IRBIL, IRAQ — A week and a half into the siege of Sinjar, the Yazidis who have escaped their mountain prison are thin and weak, scorched by the sun and visibly, horrendously traumatized.
A lucky few have reached Lalish, the mountain shrine tucked into a leafy valley near the town of Sheikhan, about 40 kilometres south of Dohuk.
When airstrikes began last week, those trapped on the mountain were offered a window, however small and dangerous, to slip their captors.
Oubaid Khalaf, 44, described climbing down the mountain as far as he dared to wait out the airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants gathered in the valley below.
Once the firing ceased, he and a group of others hiked down the foothills and walked west for three hours, to Syria and the waiting arms of Kurdish PKK fighters, who escorted them around the Islamic State-held area and back into Iraq.
Just hours after arriving at Lalish, Khalaf is grieving for those he left on the mountain, resting his wounded feet and trying to rehydrate. “I can’t look ahead,” he said, and his eyes filled with tears.
But next to him, a father of four named Khaled was ready to think about the future.
“Can you take me to Canada?” he asked. “My sister lives in Toronto and I speak English. Can you help?”
For Khaled, as for so many of Iraq’s displaced minorities, that help may prove difficult to obtain. Canada’s immigration laws don’t allow an adult sibling to sponsor another adult sibling, and Khaled is not technically a refugee.
But slumped on a thin, donated mattress, surrounded by his haunted-looking children and a 22-year-old cousin with tear-stained cheeks and a concave stomach, Khaled was desperate to get somewhere — anywhere — safe.
With more and more signs suggesting an imminent international rescue operation of the last Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, the international NGOs here in northern Iraq are focused on the immediate need: how to feed, shelter and care for the up to 30,000 people who may still be alive. If and when they are rescued, they will join tens of thousands of Yazidis understandably desperate to leave Iraq.
“The only solution for Christians and Yazidis is to take us outside the country. The U.S., Europe, anywhere,” said a Yazidi father who goes by Abu Ahmad. “I don’t see any future for us here.”
As the siege has drawn out, the number of families staggering into Lalish has dwindled.
“Between 20 and 30 families arrived in the last 24 hours,” said Luqman Sulaiman, who works at the shrine. He paused to consider his next words. “They’ll live.”
Iraq’s Yazidis aren’t the only displaced minorities asking for another life in the West, but their recent ordeal may make it easier to muster support for a life-changing relocation plan.
“In my opinion, they should be given refugee status anywhere. They deserve it on virtue of who they are,” said Joe Stark, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “They shouldn’t have to prove a well-founded fear of persecution — it’s self-evident.”