MIDYAT, TURKEY / WASHINGTON - A Yazidi family from Iraq who survived the Islamic State (IS) massacre in Iraq in 2014 has finally reunited in Germany after five years of separation.
Naem Halef Yusuf, 46, a mother of seven, has been stranded with six of her children in Turkey since October 2014, following the IS capture of large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq. Her husband, Berekat Omar, and son Gazi are living in Germany. They had been unable to bring the family back together despite several efforts.
But five years of painful separation ended in December when Yusuf and her six children left Turkey for Germany through the German government’s family reunion visa.
“It’s great to be a family. We are away from one another for five years. It is hard for kids, mom and dad. Now we will get together after five years. A family will reunite. This is great for my kids. They will go to school, be able to plan their future. Their lives will change. They will forget about what they had to go through,” Yusuf told VOA before departing for Germany.
Life in Iraq
Before the IS attack on her village, Girzerik, Yusuf was a stay-at-home mom who was taking care of her eight children. Her husband was a construction worker in a village on the outskirts of Sinjar, a province predominantly inhabited by the Yazidi religious minority group.
After Islamic State rampaged through Sinjar and its villages in August 2014, Yusuf and her family fled to Sinjar Mountain, where they dwelled for seven days in a temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius and with almost no access to food or drinking water. Her 2-year-old child died under the scorching summer sun as a result of hunger and dehydration. Her husband was unable to walk because of an illness.
Like thousands of other Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, Yusuf and her family thought their options were to die on the mountain or go down and be massacred by IS.
Yazidis are an ethnoreligious minority of about 550,000 people, mostly residing in northern Iraq with a substantial number in northern Syria. IS considered Yazidis “devil worshipers” whom they forced to convert to Islam or die. As such, the group destroyed their communities and killed thousands of their men while taking their women and children as sex slaves. Thousands remain missing.
The August 2014 Mount Sinjar siege created a humanitarian crisis, forcing the U.N. to declare a Level 3 emergency — the most severe classification of its kind. The trapped Yazidis were able to flee a weeklong siege to Syria after U.S.-backed Kurdish forces opened a safety route across the border.
Omar, still unable to walk, sent Yusuf and their children to Syria while he stayed in Iraq. At that point, the family’s paths diverged for five years, with Omar fleeing to Germany while Yusuf and the children ended up in Turkey. One of their sons, Ghazi, later moved from Turkey to Germany to join his father.
Settling in Turkey
“We didn’t bring anything else other than what we wore,” Yusuf told VOA, describing her family’s tough journey to Turkey. “People helped us when we came here. They found us jobs. With our savings, we could only send two of us away.”
After living in several refugee camps in Turkey, Yusuf and her children settled in Midyat, a town in southeastern Turkey. To make the ends meet, Yusuf worked as a cleaning worker to feed her children and save money for their Germany resettlement costs.
“We needed a lot of money. We are a big family, and we had nothing,” Yusuf said.
Yusuf and her children did not have Iraqi passports, which prevented them from obtaining a German visa. After months of postponement, the Iraqi Consulate in Istanbul offered the family their passports and the German Foreign Office issued them reunion visas, eventually enabling the family to travel.
Returning to Sinjar
Yusuf and her family now live in Berlin in an apartment complex provided by the German government. The family will be eligible for German citizenship after five years of residency in their new host country.
Yusuf told VOA that she is hopeful that life in Germany will offer her family a new chapter after the trauma they suffered because of IS attacks. Returning to Iraq anytime soon is not an option for them, she said.
More than 85,000 Yazidis from Iraq and Syria have sought protection in Germany since the IS attacked their community.
Since the recapture of Sinjar from Islamic State in 2015, different armed groups are present in the area, including the Yezidi Shingal Protection Units, the Iraqi army, the peshmerga, the People’s Protection Units and Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces.
Around 80,000 Yazidis currently live in Sinjar, but several Yazidi organizations said the situation in the town is not entirely safe for the Yazidis to return. They say the memory of the IS attack remains fresh in the minds of most Yazidis and they do not trust authorities to protect them.
“The Yazidis lost trust in the government, in security forces and the military. Therefore, many Yazidis prefer to immigrate to other countries, searching for safety and security away from political confrontations and recurring violence that erupts in the areas where Yazidis live,” Saad Babir, a spokesman for the Yazda Organization, told VOA.
“Almost 350,000 Yazidis are currently living in refugee camps in [Iraqi] Kurdistan and other areas, and if the situation in Sinjar improves, then they would return. The main issue in Sinjar right now is the security situation that remains unstable,” Babir added.