Since 2014, the Islamic State has visited unprecedented violence and persecution on populations in Iraq and Syria. One response from the international community to the resultant trauma has been to establish resettlement programmes providing international protection to selected survivors in Western countries. These programmes have targeted minority groups such as the Yezidis, whose extreme suffering at the hands of the Islamic State has been recognised by the UN as ‘genocide’. However, some of the most vulnerable cases from this same community are being excluded from consideration for such solutions due to community rejection and its reproduction in policy decision-making.
Shirman Hasso (a pseudonym used in order to protect his identity) and his family are a case in point, facing exclusion and threats in Iraq as a result of his mixed-faith marriage. Shirman is a doctor from the Yezidi religious minority in the predominantly Kurdish area of Afrin in north-west Syria. He married a Muslim woman from the same region five years ago. Farida (also a pseudonym) was a pharmacist. The couple met while they were working in a local hospital run by an NGO. ‘It was a love story,’ explains Shirman. ‘While some of my relatives had doubts about our marriage, the communities in Afrin are relatively secular, and my father was open-minded. Then, two years ago, we were blessed with a daughter. Our life was good.’
Indeed, the family used to have few problems in Afrin on account of their religious identity. Ironically, because the Syrian government refused to classify the Yezidis as a recognised faith, and instead registered them as Muslims against their will, there was no legal impediment preventing Shirman and Farida’s marriage. ‘Religion was a personal issue and people were relaxed about it,’ recalls Shirman. This, however, changed dramatically in January 2018 when the Turkish-backed military and allied Syrian armed factions, including Islamist groups, launched Operation Olive Branch to take control of Afrin. Among widespread human rights violations, the Yezidis were treated particularly badly. Their religious shrines were demolished and individual Yezidis were kidnapped and tortured. The majority of the Yezidi community quickly fled the area as the social harmony that had previously existed in mixed Yezidi–Muslim communities collapsed.
Shirman and Farida’s happy life was also turned upside down. The hospital where the couple worked was targeted by a Turkish airstrike, and Shirman’s medical clinic and Farida’s private pharmacy were looted and commandeered by armed groups from outside the area. ‘Our house was occupied by one of the armed groups and converted into a military base,’ recounts Shirman, ‘and our neighbours warned us not to return as the group was referring to us as kafir (infidels) and would do us harm.’ Given that Shirman was already wanted by the Syrian government for his work providing medical treatment to injured protesters at the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, options for safety inside Syria were limited.
Double rejection in displacement
After abandoning their home in Afrin, the family sought refuge in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Following initial relief at reaching safety, they came to realise that their relocation would also expose them to new challenges, vulnerabilities and even threats emanating from their mixed-faith marriage. ‘Here, our situation is not accepted and is considered problematic by both the authorities and society,’ explains Shirman, recalling that ‘back in Afrin people did not ask each other much about their religion or their beliefs. Here, it feels like we are constantly on trial.’ This account is supported by Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist and author of a recent book on Afrin, who confirms that ‘mixed marriages between Yezidi-Muslim couples would be completely unthinkable in Iraq but in Afrin they were quite common. Many Muslims in Afrin were Yezidis one or two generations ago and still remember their Yezidi heritage’.
Yezidi religious identity in Iraq is governed by conservative rules of endogamic marriage across a three-tier caste system. Marriage outside the community, or even outside the caste, is strictly prohibited and converting into the faith is impossible. People considered to have transgressed these boundaries were typically excluded as pariahs. The risks and possible repercussions were made clear by the stoning to death of a Yezidi girl, Duaa Khalil, in 2007 after a relationship with a Muslim man. Issues around Yezidi identity are particularly sensitive in Iraq following historic episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The capture and sexual slavery of female community members by the Islamic State from 2014 has added to conservative notions of preserving ‘pure’ Yezidi identity, and led to the widespread rejection of children born to women raped by Islamic State fighters.
