THE GREATEST LESSON OF MY JOURNEY – YAZIDI REFUGEE CAMP, SERRES, GREECE

(Photo: A Yazidi girl paints the inside wall of an LHI tent at Serres in Greece)

At the outset of my two-year world trip I knew that volunteer work was something I really wanted to undertake and felt the need to reach out and offer what little support I could to people who were a damn sight less fortunate than I was. At the early stages of my journey I had linked up with another instagram blogger from Australia, who was travelling the world with her family. She had mentioned in one of her posts that she had done some volunteer work in Greece with a wonderful organisation called Lifting Hands International. I immediately contacted her to find out more and to learn about the work being carried out by the organisation itself. I was moved beyond words when I learned about the fantastic work that LHI was doing in Serres in Greece at a refugee camp where members of the Yazidi Community had fled for safety from genocide and attacks by ISIL in their home country of Iraq.

In all of my previous blogs I have written about my journey and experiences, both good and bad, throughout all of the different countries that I have visited over the last eighteen months. In this blog, while I will be writing about my own journey and experiences, I will be focusing more on the plight of the beautiful Yazidi people and the insurmountable challenges that Lifting Hands International faces each and every day to bring aid, normality and joy to these refugees.

I am ashamed to admit that before contacting Lifting Hands International (LHI) to enquire about whether myself and Colm would be suitable to work with their organisation in Greece, I had absolutely no knowledge of the Yazidi people or of the years of torment and torture they had endured at the hands of ISIL. Yes, I probably had seen news reports flashing across my TV screen, but like everyone, it was something that didn’t really affect my life and therefore I gave it a moment’s shock reaction and continued on with what I now know is a very privileged lifestyle, not giving it another thought as I went about my daily business. I think we all develop a certain sense of ‘immunity’ to these news headlines that pop up on our tv screens momentarily, and disappear once we click the remote to move on to more positive news. And that is the privilege…that we can!

We applied to LHI initially by email and soon after were interviewed for volunteer positions. Having received word that we were accepted, we were excited but also somewhat apprehensive about whether we would be a good ‘fit’ for the team and whether we would be able to cope with facing into the unknown of dealing with refugees. We were committed to learning as much as we could about the Yazidi people before arriving in Greece. We learned that historically, the Yazidis practiced one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, mainly in Northern Syria and Iraq. It is an ancient faith, and unique in that it is one of the few non-Muslim religions practiced in predominantly Muslim regions. They are extremely proud of their religion and practice it with reverence and respect, but only within their own community. To preserve their religion they marry only within their own community. Their belief system is peaceful, pure and affects every part of their daily lives. Many foods are forbidden, as is blue clothing. Because of their beliefs, they have been persecuted for years, most recently by ISIL.

(Photo: Yazidi’s in Serres pleading for the return of the victims of ISIL)

The Yazidi people have been victims of genocide and ongoing attacks from ISIL since August 2014. Today, as I begin this blog (3rd August 2019), the Yazidi community throughout the world are marking the fifth anniversary of the most heinous attacks by ISIL on their people who, up until August 2014, resided just outside the Sinjar region in Iraq. Their grief is still clearly evident today as I follow their stories on social media, having had the privilege of spending three months living and working with them. These wonderful people shared their lives, their gut wrenching stories, their inconsolable grief, and also their wonderful and joyous moments with us between January and May 2019. It is the part of my journey that I can say has changed me to the very core of my being.

Before our arrival, LHI provided us with a copy of the United Nations (UN) report 2016. The UN acknowledged that the attacks by ISIL on the Yazidi Community which led to the expulsion and flight of these people from their ancestral lands in Sinjar in Northern Iraq and Northern Syria were acts of persecution and genocide. This document gave me the first real insight into the atrocities that had been inflicted on these innocent and vulnerable ethnic minority people by ISIL before I arrived in Greece.

I think it’s important to give readers an insight into the background that led the Yazidi people to flee from Sinjar to seek refuge in Serres, and other parts of the world. Many travelled by boat, others by foot on a harrowing journey from Sinjar across thousands of kilometers to mainland Greece and the islands surrounding it. A word of forewarning however, this is not for the faint hearted and even reading the UN report left me shaken and horrified. I write merely to enlighten people about the plight of this vulnerable community and what they are faced with continuously in trying to raise international awareness about their desperate need for help and protection.

