This story is one of a series written as part of the Refugee Journalism Project which supports displaced and migrant media professionals to build their careers in the UK. This is an initiative based at London College of Communication and delivered in collaboration with The Guardian Foundation. It is funded by Open Society Foundations.
Five years ago, Majhor Abbdullah Hagi witnessed the slaughter of thousands of his fellow Yezidi people at the hands of Isis. Now in the UK, he is fighting for the right to a new life, free from persecution.
By Zozan Yasar
“I’m really frustrated with the government for its lack of support to me as a survivor of genocide, but at the same time so grateful to the British people for their kindness,” says Majhor Abbdullah Hagi, an asylum-seeker in the UK.
As a member of the Yezidi religious minority, Majhor survived the genocide (recognized as such by the United Nations) that unfolded in his place of origin, Shingal in northern Iraq. His current situation is uncertain as he faces possible deportation back to Iraq. In the meantime, Majhor is not eligible for housing or other government support, and is unable to work or study.
He has been living in Penzance, Cornwall for the last year. The Home Office has rejected his asylum claim and he is technically homeless, though he has so far survived through the support of a local activist. When I met him recently, Majhor recalled both the experience of genocide in Iraq and his asylum struggle in the UK.
One night in 2014, Isis attacked the area around Shingal and slaughtered 6,000 Yezidis, who the militant group considered infidels. The group kidnapped their children, seeking to indoctrinate them and force the women into service as sex slaves. “It was a massive panic and everybody was shouting, and it was like gunfire everywhere and a lot of kids, disabled people, old people,” Majhor says, as he recalls the events when Isis attacked his city. “They separated women and children from the men, and they took the men to a different area where they killed them and put them in mass graves. Then they separated the women from their kids, [who they] used as future soldiers for Isis.”
In the five years since then, only half of those held by Isis have managed to escape, sometimes with the support of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. More than 75 mass graves have been found in Shingal and its surrounding villages. The fate of the others remains largely unknown.
The Yezidis have been subjected to as many as 74 massacres over the centuries simply because of their religion. The ideology of those around them puts them at extreme risk of another genocide. Majhor says that the Yezidi people “never harm anyone because we are not allowed, even if your enemy is attacking you and treating you badly. If you have a chance you have to treat them nicely.” For him humanity should come before everything else.
Majhor lost his family, relatives and friends during the Isis attack. Like many other survivors he stayed in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraqi Kurdistan. Due to the poor living conditions and the persistent sense of insecurity, he left Iraq and crossed the Turkish border with the help of smugglers. After a dangerous journey to Europe, he joined thousands of other refugees in the informal refugee site at Calais known then as the “jungle”.
For around 2 months, Majhor stayed in Calais, where “it was very difficult to live as Yezidis. [The jungle] was divided into different groups – Kurds, Turks, Afghans, Arab – and the majority were Muslim.” He describes how on one occasion he and his Yezidi friend were attacked by 50 camp inhabitants for not attending the mosque for prayer. “After establishing that we were Yezidi by asking us questions about Islam, they put us in a caravan and beat us really badly. Then a big fire broke out. Thankfully the police and army were there, but these people told us they would return later to kill us.”
After the group left them alone, they broke the door and escaped through the back of the camp. Then he made it to the UK, in a lorry, inside a small storage box, which he says could only have comfortably fit a child. He emptied it, got in and taped it again from the inside. “I still have pain in my knee and my shoulder,” he says. After 16 hours in the lorry Majhor made it to the UK, where he has been ever since November 2016.
Majhor thought that once he reached the UK, as a survivor of a genocide, he would be treated well. He hoped that the Home Office would quickly grant him asylum and look after him. But instead he was interviewed for up to 7 hours, asked many questions about the events during the genocide, his religion, the situation in Iraq, how he got to the UK; “many questions about everything”.
The Home Office stated 15 reasons for rejecting his application, claiming he could go and live in the Iraqi cities of Basra and Baghdad, or in other countries. He mentions how, before the war, Shingal was 90 per cent Yezidi and only 10 per cent Muslim. “During the attack the 10 percent joined Isis, and they attacked us. So how can it be possible for me to live in a community which is a hundred per cent Muslim? It is impossible, at least psychologically.
“As a survivor of the genocide it is so difficult even to sleep. You relive the genocide every single night, and how we lost our people. Psychologically it is so damaging,” said Majhor.
Before, Majhor was surprised by the lack of intervention from Western Countries while Isis invaded his city. “They have huge power, all of these armies, aeroplanes – [yet] they haven’t even tried to help those women being captured by Isis,” he comments. Now he feels disappointed once more by the lack of UK government support for his people. He finds it sad that the government gives money to the Kurdistan regional government and the Iraqi government to protect Yezidis, instead of dealing directly with the Yezidi people. “Not even the UK government believes the Yezidis should run their own lives,” Majhor exclaims.
“I would like the British Government to listen to the people who were persecuted by Isis and had to flee. To me, it seems they don’t believe the victims,” he adds, reflecting on his own situation after the UK Home Office refused his asylum claim.
Mahjor has been homeless and is not allowed to work. For him there is not much difference between the way the British and Iraqi governments have treated him. But, he says “the people in the UK are really nice. You can find thousands like Anne” – he is talking about Anne Norona, manager of the Yezidi Emergency Support charity, which helps displaced Yezidis in the Middle East and Europe. Majhor considers that the people in the UK are “lovely and helpful”. He thinks ordinary people, not the government, represent “the real face of the UK.”
After two and a half years in the UK, Majhor thinks he has found some stability and safety, and has achieved some of his aims. But he doesn’t forget how difficult the government makes it for him. “I have suffered a lot in the UK. I was nearly ready to commit suicide and if Anne hadn’t found me I probably wouldn’t be here to say this now.” Majhor has lost faith in the commitment of Western governments to human rights. To him the question is: if the British government doesn’t even give Yezidis protection here in the UK, how can Yezidis be protected in Iraq?
It has been a year since the Home Office refused Majhor’s first asylum claim and told him he was no longer entitled to state support. After Anne Norona opened her door to Majhor, saying he could stay with her until they found a solution, he found a solicitor and made a new asylum claim. Nearly ten months later, he is still waiting for the Home Office to respond. He fears being turned down again and is worried that deportation will be one of the possible options.
According to Norona, asylum-seekers such as Majhor are at the mercy of an overstretched immigration system. “They are not only genocide victims but victims of our increasingly hostile anti-immigration system,” she tells me. “The courts and the Home Office seem to have little insight into the suffering, or the oppression and systemic persecution.”
Mahjor is now waiting for his last asylum interview, which will be in July. “[Because] I am not allowed to work or study, I am suffering a lot psychologically,” he says. “I constantly think about what happened, and the Isis attack. I’m reliving the situation every day because I’m just sitting here, doing nothing.”