The Yazidi plight

On Tuesday, the Wilson Center hosted a discussion with Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament. Halah Esfandiari, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program, moderated.

Dakhil received international attention in August, when she delivered a speech highlighting the plight of the Yazidis at the hands of Da’ish in the Sinjar area of Nineveh Province. The high profile siege of thousands of refugees sheltering on Mount Sinjar was ultimately broken by Kurdish forces from Syria (YPG) and Turkey (PKK). However, less well reported has been the fate of the Yazidis in the months since.

Dakhil was quick to note that there are still Yazidi refugees on the mountain. She estimates that there are as many as 1,200 families (6,000-7,000 individuals) encamped there. Though Da’ish was driven back, its forces make the surrounding lands too dangerous for land-based evacuation. Throughout the fall, the Iraqi armed forces have worked to airlift families off the mountain. Though Dakhil was quick to praise these efforts as well intended, she notes they are still woefully inadequate: only four helicopters have been spared for the operation. On any given evacuation mission, only around 25 individuals can be flown out.

Though Dakhil made no mention of it during the discussion, she has had first-hand experience of the shortcomings of the airlift mission. In August, she was on board a rescue helicopter when it crashed after being overloaded with refugees.

Meanwhile, for those thousands of Yazidis still on the mountain, the situation is desperate. As winter closes in, temperatures will plummet and several inches of freezing rain will fall. While grateful to the international community for what aid and supplies it has provided, Dakhil does not believe enough has been done to relieve the refugees. She is particularly critical of the quality of tents provided by UNHCR. Last month, three children died when a tent caught fire. Tragedies such as this are not isolated incidents. More supplies, of better quality, are needed.

The plight of Yazidi women is also of the utmost importance. Dakhil estimates that upwards of 5,000 kidnapped women and girls are still held by Da’ish. Yazidi women are especially targeted for kidnap and sale, as the jihadists see Yazidis as kuffar (infidels) on account of their reverence for the angel Melek Taus (whose perceived similarities to the Islamic and Christian devil has contributed to centuries of persecution). Dakhil‘s trips around the world have in part been to raise awareness for these women.

Off the mountain and away from Da’ish, half a million Yazidis (a majority of the Yazidi population) are in refugee camps in and around Iraqi Kurdistan. More help is needed, desperately. In the camps, there is one bathroom for 18 families; one shower for 50 families. And Yazidi families are large. With winter closing in, and hundreds of thousands living in unsanitary conditions, the humanitarian crisis will worsen. Dakhil wishes to do all she can to avert such a crisis, and hopes that the international coalition will direct as much energy into helping the victims of Da’ish as they do when bombing it.

For the US, Dakhil‘s request for help is specific. Earlier this year she formally requested US assistance at the American Embassy in Baghdad, but she also wants the US to use its global influence – especially in the UN and the UN Security Council – to try to bring about more international commitment to providing humanitarian aid. She has seen first hand that the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, though sympathetic, are lacking resources and are at risk of being overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis.

Earlier this year, Da’ish attempted genocide of the Yazidis. Though they failed, the plight of this tiny people remains dire. Dakhil‘s work to protect and save her constituents, despite personal setbacks and injuries, shows her devotion as an MP at a time politicians around the world have been widely criticized.

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