Fleeing approaching Islamic State militants, tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi community in Iraq have found refuge in an unlikely place -- war-torn Syria.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said Thursday that at least 15,000 Yazidi refugees are sheltering in Syria's Kurdish north, after fleeing from Iraq in early August when the Islamic State captured Yazidi towns.
Wounded, weak and deeply traumatized by their flight through barren mountains in the blistering heat, the Yazidi refugees have been welcomed by Syrians, according to UNHCR. Local residents have helped transport refugees to safe areas, donated clothes and delivered home-cooked meals to the Newroz camp where the Yazidi refugees are sheltering, the agency said. A Kurdish official told the Associated Press that some Syrians have taken the Yazidis into their own homes.
“We are all here to at least offer a smile for the arrivals after what they have been through," a Syrian volunteer at a transit point for Yazidi refugees told the U.N. children's fund (UNICEF). The agency said more than half of the refugees arriving in Syria are children. “We just want a safe place,” said Roshan, a mother of six. “All countries are in war. I am tired."
Yazidis are a Kurdish speaking minority who practice an ancient religious tradition and are viewed as heretics by the Islamic State. Northeast Syria has its own Yazidi and Christian populations.
Syrian Kurdish fighters helped secure escape routes into Syria last week from an Iraqi mountaintop where Yazidis were besieged by the Islamic State. The same forces have battled both Islamist rebels in Syria and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad to establish areas of relative safety in the Kurdish north.
"For Yazidis coming off the mountains, Syria is the natural place to go, and if you avoid ISIS's territory in Syria – and if you're in an area under the control of the (Syrian Kurdish fighters) PYD – you are in good hands," Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa, told Syria Deeply.
Many of the Yazidis who were able to reach Syria have crossed back into safer zones of the Kurdish region in Iraq, where they hope to reunite with relatives they were separated from during the refugee exodus, the UNHCR said.