Iraqi Kurdistan: Yazidi refugees fight
to survive amid lockdown

While citizens in many Western countries mourn the loss of their freedoms, with some still refusing to follow lockdown restrictions, some Yazidis stranded in the refugee camps in Kurdistan are faced with far more existential threats. 

Ghazala is a journalism student and contributing writer for Newscoop. Her family lives in one of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. She describes the situation of Yazidis who are confined to tents during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Quarantine leaves Yazidis without any source of income

From an IDP camp in Kurdistan, Ghazala describes the situation of Yazidis
amid the COVID-19 pandemic (Video Source: Ghazala)

Yazidis from Sinjar, a village in northern Iraq, have lived in IDP camps in northern Kurdistan for almost six years now. Back in 2014, they endured horrific genocide and persecution by the Islamic State (ISIS). Due to the lockdown that was imposed one month ago, many cannot work anymore, leaving them deprived of crucial income.

Businesses, universities and schools are closed, and Yazidis are not allowed to leave the camps, apart from emergencies. Desperation in the IDP camps grows as Yazidis, still reeling from past trauma, are confronted with a new threat: COVID-19.

“It’s intense,” confides Ghazala. “Usually, I stay in student accommodation from my university, but I’ve lived in the camp with my family for a few months now — and I can tell you, I’m depressed. It’s not good at all. The people in the camp are suffering from depression. Every family, no matter where you go, has psychological problems. There are 6,000 tents in this IDP camp and 17 other camps within Kurdistan. In the beginning, there were some NGOs providing mental health care, but by now not many are left. The Yazidis here are affected by mental health problems because they had to flee their homes in Iraq and many have lost a family member to ISIS.”

Yazidi refugees have lived in IDP camps in Iraq for almost six years now (Image Source: Ghazala)

Iraq leaves Yazidis to fend for themselves

After six years of displacement, Yazidis in the refugee camps have lost hope in the Iraqi government. Especially during the current pandemic, Iraq is facing a hard economic crisis. The Iraqi government has no plans to address the refugee situation in their country.

During a recent opportune meeting, Ghazala asked the President of Iraq, Barham Salih, about the situation of Yazidis. She reiterated that after years of hardship and trauma, they still have no prospect of a future. Human rights as well as press freedom continue to be under attack in the region.

“The Yazidis don’t know when they will be able to return to their homes, if ever,” explains Ghazala. “Everyone is constantly worrying about this. I had the chance to meet the Iraqi President five months ago. I asked him ‘Are you going to take care of the Yazidi refugees who have been living for almost six years in IDP camps?’ He seems to have no plans for that right now. He is the president of Iraq, and I understand that he has a lot of responsibility, especially under the current government hardships and the protests. However, six years is a long period of time, because spending one day in these torn tents feels like you have spent one year.  

I believe that if their families and loved ones were living in this same situation, they would have done something. He is from Kurdistan, and I understand that the Kurdish people are likely his first priority. But we desperately need his help right now. 

I’m actually studying at the university he founded, and I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. But I also feel the need right now to write about the dire circumstances of Yazidi refugees, and there are some problems with freedom of expression in Iraq. I know it’s better than in some other places, though I don’t feel completely safe to write. All of us — not just Yazidis — need to speak openly about things as they are, and work together to help each other and improve the situation for all of us.

Suicide rate among young Yazidis on the rise

In contrast to many other Yazidis, Ghazala and all of her family managed to get to Kurdistan together. She was also able to continue her education after two years. Others were not so lucky. Extreme mental distress due to post-traumatic stress disorder, the death of family members, and inhumane living conditions in the IDP camps have led to an increasing number of young Yazidis committing suicide.

Ghazala tells us:  “A lot of students and young Yazidis, all in their 20s, have begun to commit suicide recently. Three people from different camps committed suicide within a week. One of them was a student who could not attend college because of the financial situation of his family. His father was killed fighting ISIS. He was 21 years old. In his farewell letter to his family he wrote ‘I can’t handle it anymore.’ “

Ghazala is very clear on what would make a world of difference to the Yazidi refugees in the camps in Iraq:  “If the Iraqi government provides the materials and some workers, the Yazidi people will take the responsibility for rebuilding their own homes, and will leave the camps as soon as they finish the rebuilding. I believe that will solve a lot of their problems they are facing in the refugee camps in Kurdistan.”  

Despite the very difficult circumstances, Ghazala manages to remain positive: “I’m that kind of person – I have an optimistic view on everything. I just never give up.” 

Her message to the world during these times is one of hope as well: “Please stay home and benefit from this time to improve your skills and spend it with your family. Stay safe.” 

This article is part of the Newscoop series #QuarantineStories which asks people from all over the world about how they are coping with COVID-19 and quarantine. If you want to contribute your experience submit your story here.