Hundreds of Yazidis living in the United States began commemorating Friday the massacre of their religious community in Iraq by the Islamic State group in August 2014.
While grateful to have escaped IS terror and reached safety in the U.S., the members say they are heartbroken that thousands of Yazidis remain under IS captivity and that those in refugee camps have not been able to return home.
Lilah Salih, a Yazidi woman from a village outside Sinjar in northern Iraq, resettled in the U.S. with her husband in 2017 after spending about three years in a refugee camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I feel safe here,” Salih told VOA in her new home in Washington. “I am not discriminated against because of my religion; I am respected.”
She said moving to the U.S. helped her start anew to recover from the trauma she suffered from the IS attack and the life in the refugee camps. She now studies at a nursing school and hopes to one day use her knowledge to help other Yazidi victims.
“I wish that all Yazidis would find peace and overcome this horrible experience we went through,” she said.
Before the emergence of IS, Salih was working with the advocacy group Kurdistan Women Union, helping to prevent child marriage and promoting female education. But Salih’s life changed forever when IS militants attacked Sinjar in August 2014 and massacred thousands of residents.
“When we heard about the IS attack on Sinjar, everyone tried to flee the village, but no one knew where to [go]. Thousands of people were on the roads; some were riding their vehicles, and others were on foot,” she told VOA.
During the dangerous journey with her family to safety, Salih said unidentified militants shot at them several times.
“Everyone panicked and started running and screaming,” she said, adding the terrified Yazidis headed toward the Syrian border to seek support from Kurdish fighters.
“Out of nowhere, an SUV appeared carrying five women from the Kurdish forces in Syria. The women started shooting in the direction of the unknown gunshots, and they guided us to the Kurdistan region,” she said.
After escaping IS, Salih and her family were later transferred to safety at the Sharia refugee camp in Kurdistan’s Duhok province.
Later accounts from the attack showed those who did not make it out of Sinjar were either killed or enslaved by IS.
According to the United Nations, out of an estimated 400,000 Yazidi civilians living in Sinjar, at least 10,000 were either killed or abducted during the attack. Over 6,400 Yazidis, mostly women and children, were enslaved by the group.
The jihadist group regarded Yazidis as “devil worshippers” who must either renounce their religious views or die.
The United States, United Nations, European Union, Canada and other entities maintain that the Islamic State’s all-out assault against Yazidis amounted to genocide.
The U.N. agency has said the situation of the religious minority remains desperate and that the perpetrators have not been brought to justice four years after the massacre, despite having been driven out of most of Iraq and Syria.
“The ideology of [IS] can only be truly defeated if survivors receive justice and redress for the crimes they have suffered, and reconciliation can only occur if the missing are found,” Pramila Patten, U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said Friday.
Yazidi rights groups estimate 3,000 women and children remain missing, while thousands live under dire conditions in refugee camps.
Adlay Kejjan, head of Yazidis American Women, told VOA the camps lack basic needs such as food and water, and many displaced Yazidis are at risk of contracting infectious diseases.
“People are dying from simple things like dehydration, malnutrition and the absence of basic medical aid. No more attention is paid to the victims after IS is gone,” she said.