Old homeland, new homeland

Despite the alarming situation in the Kurdish region of neighbouring Iraq, some Yazidis have recently returned from Germany to their native villages in south-eastern Anatolia. The coming years will indicate whether the resettlement is a lasting one. By Ekrem Guzeldere in the Turkish province of Mardin

By Ekrem Güzeldere

"I simply love being here," says 65-year-old Yusuf Erdem. He is standing on the terrace of his house on the outskirts of the village of Taqa, gazing out over the gentle green landscape. On the horizon is the town of Midyat in the south-eastern province of Mardin in Turkey. Erdem is the local muhtar, the village chief of Taqa, which is officially called Oyuklu in Turkish, although no one here uses that name.

Erdem won the last local elections with 100 per cent of the vote, a result that even President Erdogan can only dream of. Half the votes came from Yusuf himself; the other half from his wife, Xezal. The Erdems are actually the only residents of this Yazidi village, which had a population of around 750 some 50 years ago. Nevertheless, two residents are still two more than there were only three years ago. At that time, Taqa stood empty. To be precise, it was a ghost town from the mid-1980s until 2012. All of the village's 29 extended families had moved to Germany.

Yusuf Erdem was born in Taqa, "right here in the house next door," he says over a glass of tea and some homemade goats cheese, which Xezal has just prepared. She originally came from another Yazidi village in the region. "When I was 13, I came to Taqa to be married. That is much to young! Thank God it is not like that today," says Xezal.

Neither Yusuf nor Xezal ever attended school. "There weren't any schools for us back then. I first learned Turkish in the military," says Yusuf, who did 18 months' military service. In 1979, he left for Germany. Xezal followed with their two young children nine months later. The Erdems explain the reasons for their exodus as being a mixture of discrimination, economic difficulties and the explosive political situation at the time. 

The view from the terrace of Yusuf and Xezal Erdem's house in Taqa (photo: Ekrem Guzeldere)
The Erdems are the only residents in this Yazidi village. Fifty years ago, about 750 people lived here. In the mid-1980s, all 29 families in the village left for Germany. Until 2012, the village was completely deserted

A new life in Germany

They had another five children in Germany – seven in all. Their four sons and three daughters all continue to live in Germany. Most of them are married with their own children. "Unfortunately, our grandchildren can hardly speak Kurdish," remarks Xezal, "as our children only talk to them in German." Otherwise, they have no complaints about life in Germany. Yusuf explains, "People there don't usually concern themselves about someone else's religion. As long as you are hardworking and do nothing wrong, you are left in peace. And if something should happen, then the court provides you with a Kurdish translator. Not like here, where everything always has to be in Turkish."

The Erdems were not always so isolated. "Fifty years ago, about 6,000 Yazidis lived in eight villages around Midyat," says Leyla Ferman, advisor on international relations for the Mardin greater municipal region and co-chair of the Federation of Yazidi Associations. "Not many Yazidis are returning, because there are problems almost everywhere. The problems are diverse, but they frequently have to do with the fact that the Yazidis abandoned their land and Muslims subsequently moved in and began to till the fields as their own, either with or without the permission of the former Yazidi owners. Unfortunately, there is still no support to rebuild these communities."

Despite their love for their homeland and its healthier air, it was not an easy decision for Yusuf and Xezal to return. "Until 2000, I never went near my village. Then, in 2001, I glimpsed at it from a distance; only in 2002 did I once again set foot in the place of my birth. It really hurt to see how everything was falling down. After that, I returned every year." However, it was the political developments of recent years that proved to be the decisive factor for Yusuf. "Without the achievements of the Kurdish movement, we probably never would have come back."

The Erdems have since renovated their house nicely. It has three bathrooms – including one in the small penthouse on the roof. Previously, the house didn't even have an indoor toilet. The couple brought back a great deal of furniture from Germany. Since then, only one other house has been renovated in Taqa; it belongs to Xezal's sister. Another house is still being renovated. No one else has yet to return apart from the couple.

Yazidis fleeing Sinjar in 2014 (photo: Reuters)
Fleeing from the terrorism of Islamic State: Last summer, IS captured Sinjar in a lightning offensive. They killed or imprisoned thousands of Yazidis in the process. Kurdish troops managed to push back the jihadists and break through their siege of Sinjar, where many Yazidis refugees had been stranded for months. Nevertheless, many Yazidi regions are still under the control of the IS militia, which now rules vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria

The trauma of expulsion from Sinjar

Yusuf sees one of the reasons as the lack of infrastructure. "There are no decent roads leading to the village and no running water in the houses. There are no shops nearby, absolutely nothing." Another factor greatly influencing the decisions of many Yazidis, however, were the political developments in Iraq. "We all saw what happened in Sinjar last year. Naturally, these events don't leave us cold," says Xezal with a sigh.

Leyla Ferman, who has frequently visited Sinjar with delegations from Germany, sees a positive side to this difficult situation. "Just a few months ago and for the first time in history, we established a Yazidi council in which every village is represented. This might not have taken place so quickly and easily had it not been for the recent wave of persecution." The Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, who has lived in Diyarbakir for the past two years, views events somewhat more critically. "None of the Iraqi Yazidis with whom I have spoken wants to return to Sinjar. They simply don't trust their neighbours anymore. They don't want to remain in Turkey either. Almost all of them want to emigrate to their relatives in Germany."

Despite everything, the Erdems have not lost their sense of optimism and expect positive changes following the Turkish parliamentary elections on 7 June this year. Three Yazidi candidates occupy favourable spots on the election list of the Kurdish HDP party in Batman, Diyarbakir, and Urfa. One of them is Feleknas Uca, a former Member of the European Parliament for the Left Party. Should the HDP manage to get over the 10 per cent threshold barrier, it would be the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic that a Yazidi has sat as a member of parliament.

Leyla Ferman believes that these parliamentarians could facilitate access to the country's bureaucracy, which would in turn greatly improve the security situation for the Yazidi minority. Yusuf is also optimistic. He thinks that this will result in many Yazidis holding a more positive view of the future and coming back to Turkey for longer than the occasional summer trip.

Ekrem Guzeldere
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by John Bergeron