Rescue operations began Dec. 19 in northern Iraq for thousands of Yezidi villagers trapped for the past four months on Mount Sinjar and its surrounding villages. Aided by a barrage of coalition air strikes, Kurdish Peshmerga forces began a military offensive on Dec. 17 to break the siege imposed upon Sinjar’s predominantly Yezidi population by militants of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State.”
Thousands of Iraqi men, women and children of the Yezidi religion have been killed, raped and enslaved by IS extremists, who regard Yezidis as infidels who, according to Islamic law, should be killed.
One young Yezidi couple who fled the IS takeover of Sinjar last summer ended up across the Turkish border in Ankara, Turkey, where they told their story.
On July 13, a young Iraqi named Ahmet was chatting online in his house. Suddenly he heard a commotion outside. There were shouts in the distance. Then he saw families begin to scramble into their houses. They came out with handfuls of clothes, food and whatever else they could put into their cars. Something was wrong.
Ahmet could guess the problem. For months the 20-year-old had been warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, was coming to his village of Al Jazeera, located outside Sinjar in northern Iraq. Everyone in Sinjar was afraid, particularly the Assyrian Christian minorities. But it was Ahmet and his family who were even more terrified of the Islamic terrorist group. They were Yezidis, marked for death by the extremist Sunni militants.
Ahmet immediately gathered with his wife, father, mother, two sisters, two brothers, and the wife and daughter of one brother. They grabbed a few changes of clothes and fled the house. The family left behind all their possessions – even their car – except for some valuable jewelry to sell for hard currency.
His parents feared ISIS would specifically target them if they did not flee the village immediately. They had good reason to worry. Two of Ahmet’s brothers who had been translators for the U.S. military following its 2003 invasion of Iraq had avoided assassination attempts and fled, one to the United States, the other to Germany. ISIS intelligence officials could easily learn of their family’s connection and target them.
A friend of Ahmet’s father drove their family out of Sinjar the same day. He took them through Iraq’s mountainous north. Watching for explosives that ISIS recently buried in the road, they crossed the border into Turkey at the city of Silopi.
The family pooled what little money they had left for a bus trip to Ankara, Turkey’s capital. After 25 hours of constant travel, the family arrived. They spoke no Turkish, had no money, no food, and no idea what to do next.
In the months ahead, Ahmet would try to piece his life together after it was shattered by the ISIS invasion. He and his family were in material poverty. But he would soon find something in return worth far more than he could ever imagine.
A new life in Turkey
For the first few days of their life in Turkey, Ahmet and his family lived in the upper floor of Ankara’s main bus terminal, a mammoth complex with hundreds of buses streaming in and out every hour of the day. Many other refugees and homeless camped in the building, as it was the arrival point for most refugees to Ankara.
A local Christian group that had made a weekly habit of visiting the bus station to pray for those there and bring them food met up with the family and discovered Ahmet and his brother spoke English. They heard that security was planning to kick all the homeless out of the terminal.
The Christians helped Ahmet and his family find housing and paid their food and utilities bills. The family had little money except for what they could get by selling the jewelry and other valuables they brought from Sinjar.
At that point, Ahmet knew little about Christianity from his old life in Iraq. “We just knew a little bit about Jesus that my father told me, that Christians believe Jesus is the son of God, and he was very good,” he told World Watch Monitor.
He had become interested in a local Assyrian church in Sinjar. But he couldn’t enter it. His mother warned him against visiting a place that terrorists might be targeting for an attack.
The Christian group began to pray for Ahmet, still a Yezidi, and invited him to attend a local Turkish fellowship. Little did they know that he had been searching for God for years.
Ahmet was quickly absorbed into the church community in his new life in Ankara. He asked the Christians for prayer for physical healing and was healed. So were his mother and sister. When news reached them in mid-August that ISIS was attacking Sinjar, his family asked the Christian group to pray for their beleaguered home.
Even in Iraq, Ahmet said he had felt restless. He was uncomfortable talking about God. He felt estranged from him and asked his family not to discuss him.
“Something happened to me – Jesus was with me but I didn’t know it. I told my family that I should be in another place and have other friends. They said, ‘Don’t you like us?’ I said, ‘Please believe me, I love you all, but I feel I should be in another place.’ I didn’t know that Jesus was calling me to follow him.”
