Today is Serê Sal (New Year), an important festival in the Yazidi calendar. It marks the descent to earth of Tawsi Melek, God’s chief angel, and the revelation of Lalish, the serene temple complex in northern Iraq that is the centre of the faith. Yazidis paint eggs in bright colours to symbolise the grass, trees and flowers that sprung up on the occasion.
In previous years they would also visit Lalish, and celebrate with family and friends. Such festivities only became possible again in the past few years. ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidi people and occupation of northern Iraq in 2014 stopped such vital expressions of religious and cultural identity.
This year, the celebration of the festival has been disrupted by a new threat. Around 250,000 Yazidis are displaced in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, currently subject to strict movement restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Most live in and around large camps now on lockdown. No one will visit Lalish this year.
Displaced people particularly vulnerable
These measures are for good reason. Although there have been no cases yet, an outbreak in the crowded camps, where sanitation is basic, could escalate quickly.
AMAR operates primary healthcare clinics in two camps, Khanke and Essyan, near Duhok, caring for over 30,000 displaced Yazidis. Healthcare teams running awareness campaigns remain vigilant for suspected cases. But if large numbers become seriously ill, the local secondary healthcare system would struggle to cope.
Dlveen, 22, lives with eight members of her family just outside one of the camps in the region. “I’m scared the virus will arrive here. Everyone is scared. In and around the camp, they fear it will spread very quickly if there are cases. I don’t feel protected, but being at home makes me feel a bit more reassured.”
The lockdown is also having a significant impact on the ability of displaced people – like Dlveen’s brother, a mechanic – to earn. “There are many families here whose livelihoods depend on daily work. With this stopped, their living conditions are difficult,” she says.
Dlveen is studying, but can no longer attend her English classes. She’s also a member of AMAR’s choir, which met three to four times a week before the lockdown. “I miss my friends and practising together,” she says.
Consolation of culture, music and memories
Just two months ago the choir visited the UK for a tour, performing at Clarence House for the former Prince of Wales and in Westminster Abbey and the Bodleian Library. These are memories Dlveen cherishes now.
“It was a wonderful trip and everything was beautiful. I have longing for every place I visited. I hope there’ll be another opportunity to visit again. I’ll never forget it.”
The choir was created as part of a project to protect and sustain Yazidi music, but also to support the mental health of its members, some of whom were kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS.
Music and culture are important strands that can potentially support psychological and psychiatric treatment in the recovery of the many Yazidis left traumatised after the events of 2014. For these reasons, it is important not to overlook the psychological impact of an extended lockdown on the Yazidi community, as well as the effects on their cultural practices.
Dlveen is finding some consolations. “I’ve been playing the tambour (a stringed instrument sacred to the Yazidis), reading books and practising my English.”
Much of what she describes of lockdown will sound familiar to people the world over. “I miss my friends, but we talk on the phone or message on social media.”
“My family has also been trying to cook healthily to boost our immune systems and protect ourselves against the virus.”
“Being with them is a source of comfort,” she adds.
“I will still celebrate New Year with my parents and siblings at home, and pray that this virus ends and the world will be fine.”
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