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December 17, 2017

Despite Greek shelter, Yazidis struggle to integrate

Despite Greek shelter, Yazidis struggle to integrate
'A Yazidi girl at a refugee camp in the largely agricultural region of Serres in northern Greece' - By: AFP SAKIS MITROLIDIS

Although Ibrahim Hondeta's Yazidi family reached Greece a year ago after fleeing persecution, they still fear being the target of violence and are fighting to keep their community together.

Having run the gauntlet of invasion, combat, killings and enslavement by Islamic State jihadists in Iraq, the members of this religious minority have found temporary shelter in the largely agricultural region of Serres in northern Greece.

The camp they have been allocated to is one of the best in the country -- their prefabricated homes have air conditioning and solar panels to heat water. The grounds are clean and there is a playground for the children.

Many hope to be reunited with other Yazidis stranded in Greece, but with the country struggling to manage more than 50,000 refugees and migrants stranded on its territory, that is not always an option.

"Creating a camp just for Yazidis is neither possible nor viable," said a Greek official with knowledge of refugee management efforts.

The camp can normally accommodate 700 people. At the moment there are some 350 Yazidis, most of them women and children, waiting for EU-sponsored relocation to other parts of Europe.

- 'They hunted us down' -

Greece's policy is to move eligible refugees from overcrowded island camps -- where they undergo identity checks upon arrival from Turkey -- to the mainland, where more comfortable accommodation is available in better camps, UN-funded flats and hotels.

But the Yazidis, who have already faced an ordeal keeping their dwindling community together thus far, oppose this policy.

This is partly down to fear of other communities. They had a scare earlier this year, when a Yazidi celebration in Kilkis, another part of northern Greece, descended into violence between Arabs and Kurds.

"(The Arabs) threatened to kill us. They hunted us down with knives and clubs. We had to hide in a forest to save our lives," says 55-year-old Hondeta, sitting on a bench outside the camp.

"After that, we asked to be given a safe place for our families and we ended up here together."

Since that time, they have frustrated the Greek government's attempts to bring in non-Yazidis.

They recently blocked the transfer of 60 Congolese and Senegalese mothers and their children to the Serres camp, the government official said.

All of them were Catholic.

In Athens, a migration ministry source said every effort is being made to facilitate and protect the Yazidis from possible harm.

"To my knowledge, there hasn't been an incident in 10 months," the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"But there are some people who chafe towards any attempt at integration," the official said.

"Respecting one's religious convictions, and using this issue to create sub-groups among the refugee population are two totally different things," the government official in Athens said.

"Suppose Syrian Christians demand four camps for themselves? It's not something that can be managed," he added.

- 'We are not here for fun' -

Rooted in Zoroastrianism, the Yazidis adhere to a faith that emerged in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago but that has over time integrated elements of Islam and Christianity.

Of the world's 1.5 million Yazidis, about 550,000 lived in Iraqi Kurdistan but some 400,000 have been displaced by fighting due to the jihadist Islamic State.

Around 1,500 have been killed and more than 3,000 are believed to remain in captivity, the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) and the UN rights office said in an August report.

In areas controlled by Islamic State, thousands of women and girls from the Yazidi minority were used as sex slaves and suffered horrific abuse, including rape, abduction, slavery and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

The suffering the Yazidis have endured explains why community elders in Serres have written to the migration ministry to officially request that the camp be assigned to Yazidis alone.

"We ask for our community not to be disturbed and to live here in safety until we depart," says Hajdar Hamat, a self-styled spokesman for the Yazidis at the camp.

"Everybody knows about our peoples' genocide. We did not come from Sinjar to Greece for fun. Europe must protect us," says Hamat.

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