An overview of the genocide on the Yazidi people and what it takes for refugees to resettle in the U.S.

As warm summer days dwindled away in August 2014, ISIS carried out a massacre against the minority religious group, the Yazidis, in the north east of Syria. The Yazidis live mostly throughout the Middle East and Western Europe, but now thousands have joined the other Syrian refugees in relocating to other countries. Numbers vary in the amount of civilians directly affected by the attack, but somewhere near 200,000 people were targeted, according to the United Nations.

August 3, 2014, while many college students in the U.S. enjoyed their last days of freedom from classes or worked our menial summer jobs, thousands of people fled their homes, under the immediate, deadly threat of ISIS. Living thousands of miles away from this massive assault on a mostly unknown people makes this event, and the ongoing struggle for these now-refugees, difficult to sympathize with or even understand.

One woman captured by ISIS, Nadia Murad, survived 3 months passed between more than 10 men as a sex slave before escaping. Now Murad is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and an activist for the Yazidi women and girls still enslaved by ISIS. She has spoken to the UN multiple times, urging them to respond to the crisis and rid the world of ISIS.

In the U.S. a total of 85,000 refugees will be resettled by this September, which sounds like a lot of people, but not compared to the more than 200,000 refugees accepted each year in 1980, according to Glen Peterson, the Office Director of World Relief of Garden Grove. Another 100,000 refugees will resettle in 2017, but the process of resettling is quite difficult.

When people are displaced from their homes it is often an incredibly long process requiring refugees to demonstrate oppression for race, religion, or politics. From the time a refugee files the first page of seemingly endless paperwork, it is estimated to take 18-24 months or much longer, according to Martin Zogg, Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee division office in Los Angeles.

Cynthia Bellows Danielson Bird, a retired college professor, began piecing together parts of what was happening on the other side of the world and started humanizing the trauma inflicted upon thousands with a single main character.

As the summer days unfolded, Bird composed a novella around the Yazidis writing mainly from news articles. The main character of her in-progress work, Devil Worshipper, is a teenage girl named Astria.

Focusing on the plight of Astria’s kidnapping throughout the book humanizes the suffering of thousands of Yazidi girls and women taken and forced into sex slavery by ISIS. About 5,000 girls and women are estimated to have been captured in August 2014, 3,000 of them remain in captivity today.

Here is an excerpt from Bird’s first chapter featured in the 2015 edition of Saddleback College’s literary journal, WALL.

Devil Worshipper by Cynthia Bellows Danielson Bird

Her ancestors were the first to believe in one God. Their earliest leader, Zoroaster, taught them that fire was a blessing. Now Astria panted, completely out of breath after running from horrific flames. She finally had to stop and turn, looking back down Sinjar Mountain at her rapidly burning town of Sinjar. The trail led straight up rocky boulders; she hid behind one and peered below to see the figures dressed in black. As the men danced about the bodies they killed and mutilated, a black flag waved in the smoke. Anything that burned had been set alight—red fire plumes billowed.

“Run!” her mother had commanded as they fled. “Up the mountain—go. Do not wait for me.” A baby sister was clutched in her mother’s arms because she had lost children to illness already. The oldest, Astria, at twelve, worried about her brothers: the four-year old twins and two-year old Asure.

Her father had sent the females ahead in the pre-dawn dark before the first black turbaned force arrived. He told them that the rumors were true: the Islamic State warriors were coming and would round up women and girls to use as human shields and to sell. New husbands would force them to convert to Islam. As for the men and boys of the Yazidi people, immediate and terrible death was on the way, he said. The last Astria saw of her father, he had Asure gripped around his waist like a sack of feed. On his shoulders, he carried one twin and held the other’s hand.

“Run ahead,” he ordered. “We will be right behind you.”

Now Astria’s breath returned, her gaze riveted on the burning terror below until she forced herself to propel her legs on the uphill climb. She heard her own sobs come from inside her red dress—red, her color, chosen when she loved fire.

The sun struggled to appear in a murky dawn, and she continued on, never stopping or slowing her pace. The rocky trail led to a ridge and to the town of Kalkan. She had hiked there with her father to trade their goats after an earthquake demolished his restaurant and the family car only two months ago. He told her the story of how Noah’s Ark, with two of every kind of animal, had landed on top of the Sinjar Mountain after the ancient flood. It took two days to get to Kalkan, Astria thought wildly. Could she go by herself, or should she wait?

When the sun blazed overhead, she hid behind a rock and sipped carefully at her goatskin flask of water. A few wafers of her mother’s bread and small balls of goat cheese had been tied onto her skirt, but she was not hungry. Fear still gripped her—there was no food in this treeless place where no grass grew. Would her family reach her by night if she stayed here?

“Devil worshippers, that’s what our enemies call us.” She remembered her father’s frequent warning. He was one designated as a Talker to recite the Yazidi history and their beliefs, including reincarnation. Now Astria quieted her fears as she sped up the trail by remembering his words: “Kurdistan has been eaten up by Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. We, the Yazidi, are still here in the north of Iraq in the land that used to be called Kurdistan. Kurds worship our same God in the Muslim way but allow us our way. Always remember: life is a battle between truth and falsehood, and our beloved Peacock Angel will show you the right path.” Astria knew the details of the story of the fallen angel who had been rescued by God. He was the one the Islamic State warriors called the devil.

In recent weeks, rumors had spread about the Islamic State warriors who would kill all who were not like them. They wanted their own country and to own the wealth from oil from which others had profited. So far they had taken over four hundred miles of territory. Many Yazidi fled Sinjar days ago, heading up the mountain.

“We are blessed with our children,” her mother confessed. “But how can we bring them all?” Those words haunted Astria as her sandals held her feet on the rocky trail. Did Asure have sandals? He had become her charge after the tiny baby sister was born. The twins were old enough to tease and tire her, but there was nothing she wouldn’t do for the toddler, Asure.

By mid-afternoon, she stopped again and this time nibbled a bit of bread. People said Astria was pretty with her dark hair and surprising blue eyes. But she was prouder of her long legs and fast stride than of her looks. “We will find you in Kalkan” was the last thing her father said. “There will be a place there for Yazidis.” Those words became her mantra after the afternoon shadows came.

On the trail, she continually scanned the crowd for her family. Nowhere. It was a tide of refugees, almost all women and children. She hoarded her food and spoke to no one but was comforted by the bright colors worn by her people. When it grew dark, she kept going under a full moon and reached the outskirts of Kalkan at dawn—a huge swarm of people had settled in a makeshift camp. Astria slumped to the ground and slept, part of a human hive.

The rest of the short story can be found on Saddleback College’s website.


Featured Image: Used with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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About Author

Our Spring 2016 Co-Editor in Chief, is an open chocolate lover, oxford comma advocate, and feminist who majored in psychology at Saddleback College. She transferred to CSU Channel Islands in the fall and considers her true passions in life to be reading, writing, and editing.

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