The Yazidi people are an ethno-religious minority  group living mainly in Northern Iraq. Yazidis have been subject to  persecution for generations. In 2014 many Yazidis were forced to flee their homes as a result of persecution by Islamic State (IS) militants. Some of these Yazidi refugees were granted humanitarian visas to resettle in Australia, mostly in regional NSW.

 

Demography


There are between 400,000 and 800,000 Yazidi people worldwide. The majority of Yazidis live in Northern Iraq, with smaller communities in Russia, Armenia and Georgia.

There are also Yazidi communities in Syria, Turkey, Germany, Sweden, Canada and the United States. Recent persecution by IS militants has seen around 120,000 Yazidis seeking asylum in Europe. Many Yazidis displaced by IS live in camps and informal settlements in Iraqi Kurdistan.

 

Yazidi population in Australia


The number of Yazidi people living in Australia is difficult to estimate. Up until 2016 Yazidi was not classified as an ethnic or cultural group by Australian census. Nevertheless it is assumed there have been few Yazidi people in Australia before 2014.


Since 2016 close to 700 Yazidis have settled in Australia, many in regional NSW. More Yazidis are expected to arrive in 2018 as part of Australia’s commitment to accept 12,000 refugees affected by the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

 

References and further reading


Asher-Schapiro, A. (2014, August) ‘Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?’ National Geographic

Tagay, S. &  Ayhan, D. et al; The 2014 Yazidi genocide and its effect on Yazidi diaspora The Lancet, Volume 390, Issue 10106, 2017, Page 1946,

Tay, N. (2016, December) ‘Meet the Yazidi refugees forging a new life in country NSW’ SBS News

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Language, Religion and Culture

 

Language


Most Yazidis speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) with a small minority speaking Arabic. Most Yazidis consider Yazidism both a distinct ethnic and cultural identity and do not identify as Kurdish.

Religion and Culture


Although it has elements of many traditions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam the religion of the Yazidis is unique. Yazidis believe in one God who created the world and entrusted its care to seven angels led by the Peacock Angel (Tawûsê Melek). The Yazidis believe in reincarnation, and pray up to five times a day facing the sun.

Yazidism is a highly oral culture with a strong focus on song and storytelling. Beliefs are passed orally from generation to generation by holy men.
Yazidi society is hierarchical and divided into castes. The concept of purity is important in Yazidi culture. Certain foods such as lettuce and pumpkin are forbidden. Yazidis are not permitted to marry outside their cast or marry non-Yazidis. Most Kurmanji speaking Yazidis from Sinjar Province are from impoverished rural backgrounds.

 

References and further reading


Armstrong, K. (2017, August) The Yazidi people: who are they and why are they on the run? SBS Explainer.

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Persecution of Yazidi community


The Yazidi people have experienced centuries of persecution. This persecution has often been related to misinterpretation of their religious beliefs or the misunderstanding that they are ‘unbelievers’ because they do not have a central religious text such as the Bible or Koran.


During the Ottoman Empire Yazidis suffered extreme repression, massacres and pressure to convert to Islam. Yazidis were also subject to persecution and neglect under Saddam Hussein’s pro-Arab regime. Under Saddam Hussein villages were destroyed and Yazidis forced to abandon their homes, move to planned communities and convert to Islam.


The most recent persecutions occurred in 2014 at the hands of IS. In August 2014 IS invaded the Yazidi Sinjar region of Northern Iraq. Some Yazidis fled, others were trapped and isolated in the Sinjar Mountains. Many Yazidis were massacred, while others were taken prisoner, tortured and forced to convert to Islam. Sexual assault was employed as a weapon. Women and girls were raped and used and sold as sex slaves. Boys and young men were conscripted as IS soldiers. A 2015 UNHCR report points to these actions as a deliberate intent to destroy the Yazidis as a group, which may amount to genocide.

References and further reading


• Cetorelli V. and Sasson I. et al; (2017) Mortality and kidnapping estimates for the Yazidi population in the area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014: A retrospective household survey. PLoS Medicine 14(5): e1002297.
• Murad, N. and Krajeski, J. (2017) The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State. Virago, Little Brown Book Group, London.
• United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2015) Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Iraq in the light of abuses committed by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and associated groups.

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Mental Health and Wellbeing


The trauma that many Yazidis have experienced both as individuals and as a community can be expected to have a profound impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Trauma is both immediate and intergenerational due to historical persecution of the Yazidi people.


Exposure to traumatic events increases the risk of developing mental health problems such as:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Psychosis and neurocognitive disorders
  • Adjustment disorder
  • Psychosomatic illnesses

Additional factors to consider when working with Yazidi clients:

  • The impact of stigma attached to sexual assault in Yazidi culture
  • The changing role of women in society due to loss of men and boys
  • Possible distrust of Arabic speaking Muslims due to experiences in Iraq
  • The strongly collective nature of Yazidi society and the reluctance to talk about individual suffering
  • Stress related to resettlement difficulties
  • Retraumatisation connected to news about ongoing persecution of Yazidi in Iraq

 

Strengths and Resilience


Despite the trauma that many Yazidis have experienced the community is resilient. Some of the factors that contribute to this resilience include:

  • Tight knit communities
  • Strength gained from rituals and storytelling tradition
  • Ability to adapt e.g. adoption of new rituals in one community that enable those women who have been raped to be welcomed back into the Yazidi community.

 

References and Further Reading

 

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Community Organisations


Yazda Australia
Director
Daphne Haneman
Email: daphne.haneman@yazda.org

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Resources in Kurmanji

 

 

TIS National


The Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National) is an interpreting service provided by the Department of Home Affairs for people who do not speak English and for agencies and businesses that need to communicate with their non-English speaking clients. TIS now provides services in Kurmanji.

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