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Interview with Nafiya Naso

The former religious refugee and leader in Winnipeg’s Yazidi community talks about the current threat to Iraq’s Yazidi population

By Belle Jarniewski

Q Tell me the story of your family’s escape from Iraq.

A I was two years old when my family fled our home in Khanasur, near Sinjar, in northern Iraq. My father and other family members were forcibly conscripted into the Iraqi military, but because of their religion, they were treated like the enemy. Considered to be “disposable,” they were sent to the front lines. After eight months of this and having suffered two gunshot wounds, my father managed to escape and we fled to Syria. At that point, my mother was faced with one of the toughest decisions of her life: eight months pregnant, she was unable to leave quickly on foot with both me and my older brother. One of us would need to be left behind. At the last moment, she spotted a donkey near our home. My brother and I rode the donkey with my mother walking alongside. We faced unbearable desert heat throughout the nine-day journey from our home in Iraq to the Syrian refugee camp. Many days we went without food, and at night we went to sleep with the sounds of bombs nearby. We faced constant threats throughout the journey because of intolerance and hatred toward the Yazidi. 

Q Tell me about your ancient faith and why the Yazidi have been targeted for persecution.

A The Yazidi are a Kurdish-speaking people living mostly in northern Iraq. They believe they descend from Adam through his son Shehid bin Jer and that the Garden of Eden was located in the present-day Lalish in Iraq. The monotheistic religion combines elements from a variety of faiths, including Gnostic Christianity, Judaism, Sufi Islam and Zoroastrianism. Much of our tradition is oral; we are not a “people of the book.” Of our seven angels guarding the earth, Tawsi Melek, the peacock angel, serves as an intermediary between humans and God. Many Muslims regard the peacock as Satan, and thus we have been labelled as devil worshippers and have been persecuted throughout history. Of course, this continues today.

Q How did you reach Canada?

A At the refugee camp in Syria, where my family and I lived in a small tent with only basic essentials, my parents registered with the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to seek asylum. In 1998, after waiting eight years, we were notified that Canada had accepted our application. Pembina Fellowship, a Mennonite church in Morden, Man., raised funds to sponsor our immigration. In March 1999, at the age of 10, I arrived in Morden with my family, where we were warmly welcomed into the community and provided with everything we needed. There are about 450 to 500 Yazidis in Canada. 

Q What do your family and friends in Iraq and the refugee camps say about the current situation?

A Today there are thousands of Yazidis in refugee camps in Syria, Kurdistan and Turkey. My family members in the refugee camp tell me that there is a shortage of humanitarian aid, and there are many people arriving each day. The refugees in Turkey have registered with the UNHCR and have been put on a seven-year waiting list just to be interviewed. When I talk to many of these refugees, they tell me that if the international community doesn’t step in and save them now, there won’t be anybody to save in seven years, given the harsh weather and living conditions and the constant threats to their lives. They live day-to-day just to survive. Eighteen families share one bathroom and a shower. 

Q What else is happening to the Yazidis?

A The Yazidis have suffered well over 70 massacres in the last 700 years; more than 23 million Yazidis have been murdered throughout history by the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Today, the Yazidis number approximately 700,000. They appear to be paying the heaviest humanitarian price for the ambitions of the Islamic State. Very few are able to escape. Death is often the only option: there is nowhere to run except up a mountain and then to die of starvation or dehydration, or else to commit suicide to avoid being killed at the hands of ISIS. For women, it’s rape and murder, and for children it’s abduction and brainwashing. So many have been massacred since August [2014]. Under ISIS, many Yazidis have been abducted and forced to convert, but they are still murdered afterward because they believe we are infidels. 

ISIS has abducted more than 7,000 Yazidi girls, young mothers and children, killing the men and the elderly. Many Yazidi girls have been sold to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Girls as young as seven are forced into sex slavery. Children are suffering. 

Q Your story reminds me of a time, not so long ago, when Jews desperately needed a safe haven. Perhaps that is why I and others in the Winnipeg Jewish community have been particularly moved by your story. How did you connect with us? 

A The Winnipeg Friends of Israel group, made up of Jews and Christians, has been very supportive. The group has looked into finding a sponsorship agreement holder to help us privately sponsor Yazidi refugees. 

Q Until you moved to Canada, what did you know about Jews? 

A In the refugee camp in Syria, my teachers taught me that all Jews are monsters and that Israel is a very bad country, that Jews in Israel kill everyone who is not Jewish and that they lie about their history. Those same teachers tried to teach the Yazidi students to hate ourselves as well and constantly told us that we are infidels. They taught us we must hate everyone in the world except for Muslims. And you know, as a child of seven, eight or nine, we didn’t know anything about our tragic history. To teach such young children to hate like this — it’s just awful. 

Q Have your perceptions changed? 

A I have nothing but positive things to say about the friendships I have made [with Jews]. It’s ironic when I think of how we were taught to hate these people who have helped us so much during one of the most difficult years the Yazidis have endured.

Q What can United Church of Canada people do to support Yazidis?

A I’m hoping that United Church congregations will consider sponsoring Yazidi refugees and give them a new life and a new start, just like the opportunity my family and I have here. I hope, too, that individuals will encourage the government to allow more Yazidi refugees into Canada. The situation in Iraq and in the refugee camps is dire, and we need help.  

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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