The Forgotten Yazidis

The refugees who once captured the world's attention now sit outside the spotlight, wondering how they will survive the winter.


DOHUK, Iraq — Adeba Jowla lies almost motionless on rough, unfinished concrete, her face drained of color as she grips a shabby blanket. With no medical supplies, her untended bullet wounds cause her constant, excruciating pain. One of the bullets, from the barrel of an Islamic State militant’s gun, remains lodged in her thigh. It urgently needs to be removed.

Surrounded by extended family members, Jowla is protected only slightly from the sun baking a half-built structure that has become a makeshift shelter for more than 60 Yazidi families seeking refuge in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk, in the country’s north. With no aid yet received, or promised, the entire encampment is relying on the goodwill of the local community.

Like thousands of other Yazidis, Jowla fled to Sinjar mountain when the Islamic State advanced on her people’s homeland. On Aug. 3, militants entered the city of Sinjar and massacred hundreds. Fearing for their lives, most of the surviving population fled without food or water, and in the days that followed, many died of dehydration, exhaustion, and starvation.

Jowla, 25, watched neighbors and friends from Sinjar die around her. In a desperate effort to save her family after a few days on the mountain, she decided to descend from the safe haven in a perilous effort to bring back supplies. In the process, the Islamic State nearly killed her. "On the way back, two normal cars were driving up on the street," Jowla says, as her younger sister delicately helps fix the thin, olive-green headscarf that hangs back on her head, allowing a bit of dark auburn hair to peek through. "It was Islamic State inside; they got out and shot both of us twice and left us to die. We managed to escape back to the mountain, but for eight days on the mountain I just lay there bleeding. After three days, my brother-in-law died. I thought I would die as well. I was sure of it."

As news of atrocities emerged, the Yazidis captured the world’s attention. The media and political leaders tuned in, and the sunburned faces of the stranded became, for a moment, the faces of the ruin the Islamic State had brought to Iraq. The Sinjar massacre helped to spur U.S. intervention, and after American airstrikes gave them cover, Jowla and her family fled through Syria to Kurdistan, hoping to find relief.

According to the United Nations, there are now around 80,000 refugees who have settled in Dohuk, a city near the Syrian border with a population of just under 300,000 residents. The skeleton of a building Jowla and her family now live in sits at the entrance to the city, 120 miles from their former home. The building has no internal or external walls or windows. Dust and grit falls from the unfinished ceilings, settling on the floor for only a few minutes before being picked up by the mountain winds. Children pass the time staring at the cars speeding by on a highway, a stretch of which sits less than 300 feet away.

The refugees in Dohuk settled there believing the situation would be temporary. That was over two months ago, and any help they expected has yet to surface. Those who remained on Sinjar mountain and survived the August siege once again found themselves to be the targets of the Islamic State, which launched an assault on Oct. 20. The U.S. planes that had defended them before were now busy attacking Islamic State positions near the Syrian town of Kobani, nearly 200 miles west.

Since news about the Yazidis first appeared in the headlines, more substantial — and much-needed — relief efforts have stumbled. Liene Veide, the public information officer for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says the organization is doing all it can for internally displaced persons and refugees in the region, but that more funding and manpower is required. Coordination, it seems, is another problem: The United Nations is working with other local Kurdish organizations, along with the Kurdish Regional Government, to deliver aid, but some communities are receiving assistance multiple times, while others are getting none at all due to a lack of communication between these different organizations, Veide explained.

According to Veide, even with the new UNHCR camps currently in the planning stage in for Iraq, there still won’t be room for everyone. "What we are working on now is absolutely not enough for the whole number — absolutely not," Veide says.  

People at Jowla’s encampment say they feel abandoned and frustrated. It was not what they expected in Dohuk, after surviving the horrors of the Islamic State and the hazardous trek to Kurdistan. "No one wants to help us. There is nothing here for us," Hassan Fidduy says, sitting in his family’s small corner of the building. He is in his early 20s but looks at least 10 years older. "Where is the United Nations? The U.N. has done nothing for us. They came here once before, they took some photos, and then they left…. We are doing everything we can ourselves to keep ourselves alive and to find food and any water."

The media, he says, has also failed the Yazidis. "The first two weeks, the media was everywhere because of our situation, but afterwards no one cares," he explains.

Dohuk is spotted with similar buildings and accounts. Larger encampments have a few metal water tanks brought in by local communities, but water trucks have not come. Most people fill their tanks with well water from the ground outside their encampments. Clean drinking water comes only as packages of bottled water donated by the people of Dohuk, while food is dropped off by some concerned local families. This goodwill, however, is never enough.

At Jowla’s around 20 families inhabit each of the first three floors of the structure. Each one has a square piece of concrete ground, cordoned off by their few belongings, mostly worn and dirty clothes. Stacks of thin foam rectangles are used for bedding, donated by local families in Dohuk. Privacy is nonexistent. The smell of human waste lingers; there are no toilets, and so for a time people used the basement level as a bathroom. Now they venture as far as they can to relieve themselves. Two wells that serve as the main sources of water are up the side of a nearby mountain.

Fidduy points at ill children in the building, thrusting his finger in all directions at ones cradles in arms or crudely built cribs, before resting it in the direction of a bucket full of water drawn from the two wells — the cause, he says, of the most recent bout of sickness. He would give a person anything they dreamed of, he says laughingly, if they could drink just one cup of water from the bucket without falling ill. A few people have tried to dig other wells nearby, but so far every source they have found has brought severe diarrhea to the building’s residents.

Barakat Darwish Khalil, one of the older refugees on the first floor of the complex, nods in agreement at Fidduy’s claims. "The U.N. came to make interviews with us, and we told them we need all of this [clean water and bathrooms] desperately," he says. "The people who came didn’t speak Kurdish. We used a translator. They never said they would come back, just that hopefully they would. We are still waiting."

So far the United Nations says it is trying its best to keep up with the high demand for aid in the area, but more funds and cooperation with other organizations are needed. While the UNHCR reports that it is currently working together with the local authorities, other U.N. agencies, and local and international NGOs on ongoing construction for winter preparedness in four existing camps for internally displaced persons located in districts surrounding Dohuk, at the moment, there is simply not enough aid or funds to go around.

Hard months lie ahead, as the inevitable cold of winter will envelop the mountains. Without more robust shelter and other aid, the Yazidi refugees fear the hard, upcoming winter.

"It is going to be cold soon — that is what everyone is talking about," Khalil says, lowering his voice. "We don’t have anything here to keep warm. We don’t have gas; we don’t know what we will do if someone doesn’t come to help. We have no place to stay. We need help. When winter comes what will we do?"

Sheren Khalel is a Palestinian-American journalist based in the Middle East, currently covering the Iraq conflict.
Matthew Vickery is a Scottish freelance conflict reporter currently based in Iraq.