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A Yazidi's fight for asylum in the UK
04:07 - Source: CNN

Passing by the red brick houses of Stoke-on-Trent, Majhor Abdullah Hagi heads to his English-language class. The quaint English city, known for its pottery and landscape gardens, is a far cry from the genocide he escaped four years ago. But on Tuesday, a UK court ruling could catapult him back to a life of fear and persecution.

Hagi, 30, is a Yazidi from Sinjar in northern Iraq. He belongs to one the world’s smallest and oldest religious minorities but Majhor had big ambitions. He dreamed of becoming a biologist and was the first of his relatives to attend university. But on August 3, 2014, these dreams ground to a halt.

“We had no idea that ISIS would attack us and our life would become a living hell,” Majhor explains. “Hundreds of children and old people died. Many of my family, my relatives and friends were captured and killed by ISIS.”

Majhor studying biology at Sinjar University in 2013.

Along with many other Yazidis, he fled to Sinjar Mountain. They walked for 10 hours. With no food or water, many did not survive the journey.

The United Nations later recognized the events of that day as genocide, committed by ISIS against the Yazidi people. As adherents to an ancient faith that predates Islam and is viewed by many Muslims as Satanic, the Yazidis were some of the worst victims of ISIS violence. The world watched with horror as ISIS enslaved Yazidi women and conscripted children to fight.

Majhor also remembers feeling betrayed. He says that old Muslim friends and neighbors, coerced by ISIS, turned against his family.

“That was really painful,” he recounts. “If you don’t feel safe with your friends and your neighbors how can you feel safe with other people, with other religions?” he asks. “You’ll never be.”

Despite international condemnation of ISIS’ atrocities, few countries welcomed those fleeing the violence. Majhor joined over a million people attempting to reach Europe in 2016 and as refugee numbers swelled, European altruism wore thin. Anti-immigrant slogans flooded the UK after it voted for Brexit, and a string of terror attacks in Europe ignited further hostility toward the refugees.

Tents near where Majhor stayed in the Calais Jungle.

Majhor ventured to France and ended up in the Calais Jungle, a sprawling makeshift camp on the edge of Europe. Once again, he found a less-than-friendly welcome: The UK was building a wall blocking entry to the English Channel and French authorities were starting to dismantle the camp.

On top of the restrictive measures, persecution appeared to have followed Majhor across Europe as he suffered what he says was abuse from fellow migrants.

“When a group of Kurdish people found out that we were not praying in the mosque, they captured us, they took us to our small caravan and they beat us up badly, really badly,” he says. “They locked us in, saying, ‘We will come back to you, to kill you later.’”

Majhor with his younger siblings in Shingal in 2009.

Majhor managed to escape the caravan that night with fellow Yazidi Adel Omar Hassan. A large fire broke out in the camp, distracting his attackers.

With the help of Scottish volunteer John, who requested his surname not be disclosed because of safety concerns, both men were moved to the nearby Dunkirk camp. John wrote a statement on the incident to justify their transfer to Dunkirk titled “Interrogation, abduction, assault and subsequent escape of two Yazidi men from The Jungle.”

Majhor’s companion Adel, 27, is from Khana Sor, a village just a few miles from Majhor’s hometown in northern Iraq. “He was talking on the phone and I recognized the accent,” Adel says of the moment he met Majhor in Calais. As ISIS arrived at his village on that August day, Adel also headed toward Sinjar mountain. “I wasn’t at home that night, I was with friends, so I went to Sinjar mountain by car,” he explains. As he sped towards safety, he had no idea that he would never see his family again.

Adel’s journey took him from Sinjar to Syria by foot, then on to Turkey. After he had walked for days without food or water, he was exhausted and his health began to deteriorate. He traveled on to Germany via Greece. “The journey to Germany was good, we got food and water but the journey from Iraq to Greece was so bad, that I was just so tired by this point,” he explains.

Adel and Majhor in their caravan in Calais, which they described as dirty and disgusting.

Majhor and Adel are both now in the UK after being smuggled across the English Channel in trucks. Courts rejected Majhor’s initial request for asylum on the grounds it was safe for him to return to Basra, a predominantly Muslim city in Iraq that Majhor argues would be hostile to Yazidi refugees.

“They [the Home Office] have no idea how much in danger I am in in Iraq,” he says. “They said there are safe places in Iraq. I said, not for Yazidi people, there are no safe places in Iraq for Yazidi people,” Majhor says. “If the international communities rebuild and provide protection for Sinjar, I would love to return to Sinjar and be with my people,” he continues. “But in this moment, Sinjar is like a destroyed city. Destroyed people, no future, no hope. It’s insane to go back there.”

Since Majhor’s application was rejected, Adel is not optimistic his own application will succeed. “I did an interview [with the Home Office] on 13th March but I have a strong feeling I will be rejected like Majhor,” Adel says. “I still have a feeling nobody knows who the Yazidis are … nobody knows what we’ve been through, nobody cares.”

Migrants trying to cross Greek-Macedonian border in February 2016.

Adel was assessed by medical professionals upon his arrival in the UK and was diagnosed with depression. He says he has tried to commit suicide several times since arriving. “I remember dead children and old people in Sinjar mountain. It makes me really sad. I still can’t sleep at night,” he says. Adel was placed in government housing in Manchester but says he had to be moved after his Kurdish neighbors attacked him. “I feel like I will die here in the UK,” Adel says. “Nobody cares about me, nobody knows about me.” The thought of calling his mother, who is living in a migrant camp in Germany, seems unbearable. “I don’t want her to know I’m not OK, she would know from my voice,” he says.

Majhor and Adel in the UK, 2018.

The plight of Yazidis has caused ructions in British politics before. In April 2016, several high-profile UK members of Parliament wrote to the then-Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and then-International Development Secretary Priti Patel demanding that the UK provide more help for Yazidis, but none came.

To this day, asylum laws in the UK do not distinguish between Yazidis and other Iraqis.Their suffering at the hands of fellow Iraqis goes unrecognized on asylum applications. “There is no country guidance on Yazidis in Iraq,” says Anne Norona, a humanitarian activist focused on Yazidis. “They need to be treated as a separate ethnic minority at risk, and hugely at risk of persecution in their own country.”

Majhor and Adel in Cornwall, England.

As the Yazidi plight fades from news headlines, Majhor and Adel hope for a miracle.

On Tuesday, Majhor will learn the news of his appeal, while Adel waits for the verdict on his initial application. The Home Office declined to comment on individual cases. For both of them, reaching the UK was the last stop in their journey to find safety. If their asylum cases fail, they fear they will have nowhere left to go.

“The Yazidi people never hurt anybody,” Majhor says. “So I think we didn’t deserve this fate.”

CNN has updated this story.

Help for the Yazidi

  • AMAR International Foundation: Beyond providing food, clothing and medical treatment inside refugee camps, the organization has put in place longer-term assistance programs that provide vaccinations to prevent epidemics, medication to treat chronic health conditions and access to schooling for children.

  • UNICEF has worked with local humanitarian groups to provide tents, medical care, hygiene kits and clothing to Yazidi refugees.

  • Impact Your World is CNN’s network-wide initiative which informs and empowers those who ask: “What can I do?”