psychologist of Yezidi descent at Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany.
“Yezidis know what it means to survive
genocide,” he says. “It’s in our music, our
narratives, our behavior.” By studying how
Yezidi refugees are coping, he and others
hope to learn how to better support the
mental health of the more than 60 million
people worldwide who have been forced to
leave their homes.
Because they are targeted for their religion, Yezidis suffer not just as individuals,
but as a group, says Andres Barkil-Oteo, a
psychiatrist with Yale School of Medicine
and Doctors Without Borders who has
worked with Yezidis in Greece. So the traditional Western model of one-on-one, individualized psychological treatment is not
always adequate, he says. “The problem is
collective—how do you treat a community?”
YEZIDI RITUALS MAY TRACE BACK to nature-worshiping traditions of ancient Mesopotamia, although their monotheistic religion
contains elements of Islam and other faiths.
In addition to one God, Yezidis worship
seven divine beings, including a peacock
angel called Tawûsî Melek. Yezidis believe
that souls are reborn until they achieve perfection, says Khanna Omarkhali, a scholar
of Yezidi religion at the University of Göttingen in Germany. One can only be born a
Yezidi; no conversions are allowed. Directed
by a spiritual leader named Baba Sheikh,
Yezidism is mostly an oral tradition, with
few, if any, texts.
That lack of texts has left Yezidism vul-
nerable to misinterpretation, including
the accusations of devil worship that the
IS group used to justify slaughter and rape
and that have fueled persecution of Yezidis
for centuries. Yezidis consider the 2014 at-
tacks the 74th genocide in a series dating
back to the Ottoman Empire.
Today, about 420,000 Yezidis remain in
Iraqi Kurdistan, with 350,000 displaced in
formal and informal camps. About 300,000
are scattered throughout about a dozen
countries worldwide, with the largest population in Germany, says Murad Ismael, executive director of the Yezidi advocacy group
YAZDA in Houston, Texas (see graphic,
p. 684). He fears that the genocide may
sever Yezidis from their sacred sites in the
Middle East forever.
Yet throughout their ordeal, Yezidis have
maintained a common core of belief and
culture. At a refugee camp called Fanero-
Two weeks after the Islamic State group attacked
her hometown of Sinjar in 2014, a Yezidi woman
takes shelter with her baby outside Dohuk, Iraq,
unsure of her family’s future.