None is Too Many Revisited: The Forgotten Yazidis

Many people have asked me what it is that motivates and moves me and why I feel so strongly about the issue of Yazidi refugee sponsorship—why I believe the Jewish community must be focusing on Yazidi sponsorship exclusively. To be clear— the Yazidis are facing genocide. And the world is ignoring it, much like the world ignored what was happening to the Jews during the Shoah—this despite the fact that we are living in an era that allows us to receive photos and news and pleas for help every day. Just this week, photos came out of Sinjar revealing a mass grave containing the remains of some 80  “older” women. They were executed because the ISIS fighters who capture, enslave, and repeatedly rape Yazidi women as young as 9 found them to be ‘’too old” for their tastes. This mass grave was actually one of 17 that have been discovered. Apparently, such a discovery was not important enough to make our nightly news or our newspapers. 

The International Association of Genocide Scholars has labeled what is happening to the Yazidis as genocide for many months now. This week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a report entitled, “Our Generation is Gone: The Targeting of Religious Minorities in Iraq.” Citing a "preponderance of the evidence" found during a recent trip to the region, the report states "We believe IS has been and is perpetrating genocide against the Yezidi people.” The Holocaust Museum's report relied on the research of Naomi Kikoler, deputy director of the museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, who recently traveled to the region to investigate the effects on civilians of a summer 2014 Islamic State offensive in the Iraqi province of Nineveh. 

Those lucky enough to have escaped to refugee camps in Turkey face further discrimination. It is no secret that they are put into segregated camps for their own protection. Why is that? Because the hatred (dare we Jews share Robert Wistrich’s famous term “the longest hatred?”) that has led to over 70 massacres in 700 years and the shocking decimation of the number of Yazidis from 23 million to approximately 700,000 is ongoing not only in Iraq but even in Turkey from other refugee groups. Yes, even at a time when people are fleeing for their lives from war and misery, they still remember to hate the Yazidis. In these camps, the Yazidis do not receive the same level of humanitarian aid that other groups of refugees receive. Complaints are futile at best and dangerous at worst as they could result in a beating or other punishment. 

No matter what happens in Iraq, the Yazidis have nowhere to go back to. Much like the Jews of Europe in 1945—there is no home to go back to. Their homes are destroyed. They have been hunted, hated, humiliated and murdered for 700 years. Most people have never heard of them. Those who have often either have no concept of who they really are—mistakenly describing them as a Muslim or Christian, or Zoroastrian sect— they are none of the above (while one finds notes of these religions in the Yazidi faith, it predates Islam and Christianity) — or saying they are Kurds. Often, it is the Kurds who label them so. Ask any Yazidi the question and they will quickly tell you that while they speak the Kurdish language, they do not self-identify as Kurds. Yet, you can go to many well-meaning and respectable websites and find all of the above misinformation. Part of the issue is that the Yazidi religion is an oral tradition; there are no written texts. Many of our refugees came here with little religious knowledge and with a small population; it is impossible to provide religious education.  Most refugees have spent many years waiting in difficult circumstances in camps and just want to get on with their lives here. There is no large organized community such as other groups who already have a mosque, a synagogue, a temple, a gurdwara or a church to provide the newcomers with a centre to practise their religion. 

I fully support and very much welcome the absorption of all refugees:  Syrians, Kurds, Somalis —everyone who needs a safe haven. But right now - I am looking at a situation where the world is standing silently by as a people is being annihilated.

On November 22, 1942, my father’s entire family, along with the rest of his town went to their deaths at Treblinka.  That included my father’s little boy, Moishele, whom he never saw or held because my father had been conscripted into the Polish army and was taken prisoner by the third week of the war. That day— an entire extended family on both sides—the Jarniewski family, the Epstein family disappeared forever— a family that could trace its roots in a town called Zelwa back to the 16th century. Gone. Only my father survived. The world did not care what happened to the Jews. If I have any power at all to speak out and remind the world that we said, “never again”— and I believe that means that we would not stand by silently while another people is being slaughtered because of what they believe in—I will continue to do so. 

We in the Jewish community must do everything we can save the Yazidi people. And the rest of Canada and the world had better act soon, or there will not be very many Yazidi left to rescue.

This blog contributed by Belle Jarniewski, Manitoba Multifaith Council.