THE United Nations and the international community must prioritise the mental health and well-being of refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons), especially the Yazidi community, recognising the rehabilitating part played by faith and music, an international conference on forced migration has concluded.
More than 60 international faith leaders, academics, and politicians gathered in Windsor last weekend for the second annual conference of the international charity AMAR, on the report Religious Persecution: The driver for forced migration (News, 25 November). It was supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), and the educational charity Cumberland Lodge.
Practical ways in which to aid the voluntary return of the Yazidi community were discussed. The Yazidis have lived for more than three years as internally displaced people in northern Iraq, having been driven out of their homeland through systematic religious persecution by Islamic State (IS).
Giving hope to the vast numbers of Yazidi people in refugee camps in which they feel forced to hide their faith for fear of further persecution was a recommendation of the conference.
The Bishop of Derby, Dr Alastair Redfern, who has spoken with Yazidi leaders, attended the conference on behalf of the Church of England. “The Yazidi religion is one of the most ancient religions in the world; it is not written down. It is a very gentle, gracious faith that follows the agricultural year, thanksgiving with prayers, which is something that all religions do, to some extent.
“Most people know nothing about the Yazidi faith or people. It has only come to our notice because IS has targeted them because some branches of Islam see them as devil worshippers. Many Yazidi women are still in captivity, the men killed, and children forced to convert to Islam.
“We [at the conference] were thinking about how to help Yazidis be safe in the world, and present their faith positively, without having it crammed into a Western model of having everything written down in paragraphs and sub sections, because it is a kind of living spirituality.”
A report of recommendations drawn from the conference was presented by a panel at Chatham House on Monday. This included the recommendation that the international community “recognise that refugee and IDP camps no longer provide refuge”. The average time spent by refugees and IDPs in camps is now 10.3 years, it says.
AMAR FoundationOn the platform: the panel at Chatham House, on Monday: (left to right) Dr Neil Quilliam, a senior research Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House; the founding chair of AMAR, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne; Sharon Eubank, of the LDS Relief Society; and the Director General of the Dohuk Health Authority, Dr Nezar Ismet Taib
Presenting the recommendations on Monday, the founding chair of AMAR, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, said: “These are sinkholes of misery and crime, where small girls are trafficked, women are raped, forced marriages happen, and where you lose all yourself and become isolated. This is one of the loneliest situations of all — almost worse than being in prison, because there is no structure of any sort.”
Of the 65.5 million people displaced by the migration crisis, 22.5 million are refugees. And of these 5.1 million are living in camps or with host communities.
“Unless refugee and IDP communities are equipped and enabled to return voluntarily, or resettle,” she said, “a long-term future in camps, or otherwise, will lead to long-term discontent, anomie, and come to pose a wider security threat to host countries and beyond, quite apart from being so miserable for the people themselves.”
The Director General of the Duhok Health Authority, Dr Nezar Ismet Taib, also on the panel, emphasised the psychological damage inflicted on the 1.8 million displaced people in Iraq. “All of these people have lost their homes and family. They were in captivity; underwent sex slavery, brainwashing, and severe traumas; were humiliated, abused, and destroyed.
“They come from this to a place with very limited resources. . . When it comes to health, the infrastructure is not helpful, and medicines are in short supply. The people need confidence and security before they can return.”
The AMAR conference has urged the UN and the international community to prioritise investment in mental-health initiatives over sanitation to help refugees rehabilitate and fulfil their potential. This includes recognising the part played by “faith, religion, and spirituality” in rebuilding confidence and hope.
Music is part of this identity, and should also be recognised as a tool to help rebuild fractured lives and communities, the report says. Musicians, including the violinist Professor Michael Bochmann, the pianist Professor Malcolm Troup, and music therapists were among those to contribute.
Dr Redfern explained: “A huge percentage of Yazidis are now living in refugee camps where there is enormous depression, and where they are frightened to practise their faith. Much of their worship is singing; so I began to think whether we should take a Christian choir to sing some of our liturgy with them, and to recover the confidence to sing their story, faith, and spirituality.”
As well as organising concerts and funding music therapy in the camps, the conference called on the world religions to recognise Yazidism as a world faith, in order to prevent the continued persecution of its people.
“It is a complex process because you cannot just talk about Christianity; there are all sorts of branches and traditions, as there are in Islam and other faiths,” Dr Redfern said. “We have had conversations with Muslim scholars to appreciate that Yazidism is another faith in the world, and while we all have different views, no people should be killed for their faith.”
AMAR FoundationForging links: the Bishop of Derby, Dr Alastair Redfern, talks to Elder Jeffrey Holland, a leader of the LDS Church, at the conference in Windsor, at the weekend
Sharon Eubank, of the LDS Relief Society, said that the persecution that happened in Iraq was unique in its brutality, and required an urgent response. “The enemies of the religious minorities who were attacked in Iraq meant it to be genocide; they were trying to wipe out the very wellspring and identity of these communities by killing their men, enslaving and raping the women, and taking the children as soldiers for their cause.”
Representatives of the Muslim community, the Yazidi faith, and the LDS Church were among the faiths represented at the conference. It was led by a Trustee of AMAR and President of the Board, Dr Theodore Zeldin, formerly of St Antony’s College, Oxford. The report was authored by Dr Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, who also chaired the panel.
Baroness Nicholson concluded on Monday: “Governments are only governments; however hard governments work, they are limited. It is up to us: I believe strongly in the power of the electorate, journalists, faith leaders, and the work of Chatham House to unite against the persecution of the Yazidi faith.”