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Yazidi refugees in Germany find shelter at the home of a nun

The refugees with Sister Hatune and the foundation's director Hans Erling Jensen
Polina Garaev
Life in asylum homes has not provided Yazidi refugees the sense of security they longed for

Escaping torture and persecution at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) militant group, they came to Germany with great hopes, but life in asylum homes did not provided them the sense of security they longed for. Now some Yazidi refugees have found a different kind of shelter, at the home of a nun in a small village in the heart of Germany.

Hatune Dogan, a Syrian Orthodox nun born in Turkey, has spent years aiding victims of persecution in the Middle East, and after the rise of IS, she helped free over 300 Christian and Yazidi girls. She brought over 200 of them to Germany, helped them navigate German bureaucracy, but mostly provided them with psychological and emotional support in their own language.

Even before the rise of IS in Iraq, she says, she encountered 218 Christian and Yazidi rape victims. “The youngest was five and a half years old when they raped her. I met her two years later and she still couldn't speak one word because she was traumatized.” Some of these girls were mutilated, she says, because the kidnappers weren't happy with the ransom.

Polina Garaev

But the situation worsened after IS took over Sinjar in August 2014. “Yazidi girls from the age of six were sold for rape. They would take them from area to area, and at night they would come and say, 'you come with us, today you will be the bride of our chief person’.”

“One girl was 14 years old,” continued the Sister, “she spent nine months in the hands of IS. She told me, the first two months alone I was raped 280 times, and afterward I stopped counting.”

All Yazidi refugees tell the same horrific stories. Hasan, who escaped Sinjar after a year under IS rule, recalls how the radicals captured his cousin: “They told him, 'you have to convert to Islam and if they say yes, you also have to give us your daughter.' She was nine and in one day seven men raped her.” Another relative of his, 13 years old, died as a result of the repeated rapes.

Eventually he crossed the border into Turkey and used smugglers to get to Germany by boat and lorries. Here he was sent to a small shelter outside Munich, and again felt persecuted. “There were 70 Muslims and we were three Yazidis. Everywhere there was again Koran, again their prayer, Allahu Akbar, and again the same people. I was not feeling that I'm in Germany, I was feeling I'm in the Middle East and that was a bad feeling for us.”

In some cases, says Hasan, the harassment led to physical assaults. “As soon as we came here, we told the authorities that we are not Muslims, we are Yazidis and we run away from Muslims, but I don't know if they understood. “

His wife Chalida made the journey to Germany separately, and was rescued by Greek authorities after her boat capsized. She too was housed in a camp predominantly inhabited by Muslims, and most of the time was too afraid to leave her room.

Polina Garaev

“We suffered so much at the hands of Muslims, so if we see them, we are afraid. And in the camps, every minute we are afraid that something might happen to us. We are still traumatized and we are forced to live with them. If I take one step outside that camp, I feel free, but if they would tell me to go back, it's like I'm going back to death or to hell.”

Chalida and her sister-in-law Gulistan ended up running away from the camp and arrived at Sister Hatune's home in Warburg, where her husband was already waiting. “More than 200 times I had people in the camps call me and ask for help,” revealed Hatune, “because even here in Germany they are suffering.”

But as word spreads of Sister Hatune's sanctuary, more refugees are coming to find shelter. In Warburg now reside 14 refugees, Yazidis and Christians from Syria, Egypt and Iraq. They attend daily German classes in the adjacent learning center, help tend to the garden outside and participate in the renovation of a fourth house, to be used for accommodations. Once the donation-funded works will be completed, the nun plans to shelter 240 refugees escaping religious persecution.

“Now I feel like I'm at my mother's house, that here I'm safe,” Hasan explained with a smile. “I have a job here, I have a home and I feel I have a future now, because I see that the people I'm living with count me as a human being.”

But the thought of the thousands who are still in captivity weighs heavily on those who escaped. Kallo, Hasan's brother, who walked for 22 days through the Balkan route in order to get to Germany, starts to cry when he speaks of the 19 Yazidi women who were burned alive in a cage two weeks ago because they refused to have sex with their captors.

“Even though I am here I'm not sleeping well, all the time I'm thinking about them, because we are bound together. Unlike Europeans, each is living for himself, we are a community and each of us is like a sister and brother to each other. And this feeling we have with those who are still suffering.”

None of Sister Hatune's residents wish to go back, but according to her, that's not the case for most. “90% of the refugee minorities don't feel at home here and often they say taht is it’s like this here, we will go back. We will die in our homeland, it's better than in a foreign country because it's no different. Because they also see persecution here.”

Officially the German government makes no distinction between Yazidis and other refugees coming from Iraq, and makes no special effort to connect them to the already existing German Yazidi community, which is the largest outside Iraq. On top of that, specialized trauma therapy is currently available for Yazidis only in the state of Baden-Württemberg.

The situations of Yazidi refugees in Germany may warrant special treatment, agree some professionals working with refugees, but progress has been slow and awareness of the hardships of Yazidis remains very low.

Polina Garaev is i24news' correspondent in Germany.

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