Breaking Bread with the Children of the Sun
We are deeply affected by the boundaries we create around ourselves: town lines, time zones, zip codes, school districts, religion, citizenship, heritage. We can know in our minds that we are not defined by dotted lines and brick walls, nor by categories and stories that we construct within those spaces, but when these peripheries are altered or when someone threatens to change them, our awareness of them (and attachment to them) becomes heightened. If we are lucky, we find ways to make these boundaries more fluid and we cross them, often. And if we are especially blessed, we get to break bread with others in unfamiliar places.
In 2011, under the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the simultaneous spread of ISIS, the obliteration of cities and villages throughout Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq forced tens of thousands of men, women, and children to flee, many of whom trekked through Turkey and then boarded flimsy rubber rafts bound for the Greek island of Lesbos—the nearest chunk of Europe. But when the European Union closed its borders along the northern edge of Greece a few years later, incoming refugees were prevented from migrating north, trapped in a country on the brink of financial collapse. Thousands more were, and still are, stuck scratching out some sort of life in tents clustered in empty fields, behind barbed wire fences in warehouse districts, or in abandoned army barracks. That’s where the Greek government decided their downtrodden neighbors should live, and that’s why I went there.
In October 2016 I made my first trip to Greece with a small team of volunteers on behalf of the fledgling nonprofit Carry the Future. Over the course of ten days, we crisscrossed the country and visited refugee camps to deliver baby supplies and humanitarian aid to refugees whose paltry rations were further parsed and plundered by a corrupt and crumbling bureaucracy. Sometimes, after distributing provisions, we were led through the camp to visit pregnant women and new mothers and make note of their needs for the next incoming team.
An afternoon spent at a Yazidi camp in the mountains of northern Greece was particularly memorable. Yazidis, an ethnoreligious minority from northern Iraq, have suffered a particularly brutal humanitarian crisis. The most recent wave of violence and oppression against this mostly peace-loving people had taken place in 2014, when ISIS invaded the region of Sinjar. Having been targeted by ISIS for their unwillingness to convert to Islam, men and boys were lined up in the streets and shot. Women and girls were caged and burned alive. Thousands more were abducted and forced into sexual slavery. Still more died of dehydration and exhaustion after fleeing to remote wilderness to escape capture. Some escaped, but thousands are still missing.
While walking through the tent maze at the camp, guided by little ones in various stages of toothlessness, we were greeted with easy smiles and nods from the residents. While women cooked over open fires on grills fashioned from discarded oil tins and scrap wire, children wearing cheap rubber slip-ons without socks ran about, and old men paced. As we sat on mattresses or stood in muddy fields, teen boys shared handheld video footage of their terrifying journeys through choppy seas, while their fathers told their stories, accentuated by swooping hand movements and exaggerated facial expressions, and described their struggle to live with dignity. We did our best to keep up with the rambunctious young ones while navigating around anchoring ropes draped with damp clothing. It had rained the day before our visit, and many of the tents, perched on the side of a hill, were saturated.
A girl of about ten led me by the hand to a place where three tents were arranged around a small clearing. There, a group of four Yazidi women were gathered around two makeshift stoves, each of which had a crudely cut opening in one side where a tiny bonfire of twigs kept the whole thing hot. An aroma of frying onions and simmering vegetables filled our nostrils, and the women, every one of them so stunning with their glossy coal-black hair and eyes of every color that I had to concentrate on not staring, were talking and laughing with one another. We were greeted with warm smiles and generous kisses—left cheek, right cheek, then left again.
A few steps away, an older woman dressed in white, her salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck, was cleaning up. She had just baked a batch of flatbread by heating slabs of dough on what appeared to be an overturned metal bowl balanced over an open flame. As we lingered, the older woman stood up, adjusted her loosely draped lavender head scarf, and approached us. After customary greetings, she wrapped her thick arm around my waist and remained close to me while a young woman from another nonprofit attempted unsuccessfully to translate. Some of the younger, educated Yazidis know Arabic, but many older men and women speak only Kurmanji—a language not easily learned unless you live in northern Iraq. We shared no common language, so we stood beside each other in silence and watched children play ring-around-the-rosy.
After a few moments, the woman broke away from us, pulled a freshly baked piece of flatbread, probably sixteen inches in diameter, from her stack, and handed it to one of my teammates and me. Though refugee families rarely have enough to eat and our first impulse would have been to turn her down, we felt compelled to accept her offer; we knew from experience that refusing food or cups of tea would have been offensive. So we took the bread from her, tore off small pieces, and tasted it. It was lightly crisp on the outside, warm and delightfully chewy on the inside. We expressed our delight, and the woman returned a teary-eyed smile. My teammate Jill tucked the bread inside her vest to demonstrate our reverence for the woman’s gift (and protect it from so many tiny, curious hands) and we said our good-byes.
