Muraz Shamoyan and the Yezidi Center for Human Rights6 July 2023
From the embers of genocide to Xirat media: Yezidis united for high ideals
From genocide to action
Muraz Shamoyan first met the human rights defender Sashik Sultanyan in Yerevan in 2014, marching side-by-side to protest the brutal massacre of Yezidis by ISIS in and around the city of Sinjar in Northern Iraq.
That summer of 2014, Muraz was 24 and had just finished his Masters in Law when the news broke that ISIS had captured Sinjar, one of the largest settlements of this ancient ethno-religious minority remaining in the Middle East. Thousands of Yezidi civilians were killed and women and girls forced into sexual slavery.
“Our organization grew out of the watershed of the Sinjar genocide,” Muraz tells EED.
“This slow-motion tragedy in Iraq shook our community to the core, reminding young people of the stories we had heard from our elders about the Yezidis’ flight to what was then the Russian Empire to escape the genocidal persecutions of the late Ottoman period.
Yezidi students in Armenia mobilized in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Iraq.
“We marched to raise awareness of the genocide and I set up the social media initiative ‘The Voice of Yezidi Youth’ to talk about Yezidi issues. We made short films and videos focusing on Yezidi identity and culture. It was our way of working through this experience”, says Muraz.
Since October 2020, Sashik Sultanyan, the founder of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights (YCHR) has been under criminal investigation on charges of inciting ethnic hatred. Calls from the United Nations and Council of Europe authorities and others for these charges to be dropped have gone unheeded and Sashik, who risks up to six years’ imprisonment, had to leave Armenia and resigned as Director of the organization he had founded.
With the future of the YCHR in the balance, Muraz stepped forward to take over the leadership and ensure activities were carried out as planned throughout this testing period.
Two intertwined strands of the YCHR’s work date back to those years: youth engagement and media work. It was the young activists, including Yezidi women, who brought their online skills to the media platform Erzidimedia, established in 2017 by Muraz, Sashik and a group of friends to give a voice to Yezidis in Armenia. YCHR’s media presence grew out of this voluntary initiative.
A third element runs like a thread through all YCHR’s work: international human rights obligations (United Nations documents and the various minority rights treaties and conventions of the Council of Europe and other inter-governmental organizations).
The Yezidi Centre for Human Rights
YCHR is best described as a group of Yezidi activists working on minority issues from a human rights perspective. They draw attention to Yezidi issues which otherwise receive limited attention from the state and the Armenian public. They also promote a better understanding of human rights within the Yezidi community, in particular the right to education.
“First, we serve the Yezidi community (both in Armenia and internationally) as a vehicle for information-sharing. By this, I mean everything from on-line community billboards to talking frankly to Yezidis about some of our traditional practices that are problematic from a rights perspective, such as early marriages. At the same time, we offer Yezidis a place to learn more about our traditional culture and our unique identity” says Muraz.
“Our second major audience is the Armenian majority. We address deeply ingrained stereotypes and provide much needed information on who we are and where we come from.”
Armenia has the most ethnically homogeneous population of all the post-Soviet states with around 98 percent of citizens identifying as Armenian. The Yezidi community, which according to the 2011 Census totals 35,272, is the largest of 11 officially recognised minority groups, but has been in decline since the end of the Soviet Union opened up the possibility of emigration.
“Xirat”, explains Muraz, “is a Yezidi word which means something like ‘united effort for high ideals’. For me, it sums what our media work is all about.”
Xirat Media is a modern online platform developed with EED support which grew out the media platform (Ezidimedia) established by Muraz and Sashik the year before YCHR was founded.
Xirat Media is unique in providing high-quality content about the Yezidi community in two languages: Armenian - to raise knowledge about Yezidi issues, their life and culture with the Armenian majority, and Yezidi - to provide critically important information to the community in Armenia and beyond.
EED support is also helping to increase Yezidi language content through the development of new programmes and formats, partly in response to growing interest from Yezidis living outside Armenia. It is developing as an important vehicle for the preservation of the Yezidi language.
“Our team is fifty percent Armenian and fifty percent Yezidi, so in a sense our studio is a laboratory of multiculturalism”, says Muraz. “The face of Xirat Media is Shushane Sakunts, an Armenian by nationality who lives in the neighborhood of Azatan, a community inhabited by Yezidis..”
The audience is expanding, with subscribers to the YouTube channel and followers on Facebook increasing nearly threefold in the period October 2021 to the end of 2022. At the same time, Xirat Media is widening its reach, with content rebroadcast on the Armenian language Boon TV in a weekly slot with the Yezidi language sections subtitled in Armenian.
Xirat Media’s Armenian language programmes regularly invite guests from decision-making agencies to talk about national minority rights, putting these issues on the public agenda and raising awareness among government officials. Importantly, this initiative has also opened doors with key interlocutors, including the Ombudsperson, officials at the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport, parliamentarians, local authorities and regional administrations, important contacts for YCHR’s advocacy work.
The way forward
“Today’s reality is a very different place from where we started out”, says Muraz. “In a sense, we are doing what we dreamed of at the outset. We are raising awareness in both the Yezidi and the Armenian communities, with youth, women and decision-makers at local and national levels. And the statistics are showing us that our Yezidi content is increasingly in demand not only in Armenia but also among the Yezidi communities of Georgia, Russia and beyond.”
“We hope for a more multi-cultural Armenia and more effective links across our scattered Yezidi communities worldwide so that this stateless people can maintain its identity and unique culture in the face of more subtle threats to the existence of Yezidis than genocide,” he says.
This article reflects the views of the grantee featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the European Endowment for Democracy, the European Commission or any other European State or other contributors to EED.