A report from the world’s Human Rights Council/UN reads:

ISIS has sought to destroy the Yazidis through killings, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm; the infliction of conditions of life that bring about a slow death; the imposition of measures to prevent Yazidi children from being born, including forced conversion of adults, the separation of Yazidi men and women, and mental trauma; and the transfer of Yazidi children from their own families and placing them with ISIS fighters, thereby cutting them off from beliefs and practices of their own religious community, and erasing their identity as Yazidis. The public statements and conduct of ISIS and its fighters clearly demonstrate that ISIS intended to destroy the Yazidis of Sinjar, composing the majority of the world’s Yazidi population, in whole or in part”

Before the attacks on the Yazidis in Iraq, it is estimated that they numbered less than 1.5 million, scattered throughout Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Armenia. The largest numbers, (approximately 400,000) the most vulnerable and impoverished resided in the area of Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq. On 3rd August 2014, ISIL launched co-ordinated attacks on their towns and villages near Mount Sinjar forcing them to flee to safety onto the Sinjar mountain. ISIL soldiers encircled the mountain, trapping thousands of Yazidis, leaving them without food and water in scorching temperatures. Hundreds perished on the mountain, the majority of them women, children and the elderly, despite the intervention of the USA and other governments from around the world who flew in to airdrop food and water and medical supplies. Eventually, a safe corridor was opened up by the Kurdish forces, allowing them to flee through Syria and onwards to safety to countries further afield such as Turkey and Greece. For the thousands of people who remained in the surrounding villages, the majority were kidnapped, males and females were separated, and young boys who had reached the age of puberty were forcibly transferred to join the ISIL armies. Men and young boys who refused to convert to Islam were executed by ISIL soldiers, having their throats slit in public, or with a single gunshot to the head, with ISIL forcing other captives to witness the killings. The roads of Sinjar were soon littered with corpses. Those who did convert out of fear were persecuted and tortured and eventually killed.

The reports on the capturing of almost 7,000 Yazidi women and children tormented me. Women were sorted into different groups at ISIL “holding” points. Married and unmarried women were separated, and only children under the age of 8/9 years old were allowed to remain with their mothers. During their first hours of captivity, the women and children were filled with fear, forced to witness the killings of their fathers, husbands and sons. Thereafter, women were chosen to become “sex-slaves” to the ISIL soldiers, who basically bought and sold them between each other at “slave-markets”. Once bought, they were imprisoned, beaten and raped in front of their young children with a level of sexual violence too graphic for this blog. Girls as young as 9 years old were held in captivity and raped continuously. The women were sold in “sex-slave markets” for anything between USD200 and USD1,500, depending on their marital status. They were nothing less than “cattle markets” by all accounts. Many women who tried to escape had their children killed as punishment. Many were beaten to death. Today, over 3,000 women are still unaccounted for as their families wait each day, hoping against hope that they will hear that they have survived, even after years in captivity.

(Photo: Nadia Murad, UN Goodwill Ambassador and Human Rights Activist and representative of Yazidi’s. Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2018)

One such Yazidi woman who was held in captivity as a sex-slave but managed to escape, was a beautiful young girl who people may be familiar with, Nadia Murad, the UN goodwill ambassador and human rights activist for the Yazidi people and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2018. She has dedicated her life to raising global awareness of the crimes that have been committed against her people. Attorney Amal Clooney has joined forces with Nadia in an attempt to take legal action against the perpetrators of the crimes against the Yazidis. As far as I’m aware, to date, there have been no prosecutions. Nadia has spoken eloquently and passionately internationally in an effort to help the Yazidis who are still held in captivity by ISIL, the Yazidi refugees still displaced in refugee camps and to raise awareness amongst governments worldwide to assist her people in facing their uncertain future. For me, this woman is truly an inspiration and I would highly recommend that if you can find the time to read her life story in her recent autobiography “The Last Girl”, it will be worth the read. Recently, a documentary film has also been produced called “On Her Shoulders” which tells about Murad’s life and her human rights work. While I had read the UN report on the Yazidi people, nothing moved me more than watching this documentary when I arrived in Greece. It is overwhelmingly moving and an education in itself.

We arrived into the freezing temperatures of Thessaloniki, a city in mainland Greece, on 31st January 2019 and travelled for an hour’s journey to the smaller city of Serres, where we reached our accommodation, an apartment in an old building on the outskirts of the city. We were to share this apartment with 8 other volunteers. To say the accommodation was basic is an understatement. Fold up beds with sleeping bags and/or UN blankets protected us from the freezing temperatures of the typical harsh winters of that part of the world. We shared bedrooms with our fellow volunteers. One wood burner provided minimum heating for the entire accommodation. A tiny kitchen and two basic bathrooms with old rattling pipes provided all that was needed to eat and wash each day for all of the volunteers. LHI provide this basic accommodation at a very low cost for volunteers, but understandably, every penny they collect goes towards helping with feeding, clothing, educating and providing for the refugees at the camp rather than making our lives easy – and rightly so. Knowing this inspired me with confidence that the organisation was entirely focused on helping the vulnerable people at the camp. It made it easier to tolerate the living conditions we faced into. The dedication of the volunteers we met on arrival to our apartment was mind blowing. Many of the volunteers were literally dedicating their entire lives to working with the Yazidis at the camp, others offered whatever time they could and stayed for shorter periods. The refugee camp in Serres was built initially for 500 refugees. When we arrived there they numbered over 700 (and that number was growing by the day) crammed into portable truck-container type accommodation on a site beside the LHI base. Many families shared these containers, and when I first caught a glimpse of the conditions they were living in, our apartment seemed almost luxurious by comparison.

