Ato Dakheel, a Yazidi living in Sweden
The Sun Shines all over the World
Ato Dakheel is a Yazidi born in Hardan, a small village in northern Iraq. In 2014, Ato and his family fled Iraq when ISIL attacked the city of Sinjar near the Sinjar Mountain close to the Iraq-Syria border. After a long journey, Ato ended up in Sweden, where he today goes to school. In an interview he tells in detail about his, Yazidis’ and Kurds’ history.
Today he serves as a goodwill ambassador for the Yazidi/Kurdish people through sharing the account of his migratory journey.
The sun is an important symbol for Yazidis, Ato explains.
Sunday, August 3, 2014 – Sinjar Massacre
Ato Dakheel says he will never forget Sunday, August 3, 2014. It was on that day, at 11 am, that ISIL attacked the city of Shingal, or Sinjar as it is also called. The city is located in northwestern Iraq near the Iraq-Syria border. About 80 percent of the city's population were at that time Yazidis, about 15 percent were Muslims and about 5 percent were Christians. The UN has described the ISIL attack on the Yazidis as genocide.
ISIL attacked and slaughtered all men and the elderly. Young girls were taken as sex slaves. ISIL took more than 50 cousins of mine on August 3, 2014. It was 12 kilometres to the mountain. We walked all the way and ISIL was behind us. ISIL calls Yazidis “kafer”, which means that you don't believe in anything. We believe in God and angels, Ato explains.
The World Community Needs to Act
In recent years, there have been a lot of tensions in the area around Shingal between different Kurdish forces.
“The world community needs /… / to act and put an end to the impunity that has been prevailing for a long time in a practically lawless Iraq. The UN has become lame and refrain many times from acting because they depend on the Iraqi government for their presence in the country. Failure to intervene, however, will lead to continued uncontrollable violence, law violations and war crimes,” the Swedish war correspondent and Middle Eastern analyst Magda Gad wrote in the Swedish newspaper Expressen on October 17, 2017.
The Kurds were one people
Ato Dakheel explains that the Kurds a long time ago were one people.
All Kurds were Yazidis. The Kurdish flag also testifies this. The Kurdish flag has a sun in the middle. The sun is an important symbol for us Yazidis.
Ato says that Kurdistan has its own territory in Iraq.
Kurdistan has its own president, prime minister and parliament, but belongs to Iraq.
Ato is very knowledgeable in this area and he knows his history well.
Before the First World War and even during the war many wars against religions took place. The Ottoman Empire wanted everyone to become Muslims. Many became Muslims after the First World War. Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which during the First World War was a friend of Germany. England and France wanted to divide the Ottoman Empire to make it weaker. After the First World War, the borders between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey were drawn in the middle of Kurdistan.
Some brief facts about the history of Kurdistan
1922: A Kurdish man in Turkey, Sheikh Said, fought against the Ottoman Empire. He was executed by Turkey in 1925.
1942: Mustafa Barzani, a Kurdish man from Iraq, wanted to make a revolution. His son Massoud Barzani is now president of the Kurdish part of Iraq. Along with an army of Peshmerga soldiers, Mustafa Barzani fought against the Iraqi state for an independent Kurdistan.
1946: Qazi Muhammad, a Kurd from Iran, fought against the Iranian state with the help of the Soviet Union. He was executed by the Iranian state.
Ato Dakheel explains that it was with the help of the United States that the Kurds in 1991 got their own region in Iraq where the Kurds could almost decide themselves. He further explains that the people of Iraq have suffered many wars.
On August 2, 1990, the Gulf War started when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq by attacking the capital Baghdad with aircraft and missiles.
March 16, 1988 – Halabja Massacre
March 16, 1988 was another tragic day in world history.