I later learned that bread is sacred in Yazidism. Haider Elias, a Yazidi man living in Houston and the current president of the board of directors of Yazda, a multinational nonprofit organization whose mission includes education, cultural preservation, and community development for Yazidis, told me that reverence for bread stems from its history of protecting Yazidis against starvation during times of geographic isolation and conflict.
“Bread is sacred because it has kept Yazidi people alive for centuries,” Elias said. “Living in such a remote region and having been persecuted for so long, people didn’t always have access to the same kinds of nutrition that we take for granted now.”
The traditional way of making flatbread, or naan, begins like most breads, with flour—made from pounding barley and wheat with a wooden hammer on a large rock. Elias explained how barley or wheat husks, or “peelings,” traditionally remained with the flour and that this use of the entire grain contributed to the bread’s nutritional value. The flour was then combined with water, kneaded, flattened, and then baked in a tanour—a barrel-shaped “mud oven” traditionally made of clay formed from a mixture of dry grass and dirt. Centuries ago, these ovens were heated by burning sheep dung, but eventually fig tree wood was used as a cleaner source of fuel.
Bread is so precious to traditional Yazidi culture that to throw it in the trash is a sin. “Even stale scraps are dried and fed to livestock,” said Elias, though today’s flatbread lacks the same life-sustaining nutritional value. Arabization under the reign of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s introduced cultural mandates and also a dramatic alteration in this centuries-old bread-making process. The Iraqi government simultaneously offered Yazidis rations of flour, oil, and laundry detergent while educating them about Arab culture and forbidding the use of Kurmanji. Refined flour simplified food prep but decreased the bread’s nutritional value. Despite this, Elias said, if bread is accidentally dropped on the ground, it is still quickly recovered and kissed. Even if today’s naan lacks the same nutritional substance it once held, “to kiss it is to show gratitude and not take it for granted.”
Yazidis have been affectionately nicknamed the Children of the Sun because they face the sun, palms open, during prayer. “Anything that is raised by the sunlight is a blessing,” said Elias, and bread represents a perfect communion of nature’s elements—earth, water, air, the sun, and the touch of human hands. Reverence for the sun, common to ancient religions of the Middle East and also indigenous cultures of the Americas, is more than a distant sense of awe for Yazidis.
Oneness with nature is a core element of Yazidism. The sun, a sacred emanation from God, “represents the source of energy or ultimate truth,” according to Yezidis International. Thanks to groups like Yazda and Yezidis International, traditional Yazidi beliefs and cultural practices are celebrated and kept alive even while the needs of Yazidi refugees and survivors of an ongoing genocide evade much of Western consciousness.
As our small team stood with Yazidi refugees whose holy places and temples were thousands of miles away, we represented multiple religious traditions. And though the faith of the people we met at the camp that day was unwavering, a larger, more unifying connection was apparent.
We can concoct categories and erect walls to separate ourselves from each other, but topographical borders, language barriers, and human-contrived rules cannot splice our inherent likeness. We are all breathing the same air, standing on the same land, seeking love, and grasping at the same core truth.
As we gathered to talk, sip tea, share stories, and gush over babies born stateless, or to simply hold hands and nod at one another, there were no boundaries between us. The woman’s gift to us, made from flour, water, heat, and the strength of her two hands, bonded us with one another and with our surroundings. As we ate and looked into each other’s eyes, in this act of communion, we were one.
Aline Lindemann is currently working on a book titled Yazidi Journeys, aimed at telling stories of Yazidi culture and tradition in the diaspora. This trip documented in this story was the first of four trips to Greece; Lindemann recently got home from her third trip and is planning to return in September, with the intent of collecting poems and stories written by Yazidi refugees for inclusion in her book. Follow Yazidi Journeys on Facebook and Instagram.
For more reading and to get involved:
Carry the Future is an international community of volunteers who serve the needs of refugees through humanitarian aid, community infrastructure projects, and advocacy.
Lifting Hands International (LHI) provides humanitarian aid, hands-on educational services, trauma-informed yoga, women’s services, and language, dance, and music classes to Yezidi survivors of genocide.
A global organization, Yazda sponsors educational programs, community development, cultural preservation, legal advocacy, and documentation of Yazidi history.
Yezidis International, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, aims to preserve Yazidi faith traditions, educate the public about the plight of Yazidis, and empower Yazidi people worldwide.
Founded by 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Yezidi human rights activist Nadia Murad, Nadia’s Initiative focuses on increasing advocacy for women and minorities from communities in crisis.
Tariq Tarey is a documentary photographer and visual ethnographer whose work is devoted to illuminating the lives of refugees. Tarey and Lindemann travel to refugee camps together and work collaboratively.
Originally published in Comestible Issue 8