Months after Ahmet arrived in Ankara, he still felt a deep sense of unease. One night Ahmet was praying with his wife. Toward midnight he asked Jesus to help him and show himself to him.
At that moment he heard a sound near the window in his room. He saw Jesus appear to him in a vision. He offered Ahmet water and told him to drink.
“After I drank the water, everything [changed]. I was not just smiling, but I was laughing a lot. I told my wife what happened, that Jesus is right here, right now, and he came to me. She said, ‘What, are you crazy?'”
His wife also prayed for Jesus to comfort her. The same doubt and pain that had plagued her left as well.
The clash between Yezidis and Muslims
The Yezidi religion is a branch of Islam that is so heterodox that many traditional Muslims refuse to consider it a member of their religious family. The group first appeared in Northern Iraq in the 12th century, but their religion has connections to the ancient Mesopotamian religion of Zoroastrianism.
Their beliefs are complex, but at their core they worship one god they believe created the whole universe. He gave control of the world to seven angels. One of these is Melek Tavusi – the Peacock Angel – who is thought to be a revelation of God. Yezidis believe this angel to be Satan in his unfallen form who never fell from grace and still serves God.
This complex belief system has earned Yezidis the moniker of “devil worshippers.” They have suffered centuries of persecution for this misunderstanding. The first massacre was led by Halagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, in the 13th century. Hundreds of years later, Ottoman Turks branded them apostates from Islam, which according to Sharia law made it legal to shed their blood.
Persecution of Yezidis continued in the 20th century but intensified during the Iraq insurgency of the last decade. They left their homes in droves, scattering to Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Syria, and Germany.
When ISIS invaded northern Iraq this past June, Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the region faced gruesome beheadings. But Yezidis suffered the fiercest brunt of their attacks.
Because Yezidis are “polytheists,” ISIS declared, they had no legal recognition under Islamic law. According to the Washington Post, ISIS admitted to killing the men and enslaving the women, buying and selling them as concubines.
The ISIS onslaught against Yezidis reached its culmination when militants advanced on Mount Sinjar in August. Yezidis were trapped and depended on U.S. airstrikes and drops of food and ammunition to keep from starvation or being slaughtered.
Ironically, many Yezidis had fled to Iraq in the early 20th century to escape their ancestral homeland of Turkey, where the minority sect had been discriminated against.
Erich Wieger, a Christian researcher who had lived and worked in southeast Turkey for 20 years, told World Watch Monitor that Yezidis were perceived in Turkey as the ultimate “other” and despised by Muslims.
“They are seen as those who worship Satan. It’s a black and white thing,” he said.
But the mutual distrust has opened doors for Christian outreach to Yezidis since they fled to Turkey last summer. The municipality of Diyarbakir, a southeastern Turkish city, contacted a local Protestant church to help Yezidis in nearby refugee camps. They thought it would be fitting for Christians, who have also suffered under ISIS, to help them.
“The reason I understand the church in Diyarbakir has been welcomed by the municipality to help the Yezidis is that there is a memory in Kurdish culture that these two sides would align with one another, because they were both victim to the [same] oppressive attacks,” Wieger said.
Persecution as a new Christian
Ahmet has been victim to the same oppressive attacks, both as a Yezidi and now as a Christian. Most Turks have never met a Yezidi. Those who know about them typically harbor deep prejudice.
Problems began for his family as soon as they arrived in Turkey. He and his family came to Ankara during the month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. When he requested food from people in English, then Arabic, then Kurdish, they replied angrily.
“I asked some people, and they were fighting with me, they were angry with me,” Ahmet said. “They said, ‘What do you want? Don’t talk to me if you don’t know Turkish.’ All my family were worried about that.”
Turkish perceptions of converts to Christianity is arguably worse. Muslim-background Turkish converts frequently experience informal discrimination from public authorities. Families ostracize them. In 2007, five young men in Malatya who tortured and killed two Turkish Christians and a German national claimed they were trying to protect Islam.
