WAGGA WAGGA, Australia — After the horrors of fleeing to Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq to escape Islamic State fighters in 2014, several hundred Yazidi refugees are starting new lives in the Australian outback.
Members of the minority religious group have been resettled in a handful of regional centers, like Wagga Wagga, to relieve pressure on refugee services in Australia’s main cities.
Wagga Wagga is proud of its country roots. It is a farming and transport hub halfway between Sydney and Melbourne.
Yazidis settling in
Several hundred Yazidis are joining others here who fled persecution in Africa, Myanmar and Afghanistan.
Layla explains how she fled to Sinjar Mountain.
“In Iraq, ISIS kill lots of men and kill the children. Very, very hard story for Yazidi in Iraq. The ISIS came. We go to the mountain. With my whole family we lived in [the] mountain. Not eat, not have any water, not eating. After five days by walk[ing] we go to Kurdistan,” she said.
Layla came to Australia with her husband and young child. Earlier this year, she was reunited with relatives she had to leave behind in Iraq.
“After my family all come to here, now it is easier for me here. I am very happy in Australia because my whole family [is] here. We [are] all safe in Australia. I love Australia,” she said.
The refugees have hope for the future.
“I am Shahab and I am here about three months. [I] come from Iraq, directly from Iraq to Australia,” she said.
Shahab is a former university teacher who spent more than five years in a camp after fleeing Islamic militants.
“We are eight people and we live in the one tent, and also the tent was made by like nylon. So if it is a winter, it was very, very cold. If it is summer it is very hot," she said. "I want to be a university teacher, a good university teacher maybe in the future. My sister wants to be a doctor.”
A new life in the outback
Starting a new life in the suburbs of an outback city is not easy. Language is a problem, but there is a healthy dose of neighborly goodwill from Ian Lockwood, who lives nearby.
“Iraqi people moved in two doors from me and I went up and introduced myself because I noticed no people were going there, and I help and do whatever I can,” he said.
“People do not realize what these people have been through,” he continued. “If you spent a couple of weeks with them you’d find out. Very, very hard. Harsh. Because I didn’t realize all this stuff was going on.”
Belinda Crane is the head of the local Multicultural Council. She says refugees are mostly welcomed in Wagga Wagga, although there is occasional racism.
“I sort of say to families, you know, they said, you know, occasionally they might have someone yell out something to them in the car. But they don’t feel unsafe about that. They say it is few and far between but they have experienced people sort of going, you know, go back to where you come from or whatever,” Crane said.
Helping relatives back home
Several thousand refugees have helped to revitalize Wagga, a city of about 70,000 people.
Yazidis held a rally in Wagga urging Australia to help relatives stuck in camps back home. Haji Gundor, a 21-year-old refugee, is pleading for justice.
“Yazidi people had everything; money, food, house, family, so they want to live in Iraq but they want justice to stop what is happening to them,” Gundor said.
Life in Australia for Yazidis does come at a cost. For Adlan Osman and her 14-year-old son Aeham, there is guilt that they are safe, while others are not.
Osman said that Australia is good, but they worry about the people in Iraq a lot. “It makes it very difficult for us,” she said.
Almost 3,000 Yazidis have been granted visas under Australia’s humanitarian program. Campaigners are urging the government to give refuge to many more.