Support from the Greek government to such a huge number of refugees is stretched beyond limits at this point and therefore the work of organisations such as LHI is absolutely essential. After our first day settling into our apartment we were taken to a field beside the refugee camp where three large wooden buildings (tents) were erected. My job was to teach English and life skills to Yazidi women and men who were residents at the camp. Colm initially taught English and then worked on erecting more wooden buildings on the site, creating safe recreational places for the men, women and children. The “Education Tent” became my home over the next few months. It is situated next to a “Female-Friendly Tent” and a “Child-Friendly Tent” where men are forbidden to enter. The “Female-Friendly Tent” is managed by the most devoted and loving female volunteers who organize recreational activities for the women from the camp. It is a “safe place” for the Yazidi women to come together to knit, cook, and basically share their lives in supporting each other in a way that has to be seen to be believed. The coping skills that these women displayed during my time at the camp left me humbled and in awe of their ability to overcome the horrors of what they had endured not only in Iraq, but to actually make the arduous journey to Greece from Iraq. The “Child-Friendly Tent” was filled with beautiful young happy laughing Yazidi children, entertained each day by dedicated volunteers, who taught them games and skills and basically brought sheer joy and happiness into their lives, something many of them very much needed after what they had endured on their journey here.

In the Education Tent where I spent most of my time, I taught three classes each day under the guidance of two inspiring education co-ordinators. A class of female students, a mixed class of young adults and an older mixed class of adults. I can safely say, those people who started out as my students very quickly became dear friends. As a relatively new teacher of the English Language, I was unsure what to expect in the classroom, or how I would even begin to teach people who only knew a language that was unwritten (Kurmanji). Many of my students had never learned to read or write before landing in Serres. I quickly learned that their will to learn was greater than my uncertainty. They arrived into class every day in freezing cold and often wet conditions where we all huddled around a gas heater to keep warm, to learn how to speak and read and write English. Their enthusiasm humbled me beyond belief and I’ve no doubt brought the best out in me as a teacher! Their commitment to learning made me prepare classes with a devotion I didn’t realise I possessed. I felt so honored and lucky to have an opportunity to teach in such a positive environment. It filled me with a whole different approach to lesson preparation, constantly thinking about how to teach them new life skills by incorporating those skills into their language lessons. I wanted to make sure that every time a student left my class that they took with them some new skill, no matter how small, that might improve their lives in the future. Other volunteers, just as devoted to the students, helped me with my young adult class with this task. Many of my young students were oblivious to the existence of other countries around the world. For me, this was a priority in teaching them about what was beyond the boundaries of their country. They naturally couldn’t physically travel to these countries as refugees, but to me, for now, they could travel in their imagination. Maybe some day in their future they will. Who knows? We organized for a “guest speaker” volunteer to arrive into class at the end of each week to speak to the students about the country where they were born, and to do a fun presentation for the students on the volunteers homeland. The students themselves had to research the country in advance and bombard the volunteer with questions during the presentation. Colm of course did the “Irish” class, and spoke to them about our own traditions and culture. Hilariously, the only question that they wanted to discuss was whether Irish people truly had red hair! We managed to just about cover most countries in Europe, America and Canada, with all of the volunteers eagerly participating. In time, the students not only knew about many different countries, cultures and traditions around the world, but also stood in front of an audience of volunteers on my last day of teaching and did a whole presentation on the uniqueness and beauty of their own Yazidi traditions and culture, and all in English! They were fantastic, and I couldn’t have been more proud of them, and moreso, they of themselves! It was a truly moving and memorable class and one that I will carry with me as an English Language teacher forevermore.

(Photo: Me with one of my beautiful Yazidi students – dressed in the Yazidi traditional costume)

Spending time surrounded by the Yazidi people and indeed my fellow LHI family, was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The Yazidis shared stories with me both good and bad about their lives in Iraq. I am not at liberty, nor would I wish to share individual stories of their horrific experiences fleeing to the safety of Greece before I had the privilege of meeting them.

