Who are the Yazidis?

Editor's note: Many thanks to our volunteer Communications Manager, Kailey Tachick for researching and sharing more about the background of the Yazidi people in Northern Iraq. She recently traveled to Iraq and we are so thankful for sharing her time and talents with Greater Change. All of the women and children we serve at the Greater Change Community Center are Yazidis. 


Three years ago the lives of thousands of Yazidis living in the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq were forever changed. On August 3, 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) pushed forward into the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq, killing and kidnapping almost 10,000 people despite their attempts to flee [1]. Men were taken captive, forced to convert to Islam, or executed. Women and girls were made to marry, raped, beaten, and sold as sex slaves. Children – mostly young boys – were indoctrinated and given new roles as child soldiers.

Many are dead, many are missing, and many are still in captivity.

The Yazidi people entered the international spotlight when the genocide began but responses have been insufficient. The UN Commission of Inquiry recently stated that the genocide against Yazidis “is on-going and remains largely unaddressed...” calling those aligned against the Islamic State to “consider plans aimed at rescuing Yazidi captives”[2].



Who are the Yazidis? Why does Isis target them? Where are they now?

There are many misunderstandings about the Yazidi people and their history, which is transmitted orally and less accessible for scholarly study. Ethnically and linguistically Kurdish, Yazidis practice a religion bearing resemblance to different elements of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. The central religious figure, Peacock Angel Melek Taus, is one of 7 angels created by god and the mediator between god and people, bearing resemblance to the fallen angel Satan/Shaytan[3]. The centrality of Melek Taus, paired with his role, leads ISIS to label Yazidis as “devil worshippers” who are not “people of the book.” They consider this justification for their annihilation.

  Yazidi  s believe   Melek  Taus   is a divine   being that   manifests   as a peacock

 Yazidis believe MelekTaus is a divine being that manifests as a peacock

Genocide is not a new experience for the Yazidi people. In fact, they can recount 74 genocides throughout their history, extending back to the Ottoman Empire. German Yazidi psychologist, Jan Kizilhan, speaks of the trauma they experience as not only personal and collective, but also historical as Yazidis bear the identity of being hated throughout the ages[4].

The Yazidi community has two key leaders – a sheikh to address spiritual matters and an emir (or prince) to lead in the non-religious realm. White is considered a color of purity, while wearing blue is taboo and strictly avoided by all [5]. Some women wear headscarves, though the requirements differ from the Muslim faith. Men can also be found wearing turbans (see photo).


Prior to August 2014, 400,00 Yazidis called the Sinjar region of northern Iraq home where many had agricultural or pastoral livelihoods. While ISIS no longer has control over Sinjar, other groups have fought over the region and many Yazidis have not yet returned to their destroyed homeland. Instead they remain in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDP) or as guests in others’ homes. Those that are released from ISIS find it difficult – if not impossible – to return and re-integrate with their communities due to their trauma, shame, and rejection.

The Yazidis long for their loved ones as well as freedom for those still held in captivity and slavery. They long for healing. They long for home. In a world that has largely turned its back on them, we at Greater Change seek to be a place of safety, support, and healing for them.


Want to learn more? Check out these resources to find out more about the Yazidis, their religious belief system, cultural practices, and history:

• Yezidis International: http://www.yezidisinternational.org/the-yezidi-genocide/

• Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yazidi

• Surviving Genocide: Storytelling and ritual help communities heal: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/surviving-genocide-storytelling-and-ritual-help-communities-heal



[1] Cetorelli V, Sasson I, Shabila N, Burnham G (2017) Mortality and kidnapping estimates for the Yazidi population in the area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014: A retrospective household survey. PLoS Med 14(5): e1002297. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002297

[2]United Nations Commission of Inquiry: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/displayNews.aspx?NewsID=21935&LangID=E

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yazidi

[4] The German village helping Yazidi women raped by ISIL: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/06/german-village-helping-yazidi-women-raped-isil-160621083203597.html

[5] Encyclopedia: http://www.encyclopedia.com/places/asia/iraq-political-geography/yezidis

Photos taken by Zenat Drown.