“30 years ago, Saddam Hussein's regime used the chemical weapons mustard gas and nerve gas to murder the Kurds in Halabja as part of his genocidal campaign, the so-called Al-Anfal Campaign, against Kurds. On March 16, 1988, 5,000 Kurds were murdered and more than 10,000 were estimated to be severely injured by the attack. Several thousand Kurds were reported to have died after the attack as a result of various complications, diseases and birth defects. The gas attack in Halabja was one of forty issued against Kurds during Saddam Hussein’s time where a total of 182,000 Kurds are estimated to have been murdered as part of the Al-Anfal Campaign. Even today, the survivors suffer from the traumatic experiences of that day, but also from the health problems that these chemical weapons brought. Experts have demonstrated that dangerous mustard gas still exists today in some of the city's cellars,” the International Women's Association for Peace and Freedom (Internationella Kvinnoförbundet för Fred och Frihet, IKFF) wrote on its blog on March 16, 2018.
Escaped to the Sinjar Mountain
Ato grew up in the small village of Hardan in northern Iraq. He says that there is very beautiful nature in Kurdistan. Water and mountains.
Ato went to school for nine years in Iraq. He says that the teachers beat the students if, for example, they forgot a school assignment. He also says that Yazidis could not go anywhere outside the area.
It happened many times that they kidnapped Yazidis and demanded a ransom, Ato says.
Ato lived in the village of Hardan until August 2014 when his family and many other Yazidi families fled up to the Sinjar Mountain.
We were on the Sinjar Mountain for eight days without food and without water. We had to eat leaves, Ato continues.
Kurdish military, PKK, came to the mountain and opened a small road.
We walked to Syria. There were about 500,000 people. There were children and there were women. Many cried. We slept in the field.
Worked 12 hours a day in Turkey
Ato draws a map to show how the borders go through Kurdistan. The countries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria are close to each other. He draws the city of Shingal, which ISIL attacked on August 3, 2014. Then he draws the province of Duhok, which borders on Turkey in the north and Syria in the west. Through the province of Duhok, Ato and his family – and about 400 other Yazidi families – were able to go to Turkey and a large mountain.
There, the Turkish military took us. We slept under the trees for four days. Then we got help from Kurds from Turkey. In Shernak we lived in a school for 16 days. We were 16 people in two rooms. For us Yazidis it was extra difficult in Turkey.
Ato says the family moved to the city of Siirt, where they lived for a year and a half.
We worked 12 hours a day, every day of the week. I was digging in the ground for one dollar a day. We lived 16 people in an apartment with two rooms and a kitchen.
Boat trip to Greece
Ato explains that his aunt, who lived in Småland in Sweden, called and told Ato’s dad that she could help one person. Ato says that he has two older brothers and two younger brothers. Ato’s father did not want to leave the family in Turkey. Together, the family decided that Ato should go to Sweden.
I was scared and worried, Ato says. I went to Istanbul with some friends. We stayed there for a few days. From there we went in a small inflatable boat. 64 people. Children, women, elderly, young people ... We would go to Greece, one to two hours boat trip across the sea. We couldn’t swim. The small children cried. The boat began to fill with water. We prayed to God many times, Ato says and clasps his hands.
Ato continues his story and says that they all arrived on the Greek island.
The others who I travelled with in the boat hugged each other, but no one hugged me. Then I felt alone in the whole world.
Long journey through Europe
The journey went on to Athens, an 8 hours long journey in a large ship.
Then we went by many buses to Macedonia. There were refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Africa ... I was with a family. It was a mother, a father and two children. It was November and it was cold. We went by bus to Serbia, where we stayed for two or three days. We were outside all the time. Day and night. We couldn't buy food. We got some bread with butter and cheese.
Ato is very talkative and continues to tell the story about the long journey. The journey continued by bus through Croatia, Austria and Slovakia.
In Austria we stayed for four days. We were outside all the time.
Ato ended up in a refugee camp in Germany. A cousin of Ato lived in Hamburg. The cousin wanted Ato to stay in Germany, but Ato had already decided; he was going to Sweden. Ato’s cousin helped Ato to the train station and onto a train to Copenhagen. The cousin explained that Ato had 30 minutes in Copenhagen to find the train which would go to Malmö in Sweden.
