In the week before President Obama authorized air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqis from the Yazidi ethno-religious minority group were driven from their homes in northern Iraq by the militant group ISIS. Several thousand, and up to 40,000, ended up besieged on remote Mount Sinjar, surrounded by ISIS militants, without food or water. While the US organized emergency airdrops to supply them, no one is sure how long they can hold out.
There are also a number of Yazidis here in the United States, and by Thursday morning about 250 Yazidi Americans had arrived in Washington, DC, thanks to some very hasty organizing on Facebook and Twitter, to call on the US government and international organizations to come to Iraqi Yazidis' aid. In the words of one Yazidi American named Elias, they believed that "If something's going to be done, we have to go to DC."
A number of the Yazidi-Americans who'd come to DC by Thursday had gone back home by that evening, when President Obama announced the US airstrikes against ISIS. But the handful who remained in DC held an impromptu press conference outside the White House on Friday, between meetings with government agencies and embassies.
The Yazidids outside the White House agreed that what's being done now isn't nearly enough. This mostly Iraqi minority group has been so persecuted for so long that they count the number of attempted genocides against them in their 1000-year history, and they say that this is number 74. This is proof, they say, that it's impossible for Yazidis to live safely within an Islamic state. They're not particular about who comes to help them, or where they end up, but they're adamant that they need an autonomous region of their own.
'We just buried seven infants, because we could not provide any water'
"I don't know where my spouse is right now," says Mirza Ismail, the chairperson of Yazidi Human Rights Organization International. Ismail has lived in Canada for the last 21 years, but the rest of his family is still in Iraq — including his wife. He last spoke to her by phone two days ago, when she told him, "We are safe, don't worry about me."
"And later on, they attacked that region. So I have no contact now," Ismail says.
Elias K. (he declined to give his full last name) works in Arizona at a manufacturing plant and drove 40 hours to get to DC. He plans to drive another 40 hours home to make it into work on Sunday.
"This morning," he says, "we spoke to families back home. They said 'We just buried seven infants, because we could not provide any water.' You have kids that are just a little older, they're hiding them in the shade so they can last a little bit longer."
Farhad Jundi, another Arizona-based Yazidi, says, "We asked somebody, what did he eat the last time he ate? He said that all he ate was some, like, dry rice. Because that is all they have. Dry rice. To last 24 hours."
The Yazidis believe existential threats of genocide will only continue without international protection
The Yazidis emphasize that this isn't the first time their existence has been threatened. Repeatedly, they referred to the ISIS attack as the 74th attempted genocide of their people. But, says Elias, "we've had Muslim extremists, Islamic extremists that tried to kill Christians and whatnot, but it's never been this bad."
But the Yazidis are persecuted even by people who aren't trying to kill them. Ismail says that Turkey has opened its borders to the Yazidis, but the Iraqi Kurdish government isn't allowing them to flee through their territory. And Yazidis who live in Turkey are severely persecuted as well. Yazidi Americans say they're not allowed to rent apartments there because of their religion.
"If I open a restaurant — Muslims, Kurds come in, they don't eat the food. If they found out the worker is Yazidi, they won't eat the food of that restaurant," explains Jundi.
The Yazidis group themselves with other heavily persecuted minorities in the Middle East: the Iraqi Christians, the Coptic Christians in Egypt, and the Zoroastrians in Syria. All of these groups, Ismail says, are in need of international protection before they're wiped out.
They're seeking a Yazidi autonomous zone, like the Kurds have
Ismail welcomes the airlift of food and water as well as the US airstrikes as a "first step." But Elias cautions that when he spoke to his family near Sinjar this morning, they hadn't yet received any aid. "I kept telling them, 'The United States is supposed to send help.' They're saying, 'we have not seen anything yet.' As of now, Obama has not provided what he said he was going to do. People are still dying."
"I'm not drinking water," he says. "I'm on a water strike until I hear from back home that my people got aid and aren't thirsty anymore." An hour after he'd arrived at the White House, his voice had nearly given out from hoarseness.
But the Yazidis I spoke to emphasize that humanitarian airdrops alone are barely a stopgap measure. They've heard from relatives that ISIS already controls the paths to Mount Sinjar; if they seize the mountain itself, Elias warns, "we'll have thousands of thousands of men dead, children dead, women and girls sold into slavery."
And they're extremely upset — in Jundi's words, "we're boiled" — that, in their view, President Obama had too highly emphasized the airstrikes as seeking to protect Kurdish and American interests, rather than saving the Yazidis. "Not the Yazidis. They're supposed to go rescue the Yazidis," says Elias. "The ones that have been facing genocide."
While Obama did mention the Yazidis repeatedly in making his case for air strikes, the Yazidis in the US feel there needs to be a ground mission to break ISIS's siege of Mount Sinjar and push the group out of the Yazidi's ancestral home.
They're not picky about who leads such a mission — the UN, America, European forces, or some combination thereof. But first, they say, troops need to escort the Yazidi families currently on Mount Sinjar back to their villages, and then the community as a whole must be protected. Elias suggests a "perimeter to defend these helpless people, just like we did in Bosnia."
Ultimately, they want an autonomous zone. "If we can get an area protected within a country, that's fine. If we can't get our own country — that's obviously very hard," says Jundi. "Just like Northern [Iraqi] Kurdistan became an autonomous region, give us some power to protect ourselves."
"Whether it's Iran, Israel — whoever gives these people protection, we will move," says Elias.
But the Yazidis in DC all seemed to agree that the most important thing the international community can give them is "the necessary tools to defend ourselves." When asked what tools those are, Ismail and Elias respond in unison: "Weapons."
"Just give us the weapons, we're gonna protect ourselves," says Ismail. "The Kurds have refused to give them any weapons. That was shameful."
For Elias, at least, Obama's promise of humanitarian airdrops without more robust protection is almost adding insult to injury. "He can feed us, he can give us water all he wants, he says. If you have a gun pointed at you — I do not want anything. I just want my protection."
Until that protection comes, he believes Obama will bear some part of the blame. "He's all about, having our troops out of Iraq. He's not trying to go to war, and all that. But what are you going to do? A genocide is happening on your watch, you're part of the greatest country on earth and bowing down to some lowlife militias who are killing in the name of God?"