Yazidi mothers face wrenching choice between children, community

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Sulaimaniyah City, Iraq – Earlier this month, nine Yazidi women were reunited for the first time in years with their 12 children – all born to members of the armed group ISIL (ISIS) who brutally persecuted the Yazidi community in northern Iraq and enslaved its women.

The reunification followed months of lobbying and negotiations between former US diplomat Peter Galbraith, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, and Kurdish officials in Syria. They reached a deal allowing the children to leave the Al-Hol refugee camp in eastern Syria and cross the border into Iraq.

Despite the breakthrough, Yazidi elders have refused to let the children join the small religious community, which considers them outcasts who can never be allowed into society.

The decision has left their mothers, already traumatised by years of violence and atrocities, facing a wrenching choice between keeping their children or staying with their community.

Outcasts

In August 2014, ISIL launched a violent attack on the Yazidis, an ancient religious minority in northern Iraq, when the armed group overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

The group killed thousands of Yazidi men and abducted hundreds of women, later holding them as sex slaves. While many have since been freed following ISIL’s defeat, more than 3,000 women and girls remain missing.

After ISIL’s so-called caliphate crumbled in 2019, Yazidi leaders declared that enslaved women would be welcomed back into the fold of the community, but their children were not allowed to join them.

“According to the principles of our religion, Yazidis are those who are born from Yazidi parents. Therefore, we cannot accept children of ISIL. They are automatically born as Muslims according to Iraqi laws,” Jawhar Ali Beg, deputy of senior Yazidi leader Prince Hazem, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.

Ali Beg described the reunification of the mothers with their children – a step that coincided with the historic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq on March 8 – as “bad” and “unacceptable” within the Yazidi community.

Ali Beg said the only solution would be for international bodies to relocate the Yazidi mothers and their children to another country.

The community’s decision reflected that of the Supreme Yazidi Spiritual Council – the highest decision-making body in the Yazidi community – which includes the prince, his deputies, and the Yazidi spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh.

“The Supreme Yazidi Spiritual Council has decided to reject the integration of those children,” Ahmed Mishko Berkani, a representative of victims’ families and a survivor of ISIL’s campaign, told Al Jazeera.

“For thousands of years, the rule in our religion and community is that only children from both Yazidi parents can be accepted [among us]. And as relatives of the survivors [of the genocide], we do not accept those children to enter our houses,” said Berkani.

Echoing Ali Beg, Berkani – whose family members were buried in more than 80 mass graves in the Yazidi town of Sinjar – called on European countries, the United Nations, and children’s rights groups to relocate the children and their mothers outside of Iraq.

“The Yazidi mothers and their children are victims of ISIL. They cannot be blamed. We want them to live in a safe place,” Berkani said.

Many Yazidis have been granted resettlement in Europe and elsewhere, but the issue of children born to ISIL fathers remains too complex to address for many governments.

New Iraqi legislation

After languishing in parliament for nearly two years, Iraqi lawmakers passed a bill on March 1 offering repatriation to Yazidi women who survived ISIL’s atrocities.

Named the Yazidi (Female) Survivors Law, the new legislation formally recognised the Yazidi genocide and called for compensation, rehabilitation and education for the survivors.

While the law, which was originally proposed by President Barham Salih two years ago, deals with many issues, it does not address the fate of the children born to ISIL fathers.

According to Berkani, the exclusion of any articles addressing what to do with the children was the result of lobbying by members of the community, who called on the Supreme Yazidi Spiritual Council to request that the Iraqi parliament delete them.

Bahar Mahmoud, a lawmaker from the Kurdish Change Movement bloc and member of the parliamentary legal committee that drafted the law, confirmed Berkani’s narrative.

“In meetings discussing the law, I stressed that if it does not deal with the fate of those children, the law will be incomplete,” Mahmoud told Al Jazeera through a messaging application.

“Other parliamentary factions rejected any reference to the fate of the children, as per a request from the Yazidi elders,” said Mahmoud, explaining they believed such a reference would create social friction and conflict within the Yazidi community.

Mahmoud said the current law should either be amended to address the issue, or a new bill should be passed.

“I think it is very important that the Iraqi parliament seeks a legal solution [to the problem],” said Mahmoud. She proposed Iraqi authorities issue national identities for the children, naming them after their maternal grandfathers.

‘Complex issue’

Also looking for a solution is the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which told Al Jazeera it is working with the Iraq government and the Yazidi community in an “inclusive manner … to find a permanent solution to this complex issue”.

“Resolving this issue requires all key stakeholders to work together to collectively find a lasting solution that serves the best interest of the child,” said UNAMI via email.

According to Mustafa Gurbuz, a sociologist at the American University in Washington, the only way forward is for the UN to step in and provide the children with an alternative home.

“Given the complexity of the problem, the best way out is the embracement of these women and their children by the UN umbrella, providing them an opportunity to settle in a safe country.

“Even if Baghdad makes an exception in the Iraqi law and legally recognises the children as Yazidis, there is a major risk that these children – especially the males – would face retribution within the Yazidi community for their fathers’ guilt,” said Gurbuz.

“It is unfortunate that this tribalist logic – shaming someone due to his ancestry – is still strong in Iraq. But it’s not a time to criticise Yazidis. The entire community still suffers from a deep social trauma.”

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