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TBILISI, Georgia — A steady stream of visitors spilled from the marble entrance of the Yazidi temple on Aug. 3 in Varketili, a suburb of the Georgian capital. Opened this June, the Sultan Yazid Temple is only one of a handful of Yazidi places of worship in the world. The Yazidi community was out in force that day to mark the first anniversary of the Islamic State’s (IS) genocidal attack against them in Iraq.
Following Mosul's fall to IS, in August 2014 the extremist group's fighters descended on the predominantly Yazidi area of northern Iraq. As the world watched, IS slaughtered some 3,000 Yazidi men and abducted 5,000 women and children. Thousands of fleeing Yazidis remained stranded in the desolate Sinjar Mountains as IS continued working toward the systematic eradication of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. To commemorate this episode in Yazidi history, in the community center adjacent to the new temple in Tbilisi, Yazidis and representatives of other confessions held flowers and candles in honor of the victims. Their photographs lined the walls. Some are depicted just seconds before their execution.
The Yazidis are an ancient people native to what is now northern Iraq and Syria. Estimates of their actual number vary widely, typically between 300,000 and 700,000. The Yazidis share many elements of their culture, including their language, with the majority-Muslim Kurds, with whom they are often controversially identified. Kurds themselves tend to see Yazidis as one of their own but of a different religious background, and a great deal of Western scholarly opinion holds a similar view given their common material culture and language.
Yazidis profess a syncretic faith, sharing many traditions with Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. Their intercommunal relations over the centuries have been troubled. Thousands of Yazidis were murdered in more than 70 massacres during the Ottoman Empire and more recently in the Anfal campaign from 1986 to 1989 under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The rise of IS, which considers Yazidis to be apostates and “devil worshippers,” has compelled thousands of Yazidis to seek refuge outside their ancestral homeland, which is the location of their holiest sites, such as the Sheikh Adi Temple at Lalish.
The South Caucasus was one option for escape, thanks to a visa-free agreement between Iraq and Georgia. The first group of some 15 Yazidis from Sinjar arrived in Georgia in early August 2014, prompting the local Yazidi community to take action. The ancestors of Georgia's Yazidis had themselves arrived as refugees from Ottoman persecution. The Georgian Yazidi population has shrunk, mostly due to emigration and the instability and nationalism of the country’s first post-independence government. The last Soviet census, from 1989, put the number of Yazidis in Georgia at more than 30,000, but by 2002 there were only some 18,000. Today's community is estimated at 6,000, the majority of whom live in Tbilisi.
“It's a tragedy, but it has united us, made us wake up and shown us what we can do,” said Agit Mirzoev, a local Yazidi activist and director of the House of Yazidis of Georgia. Mirzoev spoke of the first 72 Iraqi Yazidi refugees to arrive in Georgia. They came within a year of the Sinjar massacre, and 60 of them have requested refugee status under the 2012 Georgian Law on Humanitarian and Refugee Status. Although none of the refugees arrived without documents, the latecomers — the majority of them — found a more complicated situation. The visa-free agreement between Georgia and Iraq ended Sept. 1, 2014, and given that there was no Georgian diplomatic presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Sinjar refugees could not obtain a Georgian visa before entering the country. The program's termination has been expensive given the going rate of $10,000 for a fake Georgian visa.
“Sinjar was a real genocide, but nobody wants to hear about it,” said Mirza (a pseudonym), an Iraqi Yazidi from Sinjar. He arrived in Georgia in spring 2014 to study and then returned to his hometown to visit family in July. The massacres began 10 days after he arrived. Mirza's father and a second cousin along with his wife and two daughters were captured by IS fighters, who ransacked the family's home. His grandmother, a witness to events, died of a heart attack in the ensuing chaos. After eight days in the mountains, Mirza fled across the desert, reaching the Syrian border in a matter of hours, fortunate enough to have had a vehicle and fuel. After making his way back into Iraq and to the Kurdish city of Erbil, he boarded a flight back to Tbilisi, where he remains. He described himself as “once a student,” but now a “refugee who studies.”
Mirza strongly believes that the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan do not have the Yazidis' best interest at heart and spoke of routine and rampant discrimination in the Iraq of his youth. Although Yazidi areas, including Sinjar and Lalish, are technically part of Iraq's Nineveh province, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has effectively incorporated many of these areas in recent years, claiming them as a historical part of Kurdistan.
The KRG leadership, Mirza thinks, has merely used the suffering of the Yazidis in Sinjar to play on the conscience of Western leaders to obtain arms and financial support. Like many Sinjar Yazidis, he insists that the peshmerga had little interest in defending them from IS. He complains that Yazidi attempts to organize in self-defense and to retake Sinjar were purposely restricted. In April 2015, President Massoud Barzani forbade Yazidi fighting units to fly their own flag, requiring that it be replaced with the flag of Iraqi Kurdistan. Heydar Shesho, a Yazidi commander, was soon thereafter arrested and his militia declared illegitimate; its members were forcibly integrated into the peshmerga.
Mirza believes the homogenization of northern Iraq through IS' killing of religious and ethnic minorities does not particularly trouble the KRG leadership, which has sometimes been accused of trying to influence the region's demographics for political purposes through “Kurdification.” “Yazidis,” Mirza insisted, “are not Kurds,” a point of view that if accepted could imply grave consequences in Iraqi Kurdistan. The heated dispute over Kurdish and Yazidi identity has been newly charged by events in Iraq.
“Georgia is not a rich country,” said Dmitry Pirdima, a Georgian Yazidi religious leader, “but the government is doing what it can.” Nevertheless, the Georgian government is only able to offer 270 lari per month ($113) to Yazidi refugee families, an insufficient sum for families with multiple children. Iraqi Yazidi refugees arriving in Georgia face a lengthy wait at the border, during which time Yazidi organizations in Georgia, such as Mirzoev's House of Yazidis of Georgia, negotiate on their behalf with the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia.
Every application for asylum must be processed and a decision made by the ministry within six months. The House of Yazidis of Georgia has been able to house refugee families with the support and financial assistance of the Georgian government, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Open Society Foundations and Russian Yazidi businessmen (and brothers) Amirkhan Mori and Zelimkhan Mutsoev. Refugees have been housed in apartments in two East Tbilisi suburbs. Mirzoev does not expect more arrivals, but is prepared to help should he be proven wrong.
“Whatever difficulties I experience in Georgia pale in comparison to those of Yazidis in Iraq,” Mirza remarked. Iraqi Yazidis in Georgia have neither illusions nor prospects. With no knowledge of Georgian or Russian, employment is hard to find, which is not a problem restricted to newcomers. Since 2011, remittances from migrant laborers have surpassed foreign direct investment in contributing to the Georgian economy. The lari is at its lowest rate against the dollar since 1999. “Migration won't stop now,” said Pirdima. “People want something better, and they won't find it in these economic conditions.”
As with the 16,000 Syrian Armenians (and handful of Iraqi Yazidis) who have settled in neighboring Armenia since the current conflict began, the Iraqi Yazidis who reach Georgia find that their adopted homeland offers temporary respite but little more. One year after the Sinjar massacre, Mirza sees few reasons or chances to return home to Iraq. Despite the difficulties he faces, he would like to stay in Georgia. According to Pirdima, “He is a rare exception.” Iraqi Yazidis are leaving for Germany, which has a Yazidi community of nearly 60,000. Despite Georgia's European aspirations, heading for “Europe” means the European Union.