European Friendship Group steps in to help Yezidis in and outside Iraq

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By Judit Neurink
18-year-old Lamya Taha (center) who survived ISIS captivity and lost an eye while fleeing the group, speaking to European MPs.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Several European parliamentarians have formed a special Yezidi Friendship Group to help attract more attention for the community’s plight, says Yezidi activist Mirza Dinnayi, an adviser to the group.

From the Kurdistan Region, Dinnayi works with five parliamentarians from different European countries and parties to improve the situation of Yezidis inside Iraq as well as those who are stuck in Greece on their flight to Europe.

One of the most urgent issues they try to address is the situation of thousands of Yezidi refugees in Greece, Dinnayi says. “They live in a bad situation, are discriminated against, even within the camps, and some of the Arabs who are with Daesh threatened them.” Deash is the local name for the Islamic State (ISIS).

About 470 Yezidi refugees have found refuge in Idomeni camp in Greece. Dinnayi visited the camp with some members of the Friendship Group last month. One of them, Portuguese Anna Gomez, lobbied to have these refugees accepted in her country for resettlement.

But the plan got stuck in Greek bureaucracy, Dinnayi says. “Greece wants to register all the refugees first. That will take until next year. Only when we asked to make an exception, they eventually promised to do it within the next weeks.”

The head of the Friendship Group, Austrian Josef Weidenholtzer, shared his frustration in a blog: “The Portuguese government has agreed to take a few thousand of them, but the mills of the European cooperation work very slow, shamefully slow. In such a situation one feels anger rise inside.”

He will work hard to get the relocation process from Greece started, and vows “that the Yezidis will not be forgotten.”

This is a pressing issue, as the Yezidis’ plight has been overshadowed by the large number of refugees from Syria, states Dinnayi.

“The Syrians’ issue overshadows the Yezidi plight. And the violence committed by some of the Syrian refugees has a bad effect on us too. When we ask for help for refugees, the first thing politicians think about is terrorism and Syrians.”

At the same time, the issue of terrorism is making the life of victims even more difficult, he says. “I see the people who killed my community now committing crimes in Europe. And my community that suffered here, is now also suffering there.”

To show the urgency of the situation, Dinnayi traveled to Brussels and Strasbourg with one of the Yezidi victims of ISIS, 18-year old Lamya Taha, who was badly injured whilst fleeing the group.

She told European parliamentarians about her time in captivity, how she was sold five times and punished every time she tried to escape. She lost an eye when she hit a landmine during her flight, but is now getting treatment in Germany.

“People were very impressed by her testimony,” Dinnayi remembers. “Many were crying, not understanding how this could happen to an 18-year old girl.”

Still more factors are influencing the fate of the Yezidis, as became apparent when a Canadian delegation recently visited Kurdistan.

“The Canadians thought that Yezidis are refusing to be resettled. They had met before with someone of the Yezidi leadership, who said they did not want to leave the country. But the leadership sent its own family out, just like the Christian leadership has done – and they are telling the poor community they should stay because this is our land…”

It is a double-edged message, as is made clear by one of his group members, Marietje Schaake from the Dutch D66-party. “By taking people out, you indirectly aid the ethnic cleansing of an area; and that has never been our goal,” she says, declaring to be “open to these voices of people who want to have safety to remain in their own country, Iraq or Syria.”

She is critical of the special visa that has been demanded for Iraqi Christians who are persecuted. “It is important to fight the persecution. But when we spoke to Christians and Yezidis there, we found they felt firstly Iraqi, and are attached to their homeland where they want to live in freedom. That should be the goal.”

Dinnayi confirms that in order to help people to stay, an important part of his lobby is about security. “One of the goals of the Friendship Group is to get guarantees for the safety of our areas. Otherwise people will not return.”

Therefore, he is lobbying “for the Security Council to make special areas for Yezidi and Christians, with international support, security forces, rebuilding of the local forces, international guarantees…” Only then people can return, without having to face new conflicts.

“I do not encourage all to leave the country. The only solution for the normal Yezidis is to have international security support, a safe zone, in Shingal and the Nineveh Plains. That would solve seventy percent of all our refugee problems.”