(Photo: The Yazidi Flag)

However, there is one event that happened during my time with them that will remain with me that I would like to share. An event that gave me some level of understanding of what these people have to deal with on an ongoing basis. I wrote earlier of over 3,000 Yazidi women who are still held as sex slaves by ISIL and are unaccounted for to this day. I arrived into class one morning, forewarned by the amazingly dedicated co-ordinators within LHI that horrific news was filtering through both the media and onwards to the refugee camp. On that Thursday morning, the heads of 50 Yazidi women held in captivity had been found, dumped in bins in Syria by ISIL in retaliation for attacks on them by US and British forces in an attempt to exterminate them and rescue their captives . For the first time my students could not bring themselves to participate in a language class. They came to school nonetheless, inconsolable at hearing such devastating news. We talked and cried, it was all we could do. To my astonishment, there was only minimum media coverage of the atrocity. I couldn’t help but think, if these were the heads of western women there would be international public outcry. But only a minority of western newspapers carried the story, which shocked me and gave me some insight into how the genocide of the Yazidi people remains as a “background story” on the world stage! If these women were your daughters, or mine, the international community would leave no stone unturned to bring those responsible to justice. I however, remained hopeful, that their stories would be heard in time. Until recently!

(Photo: Me with some of my beautiful students at Serres, Greece)

Nadia Murad was recently received as a guest by Donald Trump at his office at The White House in Washington. As she spoke to him and pleaded with him for help, he sat, stoney faced, with his back to her as she poured her heart out about the fate of the Yazidis and of her family members who were murdered by ISIL. He insensitively and disgustingly responsed “so where are they now?” It left me reeling with anger! Nadia was dignified and courteous even in the face of such a painful encounter. His flippant comment that followed “oh…you were the one who one the Nobel Peace Prize” even moreso. This man, in my humble opinion, is not fit to wipe this woman’s feet. And the result…huge media coverage! But not about Nadia and the Yazidis, but about Trump and his insensitive responses!

The refugees residing in Serres are happy and safe now, but still have a long way to go. They still have nowhere to call “home”. They cannot choose to leave the camp unless they are repatriated to Germany by the government after years of living in refugee camps; They cannot afford to leave! Much of their basic necessities are provided for by LHI and other charitable organisations, with food and clothes/shoe distributions. The refugees have very little and yet almost every day they would bring food and gifts of handmade scarves, hats and hair bands to me and to the other volunteers. They had little, but shared everything.

Recent reports “allege” that ISIL is gone. I have my doubts! However, the Yazidi peoples suffering remains. They still search and pray in the hope that someone from the international powers-that-be will help them find their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, their fathers, sons and brothers! The world promised that there would never be another “Auschwitz” after the atrocities of the Second World War! Let there be no doubt, this is EXACTLY, most definitely comparable to the horrors that the Jewish people faced during and after the Second World War! The Yazidis are also displaced with nowhere now to call “home”!

Our time with these wonderful people came to an end all too soon in May 2019. While I should have been overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of beginning our new life in Portugal, a sadness came over me that I couldn’t quite shake off on the day we left. I can only describe it as a feeling of utter guilt that we could walk away to travel wherever we so wished. That we could earn a living in any country we chose, and continue with what I realized more than ever in my lifetime, was a privileged existence by comparison to these people that I was heartbreakingly waving goodbye to from the edge of the field where they were gathered as I dragged my suitcase along the road to the train station nearby. It also made me reflect on the fact that it is a mere lottery as to where each and every one of us is born. A geographical lottery that meant I (and all of the rest of us westerners) was born into a comfortable society, a privileged existence by comparison to a child who was born at the same time as me in Northern Iraq or Syria and who became a victim of ISIL. A woman who is now seeing out the rest of her days in a refugee camp, just because fate dealt her a different hand to me. That same child (now a grown woman like me) has not and is not receiving the same care, the same opportunities, the same comfort of living in a safe place, the same protection from world governments as I, and other western women enjoy. A Yazidi woman will witness her children and her grandchildren growing up in poverty in a refugee camp, while I watch mine, blossoming and growing with all of life’s basic necessities and privileges, as every child should have, regardless of where they are born. An idealistic philosophy, I know, in a world that is imbalanced with such a divide between the rich and the poor.

This time, when I see reports about displaced people of the world, in particular the Yazidis, I won’t be picking up my remote control and switching channels. This time, or some time in the near future, I dearly hope that an opportunity will arise where I can meet my beautiful friends again. When they will have a place to call home, jobs, education, safety, surrounded by their loved ones, with a bright and promising future ahead of them! In the meantime, I will carry a piece of each and every one of them in my heart!

Mam Noon my dear Yazidi friends, until we meet again!

Note: Should you wish to volunteer to work with LHI, please click on the link below:

https://www.liftinghandsinternational.org/volunteer

6 thoughts on “THE GREATEST LESSON OF MY JOURNEY – YAZIDI REFUGEE CAMP, SERRES, GREECE

    1. Thank you so much Grainne. Please feel free to share! I really want to heighten awareness out there about these beautiful Yazidi’s xxx.

    1. Thanks Deirdre. So lovely to see you following the blog. I hope all is well with you. Wait for my next blog to find out where I am 😀😘

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