By Costas Onisenko
“They hate us because of our faith. The only thing they have asked of us is that we change religion – not that we join their army or anything else,” 26-year-old Jamal said when asked why the Yazidis are being persecuted by jihadist group Islamic State (IS). Kathimerini met with Jamal at a Kurdish cafe in central Athens. He told us how he came to Greece as part of a group of 20 Yazidis. Jamal and other members of the group asked that their last names not be published as they had managed to enter the country without being arrested or registered by the authorities and were planning to continue their journey north to Germany.
“It is true that Yazidis are starting to come to Greece,” confirmed Kaity Kehayoglou of the Greek branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The Greek authorities need to take measures for their protection, such as ensuring entry into the asylum process, protection from confinement and postponement of deportation as their return would put their lives in jeopardy.”
According to data from the Greek asylum service, 10 Yazidis – six from Iraq and four from Syria – have already applied for protection. “It is still early,” Maria Stavropoulou, who heads the service, told Kathimerini. “They register as Iraqis and not as members of the religious minority, which is something we only get to know once the process gets under way.”
Among the people Kathimerini interviewed at the central Athens cafe were two women and three children. They all live together in an apartment in downtown Athens. One of the children, a boy aged 3, was wearing a gold earring. “Until the age of 3 both boys and girls wear gold earrings; then just the girls do,” his mother explained, avoiding giving any more details about the Yazidis' customs and religion, which has links with Zoroastrianism and those of the ancient Mesopotamians.
The group that Kathimerini interviewed with the help of a Syrian journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, had been in Greece for three weeks at the time and came from a region that is almost predominately Yazidi. They estimate that some 400 members of their ethno-religious community have made their way to the Mediterranean country in the past few months.
Most of the Yazidis who fled, they said, traveled from Iraq through Syria and from there to the Kurdish part of Iraq. Their group, as well as others (there are no official numbers), entered Syria and then headed to Turkey, spending a few days in Istanbul to make contact with traffickers who could get them into Greece. They crossed the country's borders illegally through the northern crossing of Evros and were then driven to Athens by car. Some had enough money for the trip while others had relatives in Germany helping them.
“In 1993 we were attacked by the Saddam [Hussein] regime. Many members of our community fled at that time and went abroad. They are the ones helping us now,” said one of the members of the group.
Aido, aged 37, spoke of their recent experience with persecution from IS. “Two villages nearby were attacked and then we were told that unless we changed faith we would be destroyed.” His wife, Wahida, told us about her sister, who was abducted along with her four children. The family had had no word from them in several weeks.
“[IS forces] have murdered many men and kidnapped many women. They were taken to Badush prison [in Mosul], where they were given mobile phones and ordered to call their relatives and tell them that unless they converted the inmates would be raped and killed,” Wahida said.
“Some 35 percent of our village's population were Muslim. We never had any problems with them and lived as neighbors. But when the jihadists attacked, they immediately turned against us as though we were the enemy,” recounted another member of the Yazidi group in Athens.