From one refugee camp to the other
Once in Copenhagen, Ato approached a man and asked for help. It turned out that the man was Kurdish and could speak Kurdish. The Kurdish man helped Ato to get onto the train that went to Malmö. Once in Malmö, November 26, 2015, Ato was taken to the police station. The police interrogated Ato about what he would do in Sweden and Ato replied that he was a refugee. Ato’s aunt came to Malmö to meet Ato, but first she was not allowed to meet him. After a few days, however, Ato came to his aunt in Småland.
The family who remained in Turkey thought that “we should live a better life or die” and decided therefore to go to Sweden. Ato’s mother, father, younger brother and younger sisters came to Sweden on December 12, 2015.
Ato’s older brothers, one 30 years old with four children and the other 25 years old and single, stayed in Turkey and came later to Greece.
The EU decided that all Yazidis would move to Germany, Ato says. Therefore, my older brothers moved to Germany.
Ato and the family members who were now in Sweden moved from Småland to a refugee camp in Malmö.
We were many who slept on the floor, Atos's mother interposes. She shed some tears.
A woman from the church helped the family
Later the family moved to another refugee camp between Lund and Hässleholm and then they were moved to another refugee camp in Hanöhus.
Then we came to Listerlandet, Ato explains. We were eight people. Six of us stayed in one room. My brother Serbest and I lived in a cabin. We lived there for eight months. One day a woman who was active in the church came to the refugee camp. She wanted to integrate us into Swedish society. She wanted to integrate not only my family but everyone in the camp.
Ato says that the woman asked Ato questions.
Then I could not speak Swedish or English at all. We had a neighbour who could speak English fluently who interpreted for us. The woman asked if I had signed up for school, but I had not. I didn’t know I had that opportunity in Sweden. The woman promised she would sign me up. This was a Friday. The woman said that “on Monday I’ll pick you up and we’ll go to school”.
On Monday, the woman drove Ato to a school in Sölvesborg. The whole family attended a church course in simple Swedish for new Swedes/refugees.
From the beginning I was afraid of the church because ISIL in 2014 treated us so bad because we are Yazidis.
Demonstration against war and for democracy
In 2016, Ato and his family came to Kungsmarken in Karlskrona in southern Sweden.
We knew almost no one, Ato explains. We called the woman from the church who made sure we got to meet a man from Kungsmarken Church. The Kungsmarken Church has helped us a lot.
Ato tells with a smile that he started a course at the Naval Museum in Karlskrona.
There I got to learn Swedish and we learned history. We participated in a competition with the museum, a competition between several museums in Sweden. The Naval Museum won the competition and we went to Stockholm to receive the award.
It went well for Ato in the Swedish school and he quickly completed a nine years’ (!) study plan.
In June I got all the grades, Ato says happily, explaining that it meant a lot to him.
Ato had the luck to go to India on a school trip.
We were 2 students out of 300 who went to India. I gave a lecture in India, Ato says with enthusiasm.
Ato came to the Swedish Parliament and met the Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven. At the wall in the Dakheel family’s living room, there is a portrait of Ato together with the prime minister.
We learned in school about the different parties and what they want.
In October 2019 Ato Dakheel led a demonstration in Karlskrona together with a friend. It was a short time after Turkey entered with soldiers into the Kurdish area of Rojava. The messages from the Kurdish demonstration were clear against war and for democracy.
When asked whether Ato feels welcome in Sweden or if he in any way feels discriminated, Ato answers that this is a difficult question.
It depends on different people. When we demonstrated we appeared in an article in the newspaper. Then there was one woman who wrote “Go home and help instead of complaining here”. Then I didn't really feel welcome.
Ato's clear message: “Do not kill people. Do not use weapons.”
Ato has a clear message that he would like to convey:
Do anything but do not kill people. Do not use weapons. I hope that women and children in the Middle East will enjoy more freedom. Not a dictator who decides everything. Women should have time for themselves. I will fight for the rights of women and children throughout my life.
In the summer of 2019, Ato Dakheel founded the Kurdish Democratic Association in Karlskrona. On the question of how Ato wants the Kurdish Democratic Association to develop, he answers:
Freedom and democracy. We should all help each other. Everyone is equal.
Article by Maria Veneke Ylikomi, Goodwill Ambassador for Globcal International, 30 November 2019