In contrast to practices in Iraq, the Yezidi community in Afrin had developed distinct, generally more liberal, approaches to the limits of their religious identification. Sheikh Ismet Brimo, Yezidi member of the Afrin Religious Authority based in the German diaspora, explains that ‘there are particularities among Yezidis in Afrin due to the community’s isolation from other Yezidis, and the historic impacts of urban and intellectual influences from [nearby] Aleppo’. These include the lack of observance of the Yezidi caste system – often a point of criticism among Yezidis elsewhere, and especially the more orthodox in Iraq. Yezidi expert Sebastian Maisel writes in his book Yezidis in Syria: Identity Building Among a Double Minority that Yezidis from Afrin have been considered ‘deviators because marriage rules were not strictly enforced over there’.
Thus, Shirman and Farida’s mixed marriage made them particularly vulnerable in Iraq, where social stigma is exacerbated by legal prohibitions against inter-faith marriage. When they first arrived in the KRI capital, Erbil, they found a house in a Muslim-majority neighbourhood. Shirman and his wife gave little thought to keeping their respective religious identities. Within days, they noticed the initial reactions of curiosity and disbelief shifting to suspicion and outright hostility. ‘We no longer felt safe,’ explained Farida, ‘so we fled the area after living there for only 20 days.’ Matthew Travis Barber, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and former Executive Director of Yazda NGO in Iraq, suggests that, while many Muslim Kurds have provided assistance and hospitality, some Yezidis in contact with conservative Muslims have ‘had uncomfortable experiences of prejudice and discrimination [reflecting] widespread negative stereotypes about Yezidis … that designate them as pagans, unbelievers, and devil-worshipers’ (verbal communication).
The couple consequently relocated to a Christian-majority area, where their mixed-faith relationship was less prominent as a day-to-day issue. Nonetheless, says Shirman, ‘we could not integrate in that city because we were imprisoned in this one district. We were afraid to become close to people.’ Frustrated with such an isolated life, accompanied by fears of insecurity and having to suppress their own identities, they decided to explore options for a solution outside Iraq. They sought to apply for resettlement to Australia as part of a government-run programme targeting Yezidis from Syria and Iraq. While Shirman’s parents and siblings had already been accepted to travel, the local NGO administering the programme informed Shirman that he and his family were not eligible for consideration as his wife and daughter were deemed to be Muslim. ‘To be honest,’ says Shirman, ‘we do not know at which level we have been rejected … if the rejection is from the Australian government directly because my wife is Muslim, or because the staff processing the application here are Yezidis who do not accept my marriage to a non-Yezidi?’
In an attempt to challenge this decision, Shirman approached representatives from the Yezidi leadership in Iraq, the Rohani Council. The Council refused to provide a confirmatory letter signed by Baba Sheikh, the paramount religious figure within the Yezidi faith, as it was unwilling to condone Shirman and Farida’s marriage. Such decisions stem from the historical survival mechanisms built into the vulnerable minority group’s religious doctrine, which prohibits any Yezidi to marry a non-Yezidi. According to Barber, ‘while many Yezidis today feel that such doctrines should be discarded, progress towards reform has been slow’, resulting in a situation where ‘even contemporary Yezidi religious figures who want to help a Yezidi who has married a non-Yezidi may find themselves caught between their personal empathy and the current dictates of tradition’.
Shirman and Farida report that they have been made to feel like outcasts from both communities: ‘The more we tried to sort out this issue,’ says Shirman, ‘the more we felt intimidated as people started to turn against us.’ Fearful for their own safety, the family eventually decided to flee to Europe. As they await the processing of their asylum claim in Germany, the couple are appealing to international policy-makers to give special consideration to the vulnerable predicament mixed-faith families may face in countries like Iraq. Reflecting on the hostile reactions received from both religious communities and the authorities, Shirman concludes that, ‘if we had stayed there, our situation could only have got worse. We are a happy little family. We just need somewhere that we can live as ourselves without fear. And one day, we hope to be reunited with our relatives in Australia’.
Zozan Yaşar is a journalist based in the UK working on Kurdistan and the wider MENA region with a particular focus on refugee and human interest stories, and politics.
Thomas McGee is a Kurdish and Arabic-speaking PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne’s Law School. His research focuses on statelessness and humanitarian issues relating to Syria.