Yazidi refugees in Turkey: back to their homeland?

  • January 14, 2015

Borders & Beyond

Suffering brutal attacks by ISIS, many Yazidis fled to Turkey. Now they are settled in refugee camps in the very lands their ancestors once came from.

Last month Ayşan Sönmez visited the refugee camps of the displaced Kurds from Kobani in Suruç, Turkey. This is her report from her recent visit to the Yazidi refugee camps in Diyarbakir and Mardin.


The price of oil has hit rock bottom and the dollar has skyrocketed against the Turkish lira. In the meantime a war is raging just across the border and the Yazidis have been displaced for something like the 74th time in their history. Indeed, isn’t this how things stand?

When commenting on Turkish history, we tend to say that history repeats itself and we complain about the lack of memory in our society. It appears that, as globalization increases pace, we are destined to go on living with such a short-lived memory in this so-called global village. In countries like Turkey, the drop in the price of oil led to excitement, but this was quickly replaced by consternation as the dollar rose as the result of the economic crisis in Russia and the Turkish lira depreciated.

In that environment, the unpopular war in Syria and its victims were forgotten both in Turkey and abroad. In the meantime, people and governments who have supported and encouraged the war busied themselves with the new issues that have arisen.

Yet again, are we going to pass it all off by saying that history simply repeats itself? Are we going to lament that war has reared its head, this time in Syria, leading to the same suffering that occurred a hundred years ago in the same region, a suffering with different faces that we have been enduring for years here in our country? I hope that’s not the case. I hope that we make the best of the peace process currently underway and that both in civil and official discourses we can bring about genuine peace with the core origins of our homeland.

Of course, Turkey and the Middle East as a whole are peopled by members of various religious and ethnic groups. And prioritizing any one group over another and stoking conflicts among them leads to nothing but death and suffering. Those who manage to survive are expected to just shoulder their suffering and continue along. This has been going on for years, from the Balkans and the Caucasus to Mesopotamia.

International powers that have had an impact on the Middle East, including the United States, Europe, Russia, and the Arab nations, have persistently meddled in the region despite the negative consequences of their actions.

The Yazidis return to their original homeland

On August 9 nearly 36,000 Yazidis began fleeing into Turkey to escape advancing ISIS forces. The refugees claim that while waiting to enter Turkey numerous children succumbed to thirst and starvation. Due to the chaotic situation and generally poor infrastructural conditions at the border these claims are hard to verify, but the refugees themselves speak of “thousands of deaths.”

Once in Turkey, the Yazidis were “temporarily settled” in villages and camps in the area, particularly in the village of Bacini in Midyat, which is originally a Yazidi village which had been razed by the Turkish army in the 1990s in the context of the war with the PKK. Even though they were intended to be temporary, the tent camp of Çınar in Diyarbakır and the bus terminal in Mardin, the opening of which was postponed so that the refugees could stay there, were transformed into more permanent camps due to the massive influx of refugees (nearly 400,000) from Kobani in September as the result of further assaults by ISIS.

While some of the refugees from Kobani had relatives in the region with whom they could stay, the Yazidis were not so lucky, and they were not enthusiastic about the idea of staying in a Muslim country where their forebears had once been massacred, nor did they want to be separated from one another.

The majority of the Yazidis are consulting with representatives from the UN so that they can migrate to the United States and countries in Europe. Some of them have returned to Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan, while those experiencing health issues are trying to get to the state-run camp in Nusaybin where they can receive health care. Still others have moved to different provinces in Turkey after having been swindled by human traffickers who promised they would get them into Europe illegally.

Although the figures are constantly changing, it is estimated that the number of Yazidi refugees in the region has dropped to around 15,600. At the Çınar camp, there are around 3,835 refugees, 1,350 of whom are children, and at the bus terminal camp in Mardin, there are around 300 refugees, half of whom are children. It is estimated that the number of refugees around Mardin has dropped to around 1,600.

One pressing issue is the fact that fundamentalist and separatist groups in Diyarbakır and Mardin, including ISIS sympathizers, pose a threat to Yazidis staying in the camps, and they have even attempted to attack them. Whenever a tip is received or there are suspicions that an attack might be carried out, local residents take turns holding watch over the camps to prevent killings from taking place. Based on what we were told, this system is still in place.

Complaints and information have come in about traffickers in women and children and black market organ dealers in the region, and we were told that efforts have been made to prevent refugees from becoming involved in such schemes.

How can sustainability be created?

At present, the refugees’ winter needs are being met and a food distribution system is in place, but it is not currently able to ensure that their dietary needs are met in a sustainable manner. NGOs and individuals regularly step in to provide aid, and a team consisting of Yazidis is responsible for distributing the aid that comes in.

The camps have equipment and personnel for first aid, the local municipalities have set aside finances and workforces for the camps, pharmaceutical associations are providing medicine, and further help is being provided by citizens living abroad, civil society organizations, the Faculty of Theology at Dicle University, local chapters of the Olive Branch Aid Association, human rights associations in Turkey, and the Diyarbakır Chamber of Commerce. These groups also visit the camps to make assessments.

Businessmen in the region are also providing assistance and local residents are helping as well, but in their case, it is a matter of the impoverished helping the impoverished. Civil solidarity is very important but the number of people in need of help is very high, so it is questionable how long this situation can remain sustainable. The minimum amount of funds needed to cover the weekly needs of the Çınar camp is estimated to be 60,000 TL (roughly 20,000 Euro).

In the eastern regions of Turkey alone there are approximately one million refugees, and the cost of meeting their needs is consequently high. It has become quite clear that refugees fleeing from the war should be integrated into Turkish society with the same rights as local citizens and opportunities for employment should be opened up for them. Additionally, steps should be made to normalize their lives and their children should be able to attend school.

Despite the fact that this is a pressing issue in terms of the Turkish economy, the government has largely remained silent. Aside from setting up a tent city capable of housing 10,000 people, for all practical purposes the government is nonexistent in the region. Municipalities headed by the Kurdish-led HDP (People’s Democratic Party) are deeply in debt. It appears that this situation is being exacerbated by the AKP, which probably hopes to win votes in the general elections to be held in August later this year.

One possible scenario in that regard: Funds will not be provided to municipalities in the region during this period of turmoil, refugees’ needs in the camps will not be met, local residents will sink deeper into poverty (the economy is becoming increasingly uncertain), and problems will arise with the refugees – and, in the meantime, everyone will struggle to get through the winter. In this situation, the AKP will come along in August and say, “Look, you voted for these people but they haven’t done anything for you, so vote for us.”

It appears that the AKP will use this state of affairs to their own advantage. How else can it be explained? When people are living in such poverty, how else can you explain this lack of effort, this refusal to reach out for international aid? It is my hope that we are mistaken and that steps will be taken in that direction.

“Our forefathers massacred the Yazidis”

The inhabitants of the region are considerate when it comes to the camps. The reason for this is again historical. We were told that the region is the original homeland of the Yazidis and that fifty to sixty percent of the Yazidis who moved to the area of Shengal were originally from there. A hundred years ago, their lands were confiscated solely for economic reasons during the upheaval of the times.

We were told that the Yazidis, with the Assyrians and Armenians, were victims of genocide, and we were told that the local Kurds, whose forefathers carried out that genocide, felt that they had to look after the Yazidi refugees out of a sense of moral responsibility. The locals told us that the Yazidis had returned to their true homeland and that they should stay.

As we were walking the streets of Diyarbakır, we came across a bookstore in Sülüklü Han. My friend bought me a copy of Hagop Mintzuri’s book Crane, Where Do You Come From? I had never read his work before. When I was in Diyarbakır, I didn’t have a chance to read it, but on the plane to Istanbul, I started reading the back cover. As I set out on my journey back home, nothing could have described my state of mind at that moment as well as the words of Hagop Mintzuri:

For us, it didn’t matter if we suckled from our own mother’s breast or not. If she wasn’t around in the village, they would take us to any woman who happened to be lactating. That’s how it was in the fields as well. It didn’t matter if the woman was Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, or Kızılbaş, they would put us in their lap so we could suckle. They were happy to do it. And they were afraid of God. If they were to withhold their milk, God would punish and never forgive them.

Mintzuri’s life was filed with suffering, but I was deeply struck by his words. We may take shelter in any belief or worldview, religious or otherwise, but the critical issue is that we have a point of reference that stops us from committing, and approving of, malignant acts. I wish that our ranks were filled with more people who held to tenets like that.

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Aysan Sonmez

Ayşan Sönmez is an artist and activist from Istanbul working with the Bogazici Performing Arts Ensemble.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/yazidi-refugees-turkey/

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