ned Colt, a spokesman with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The needs are massive and the demands are outstripping the supply,” he said. “We are catching up, but clearly this has been a massive humanitarian displacement. This remains a crisis with people living in schools and mosques and churches.”

Yazidis are among the poorest Iraqis, making it particularly difficult for them to cope with displacement. Most are farmers or shepherds and few have the money to rent apartments, they say.

Just outside a shrine at Lalish, where the faithful gather before dawn, Shukri Hajji Jameel and his family have made a temporary home.

As pilgrims make their way to a small room, where they pray at the altar and leave cash donations at the threshold, they cast sidelong glances at the extended of family of nine.

The family has a few thin mattresses and blankets, a one-burner stove and the day’s meal, a bowl of rice and scraps of meat, more skin than protein. Above their heads hangs a UNHCR tarp that was handed down to them, along with most of their current possessions, when another family departed the village for a displacement camp.

“I wish that God would take us out of this country, but we don’t have any money,” said Jameel, a Yazidi who is an Iraqi soldier but hasn’t been on duty since his salary was halted in June when Islamic State took control of Mosul.

Those with nowhere else to go find themselves here among shrines, altars and holy water.

“Where else are we going to go? We don’t have a car, we don’t have the money to rent an apartment,” said his wife, Nawal Jameel Elyas. “We figured we would be safest among our people.”