For the past two months, I have been teaching English at an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in the Kurdistan region for displaced Yezidis, a Kurdish minority group. My work has consisted of providing language instruction and creating a safe environment for children within the community. There are around 50 registered teachers, most of whom are unpaid volunteers who are responsible for supporting 4,000 students.
There are roughly 650,000 Yezidis living in Iraq. Many of them currently reside in camps or other makeshift shelters within Sinjar Province, in northwest Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq, which borders Turkey, Syria and Iran. The Board of Relief and Humanitarian Affairs (BRHA) documents 23 Yezidi camps for IDPs, and four Syrian refugee camps in the Duhok governorate—one of four in the greater Iraqi Kurdistan region. Estimates from April 2017 suggest that there are over 3 million refugees living in critical shelter arrangements within the country.
Mass displacement is generally correlated with high unemployment, low living standards, and minimal, if any, access to education. In the Duhok governorate in January 2016, an estimated 34 percent of the population did not have at least one member of their household earning an income. In Bajet Kandala, another Yezidi IDP camp, only about 10 percent of the 12,000 inhabitants are employed, according to reports from various NGO officials on the ground.
Education is available but limited. I am one of three English teachers in my camp. My classroom consists of a small portable with plastic arm chairs and two partially working air conditioning units. There is no internet access. The summer heat routinely exceeded 115 degrees Fahrenheit, overworking the one generator available. As a result, the learning environment was extraordinary difficult given the unbearable weather conditions. However, this has not prevented hundreds of students from trekking each day through the formidable heat to learn English, math, Arabic, and Kurdish from the volunteers.
More and more Yezidis have been born in these camps as a result of the ongoing Yezidi genocide. Fewer will have access to education and career training. If the displaced community doesn’t get the required and sustained support it desperately needs, an entire generation will be stunted and woefully unprepared to live successfully in the region.
To help solve this problem the Yezidis need a unified voice of their own that the international community will listen to. This requires the space and security to be able to speak up for themselves. In one sense, the Yezidis have benefited from congregating in the autonomous region of Kurdistan as one larger minority group. However, being a minority in a war-torn country means they have little protection from others, and must rely largely on themselves. This is as true in Kurdistan as it is in Iraq proper, and has been demonstrated through the war objectives of the Peshmerga, and those of the U.S. and Iraqi militaries.
The U.S. State Department, NGOs, and the United Nations, among other entities, have been monitoring human rights abuses against the Yezidis, and have stated that most are being held captive in Raqqa, Syria, the last remaining stronghold of the Islamic State (or ISIS). Since most Yezidis are in Raqqa, and it has yet to be liberated, it is clear that rescuing Yezidis is not the primary objective. Rather, it is territorial liberation and the destruction of ISIS. This was also the case with Mosul, Iraq during the Summer 2017 liberation.
Fortunately, it is possible that the demise of ISIS in Raqqa would result in the liberation of Yezidis there. However, this was not the case in Mosul as only an estimated two dozen Yezidis have returned. Unfortunately, their political future would still be insecure due to their minority classification that only protects them politically, until the rest of the world sees another crisis as more immediate.
As the U.S. coalition, Iraqi army, and Peshmerga start to pat themselves on the back, more than 500,000 Yezidis look on from their UNHCR tents. Since Sinjar was liberated from ISIS in 2015, Yezidis have been packing up hesitantly and moving back seeing an insecure, resource-scarce, war-torn region more appealing then UNHCR camps.
Yezidis will continue to be marginalized in Iraq as well as in Kurdistan if the non-Yezidi community continues to see them as second-class citizens. The most stable and sustainable political relationship will occur when it is acknowledged that Arabs and non-Yezidi Kurds have also been displaced due to this conflict. Non-Yezidis need to recognize and respect Yezidis’ human rights by legitimizing their right to exercise their political voice and human dignity.
Emmaly Read is currently working for a Swedish NGO called Joint Help for Kurdistan at an IDP camp in Kurdish Iraq, where she teaches courses on English language and peace reconciliation. She received a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2017, and focused her studies on refugees, IDPs, and civil conflict. She has interned at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute.