Most were deeply moved by the compelling picture of the Yezidi people trapped by ISIS in early August 2014, yet for most that image has become but a memory. That picture provides a lens into a most tragic story. The Yezidis call August 3 the “turning point.” Approximately 5,000 Yezidi people were slaughtered in early 2014. The picture of the Yezidis fleeing and stranded on Mt. Sinjar was horrifying, Over 50,000 people were in imminent danger. The United States did get involved with air strikes for a short while, allowing the people to leave the mountain. However, today 500,000 Yezidis remain without homes, and are victims of rape and murder as the world watches ISIS attempt to destroy this historic and peace loving people.
In March of this year, in a rare act of unity, the House of Representative voted 393-0 to give the designation of genocide to the Yazidi. This is only the third time we have used that term in three decades. (The other two genocides are Rwanda and Darfur). Genocide is a legal term that has specific meaning all connected with the intent to systematically eradicate a religion, racial, ethnic group or national group from the face of the earth. The moral question that emerges is what is the responsibility of the world in responding to genocide? Regrettably, Darfur and Rwanda do not provide examples of intervention that are helpful. We need to grapple with both a humanitarian response as well as foreign policy that infuses the term genocide with a resolve to stop it.
I recently returned from my journey to Berlin and Amsterdam where I met with refugees from multiple countries including Yezidis. I went to “bear witness” to their plight and to listen to their voices. I had learned about these unique people and the danger they are living with in a comprehensive and articulate report published by the United Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2015. During this season of political campaigning with some stereotyping all refugees and immigrants, it is especially important to be keenly aware and respond to the largest refugee crises that the world has seen since WW 11.
I spent hours with Duezen Tekkal, a most personable and articulate Yezidi woman who is a German television journalist, author, and film maker. She wanted to know more about her roots, her people, and her history and joined her father on a perilous trip to Iraq in the summer of 2014. That trip resulted in her making a film and writing a book: “HÁWAR-MY JOURNEY TO GENOCIDE.”
Most Americans know little about the Yeziids, and so often we fear what we do not understand. They practice a 4,000 year-old tradition that combines Christian, Jewish and Muslim practices. There are about one million Yezidis in the world, half of them living in great peril in the Ninewa province of Iraq, and 100,000 living in Germany, most of whom are well integrated into German Culture.
The Yezidis have a strong moral anchor which includes a prayer: “First save the other people on the earth, and then save us.” Their spiritual center is in Lalish in Northern Iraq. They are inextricably linked with this land and have survived persecution throughout the ages. Most wish to remain there but many are seeking refuge. I met Deuzen’s parents and some of her siblings. Her father Seyhmus who has lived in Germany for decades and has been an active leader in championing the cause of the Yezidis tells me: ”We want justice, we want peace, and we want a future. We ask for the world to help us...Humanity is more important than whatever your religion is.”
In 2015 Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a 21 year old survivor of the genocide, told her horrifying story of enslavement and rape to the members of the United Nations Security Council. She shared in vivid detail her plight and that of her people: “Along the way, they humiliated us. They touched us and violated us. They took us to Mosul...where in a building there were thousands of Yezidi families and children and they exchanged us as gifts.”
On the Statute of Liberty, are the inspired words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It often seems that this refers only to people who are already here and is no longer an active value. Does it only apply to those who share our backgrounds, our religions? We know little about the Yezidis, we fear the Syrian refugees. Immigrants have shaped America. There are many others waiting to come to our shores including the Yezidis. They too yearn for a new life.
August 3 is the time for us to learn about the plight of the Yezidi people and to take actions that will protect them. For them August third is indelibly etched in their psyche and yet the horrors continue. Can we find some room in our hearts and our souls to learn more about and help these peace loving people? This genocide against the Yezidis is on our watch, what will be said of us, our conscience and our response?