Saydo Ashur Yousif and his family walked for days to reach safety [Adam Valen Levinson/ Al Jazeera]
The Slum

Iraq: Seeking sanctuary

The sacred hamlet of Lalish has become a makeshift home to Yazidis fleeing the Islamic State group.

As part of the ‘Where I live’ series, the Al Jazeera Magazine asked people from around the world how their lives have been influenced by where they live. Meet Saydo Ashur Yousif who fled his home in northwestern Iraq after the onslaught from IS began.

The sacred hamlet of Lalish in northwestern Iraq feels nothing like it did last month. The once sleepy road leading to this sanctuary is now teeming with new arrivals fleeing violence to the south.

Families and young men mill about the temporary tents emblazoned with the logos of international aid organisations in 115-degree heat. The usual population of 500 has swollen to more than 3,000.

Over the past few weeks, the advance of the Islamic State (IS) group forced these members of the minority Yazidi faith from their homes in Sinjar and up into the mountains. When US airstrikes cleared a temporary escape route, they headed for the holy village. Now this usually quiet place – but for a biannual pilgrimage – is a de facto refugee camp.

Thirty-four-year-old Saydo Ashur Yousif fled his home in the suburb of Kanasor when he heard that the IS was approaching. Of those who remained behind, the high school physics teacher says: “The men were killed, the women were taken.” For the Kurdish Peshmerga who fled as the IS advanced, leaving Sinjar unguarded, he has just one word: “Betrayal.”

Yousif drove his family to Mount Sinjar then walked for four hours to reach the top. They spent six days on the mountain even though their food had run out by the second.

“Like this we drank water,” he says, demonstrating by filling the small plastic lid of a water bottle. “But it wasn’t like this, it was dirty,” he explains. His youngest child, one-and-a-half-year-old Basil, did not survive the contaminated water.

The rest of the family walked for 40 hours, crossing the border into Syria and reaching the city of Qamishli, from where they found cars willing to drive them to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Lalish sits in a green valley in the Niveneh plain, a lush region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. With its buildings of old mortar over even older stones, replicated by newer structures in shades of gold and tan, it resembles corners of Damascus or Old Jerusalem. Behind the central courtyard, tiny houses pile up the hill, one seemingly on top of another.

The sanctuary there, with its two characteristic corrugated conical spires, is named after Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a Sufi mystic born in the 1070s in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Sheikh Adi travelled to Kurdistan and developed a following in Lalish, where he died and was most likely buried around 1160. According to Yazidi tradition, the first land in the world was created here, when the holiest of the seven angels they believe God entrusted with the care of the world took rennet from a sacred spring now beneath the sanctuary and cast it into the ocean.

For Yousif, the religious significance of Lalish is almost meaningless. His concern is merely with his family’s survival. “There’s safety here,” he says. “We are just alive.”