Jamal Ibrahim and Salema Merza, two members of an ancient Middle Eastern ethnoreligious minority, the Yazidis, were among few to immigrate to the U.S. and escape their hometown of Sinjar before attacks by ISIS.
They visited UNC Charlotte last week to share their experiences. Merza is the deputy director of women’s affairs for the global organizations Yazda. She travels on behalf of the organization to help survivors share their stories and raise money for the organization which funds aid to refugee settlements in the Middle East and abroad. Before the 2014 attacks, Merza taught science at local schools and Ibrahim ran food distribution centers that worked with the U.S. government.
After the 2014 attacks, their homes, businesses and former lives ceased to exist. Sinjar was a community in mountains of northern Iraq bordering Syria that has been home to the Yazidis for centuries. Though Yazidis have been no strangers to persecution, the atrocities that occurred after ISIS invaded Sinjar on August 3, 2014 caught them by surprise.
“Before this, Christians, Muslims and Yazidis were co-existing in Sinjar,” she said. “After the fighting, locals supported ISIS.”
The level of crimes committed against the Yazidis can be considered genocide, but were largely ignored by the international community until they were brought into the limelight by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.
Merza and Ibrahim spoke firsthand of men being systematically killed and women and children taken for sex slavery. “7000 people were killed within the first hour,” said Merza, “Suicide bombers were sent into the community. ISIS attacked the Yazidis with the intent to exterminate them.”
Those who made it to safety from the attacks became homeless. “Approximately half a million fled their homes and were stranded on Mount Sinjar without food or water,” said Merza. “170 children and elderly died of heat exhaustion and dehydration. 3,000 children became orphans. Many elderly were left behind. Thousands of Yazidi children were taken to ISIS training camps and brainwashed. Yazidi boys were forced to carry out suicide missions. ISIS conducted the largest sexual enslavement of Yazidi women. Yazidi girls as young as nine were raped and sold for sex multiple times.”
The entire Yazidi population has been displaced in refugee camps. ISIS held guns to the heads of Yazidi men and boys forcing them to convert or be killed. “74 crude mass graves have been discovered in Sinjar, most bodies haven’t been identified or families notified,” said Merza.
Ibrahim shared his personal experience during the attacks with Merza translating. On August 3, he received a call from a friend in south Sinjar, where ISIS attacked first, warning him to flee. Ibrahim and his family were especially in danger because ISIS knew his family worked with the U.S. military to distribute food supplies and aid. He got a call from ISIS threatening to take his markets and homes and kill him and all his family if he did not convert to Islam. He and 14 family members then squeezed into a car meant for five people. His elderly father and uncle decided to stay behind in order to provide space in the car for more women and children.
“They did not believe it would progress to the degree that it did. They believed that their non-Yazidi neighbors would protect them,” said Ibrahim, eyes welling.
When their car made it to the border of Kurdistan at 2 a.m. that morning, they discovered that it had been closed. “I saw an old woman holding the hands of two kids getting ready to commit suicide if they didn’t let them in,” said Ibrahim.
Eventually when the Kurds opened the border, Ibrahim and his family sought refuge in one of the settlements. Ibrahim, his wife and his 15-year-old daughter were lucky enough to secure a visa to come to America.
“Some of his family still live in Iraq in camps and are in a dangerous situation because they worked with the U.S. military and are considered ‘infidels’ by ISIS,” translated Merza. “His wife and daughter both have severe trauma and struggle to live a normal life.”
When Ibrahim returned to Sinjar to try to locate his father and uncle, an old man told him he saw them being forced into a car by militants. Ibrahim visited one of the mass grave sites and found his father’s ID on one of the bodies and recognized his uncle’s keys on another. The police granted his request to keep the keys to his family home. Upon returning to the area, he found his home and his family business had been destroyed. Ibrahim closed, “Now the question is ‘what was the fault? What did I do?’ People should think of others as human no matter who they are.”
To many Yazidis, the future of their homeland looks dim. Most of the little infrastructure they had was destroyed. Hospitals closed due to lack of doctors, medicine an electricity. The U.N. used to help with essential items and some financial support, but no longer do, according to Merza.
“Most Yazidis don’t want to be refugees in other countries. The homeland is where you want to live,” said Merza. “They do want to stay in the homeland in case they get support from the big countries. I hope you can go to the government and tell them to help the most vulnerable.”