Ahmet first experienced harassment as a Christian from his co-workers. He found a part-time job collecting plastic and cardboard from public dumpsters, since he cannot legally work in Turkey due to refugee laws. Garbage collectors only earn 50 Turkish liras ($20) a day for their efforts.
Ahmet worked with Muslims who spoke his mother tongue of Kurdish. They took to the streets with their large wheeled carts, pulling them up to municipal dumpsters and sorting through the waste.
“I felt they are good people. I am also Kurdish and we could work together.”
They struck up a good rapport and he was able to work with the trash collectors for a week. Soon Ahmet had enough money to buy some basic house amenities.
Everything changed when his friend came to his apartment and saw framed Christian prayers on the wall in Turkish.
“He knew it was about Jesus,” Ahmet said. “I am sure the Muslims hate Yezidis and Christians a lot.”
Ahmet’s co-worker pressured him to loan him his phone and 300 lira, all of his earnings for six days of work. Suspecting they would take his money and disappear, he refused.
Shortly after they learned Ahmet was a Christian, his co-workers started calling him repeatedly. Ahmet avoided their calls. When he finally he answered the phone, it was his friend who saw the Christian scripture.
“He said, ‘You are really bad, why didn’t you give me the 300 lira?’ I haven’t talked to them since then. I know they are all looking for me.”
Waiting for resettlement
Like many other Middle Eastern refugees in Turkey, Ahmet and his family can do little but wait for the United Nations or another international aid organization to secure permission for them to travel somewhere for legal resettlement. The process typically takes years.
When they first arrived in Turkey, the Yezidi family registered with the United Nations. The backlog was so extensive that an official told them they would not have their first interview until 2020.
Many Middle Eastern refugees wait in limbo in Turkey for a minimum of three years before the U.N. Human Right’s Council approves them for resettlement. They cannot receive a work permit, although this rule has relaxed somewhat for Syrian refugees. Many live off public or private charity. Some work illegally, selling goods on the street or working as a day laborer.
Ahmet and his family had tried to immigrate abroad before they left Iraq through the International Organization for Migration. They had their first interview with them in Sinjar but missed their second interview after fleeing the city in July.
He and his wife are possibly on an expedited path to leaving Turkey with another refugee aid organization. On Dec. 10, he had an interview with the International Catholic Migration Commission in Istanbul.
The rest of his family are not so fortunate. Ahmet’s mother and father traveled to the International Organization for Migration office in Amman because they were able to secure visas to Jordan.
His brother, sister-in-law, and niece do not even have this option. They are considering traveling illegally to Germany to join his brother. His other brothers and sisters will likely have to wait for six to eight years before United Nations can grant them refugee status.
But Ahmet remains optimistic that everything will work out. He considers it a miracle so far that he has found so much support from the Christian fellowship in Turkey.
“We made many friends” in Ankara, he said. “We came here and were very tired and hungry. Suddenly a group of people were asking me questions in Turkish. I told them I spoke Kurdish, Arabic, and English. We told them our story and they gave us a place to live.”
A new life in Christ
Ahmet is now trying to find part-time work in Ankara. His wife is also learning English in anticipation of their move to the United States.
He has a second interview with the International Catholic Migration Commission in January. He expects the organization to give him a firm date in six months when he and his wife will be able to leave Turkey. They expect to relocate permanently to the United States, most likely to the state where his brother lives.
Ahmet and his wife have accepted Christ, but they have not told his family. He does not fear them shunning or rejecting him, but he knows they will have lots of questions and worries. The Yezidi belief system does not make room for conversion. If they leave the religion or marry a non-Yezidi, they are no longer considered Yezidi themselves.
But Ahmet is not worried. He said he believes Jesus has planned for all these challenges fleeing Iraq and that he will guide him during the next stage in life.
“Life here has changed a lot,” he said. “That’s why I wrote my story in a notebook, from the day we left until this moment. I am always writing. I call it, ‘From the Dark Desert to Heaven.’ ”
They said they hope to find a new life for themselves, free from persecution from extremists. But for Ahmet, he said he is most excited to grow in his life as a follower of Christ.
“It was really like we were in a desert; there was no water or trees. It was a difficult life and always dangerous,” he said.
“Thank God we are safe now. That’s why I think Jesus sent us.”
— World Watch Monitor