This story is over 5 years old.


Blood and Oil: Displaced Yazidi Refugees Making a Dangerous Living in Northern Iraq

Sebastian Meyer profiles a family of displaced Yazidis refugees in northern Iraq who make a potentially lethal living running a small oil refinery.
Photos par Sebastian Meyer

Zaidoon's 17-year-old cousin, Jamal, darts between the refinery's enormous storage drums. He is trying to fill a jerry can with gasoline for one of the truck drivers which has pulled up with an empty tanker. Jamal runs over to the huge drum that holds the gasoline and throws open the spigot at the bottom. A jet of black liquid shoots out which then turns clear. Jamal cups his hand and catches some of it, bringing it up to his face as if he's about to take a sip.


What he's actually doing is sniffing to see if the liquid is water or not. In these big drums, the water and gasoline separate and the heavier water sinks to the bottom. Because the spigot is also at the bottom of the drum, Jamal isn't getting any gasoline, just handfuls of smelly water.

Less than fifty yards away from the refinery sits a shipping container and a plastic cabin where Zaidoon and his family live. Six months earlier they fled their home in Sinjar when ISIS launched their murderous campaign against the Yazidi population and attacked the city.

Jamal, 17, smells petrol coming out of a container to test it for its water content.

Jamal, a Yazidi boy from Sinjar, lives with his displaced family next to an oil refinery in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. He and his cousins run the refinery 24 hours a day with little to no safety equipment.

The Yazidis are an ancient religious sect whose faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism and Abrahamic creeds. As non-Muslims, they are considered heretics by the Islamic State and its followers, who have vowed to eliminate the Yazidis through forced conversion or murder.

When IS overran Sinjar in August, Zaidoon and his family managed to escape to safety with 50,000 fellow Yazidis. After eight terrifying days, the family arrived in the Kurdish region, dispossessed and destitute. Now, six months later, they call this refinery home.

The refinery sits on a small hill that rises up from the Tanjero river on the outskirts of the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. It's February and the wheat in the surrounding fields is beginning to sprout, covering the rolling hills in a soft green blanket, tranquil in its beauty. The refinery, belching thick black smoke and leaking thicker, blacker oil down the hill into the river, is anything but tranquil or beautiful.


Ghazal, Zaidoon's mother, and Hayam, his wife, live in the shipping container with Mazal, his eight-month-old son. The rectangular metal box is divided into two parts by thin particle board. One side is a storage area for cleaning rags and other semi-discarded items. The other side is what they call the "main house," which has enough space for a small refrigerator, a television, a hotplate for cooking, and a large bed where Ghazal and Hayam sleep with the baby. The little floor space that's left is where Zaidoon and two of his younger brothers, Ezidiar and Sardesht, sleep.

Azdar, 16, stands outside the family's house. His mother, Ghazal, holds her grandson, Mazal, while his brother, Serdesht, 13, ties his shoes.

The family's toilet, shower, and sink are situated in a small square structure that sits next to a disused gas flare. It's made of concrete blocks that have been cheaply cemented together.

Between the shower and the container sits a PVC cabin where the older boys, Jamal, Azdar, and Serbest, sleep on bunk beds. Oil from their clothes and shoes is everywhere: on the walls, on the mattresses, on the blankets. It's inescapable.

Jamal, 17, smokes a cigarette in his bunkbed.

As foul smelling and dirty as it is, this oil has become the lifeblood of Iraqi Kurdistan. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region began unprecedented oil exploration across its territory. Six years later a small company called Gulf Keystone discovered a reserve of 14 billion barrels of oil, which the Financial Times called "one of the largest onshore discoveries in more than 20 years." The Kurdistan oil boom had begun. Wildcatters sold out to larger companies and soon the biggest oil companies in the world, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Total, were setting up shop in the Kurdish region.


Small operations, like the one Zaidoon and his family operate, produce three main products: diesel, naphtha, and fuel oil. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) purchases the diesel to run the region's power plants while the naphtha, a rough type of unfinished gasoline, is traded to local buyers. The most popular product, though, is fuel oil, a nasty black viscous product that is shipped off to the United Arab Emirates to fuel the shipping tankers in their massive ports.

These small refineries, despite being unregulated and prone to devastating industrial accidents, are very profitable. According to Iraq Oil Report, the smallest 50-ton capacity refinery can generate around $3,000 a day if it runs at full tilt. Zaidoon's family does very well out of this: He and his brothers collectively earn $6,000 a month, but it comes at a devastating cost to their health.

Jamal stands in front of the refinery.

The heart of the refinery is the furnace that pumps out pitch black smoke as it heats up the crude which transforms into the different refined products. Tanker trucks, on their way to Iran, pull up all day long and the boys clamber up and down the truck's storage tanks, making sure they are filled as quickly as possible. Often they stand over the portholes at the top watching the hot liquid gushing into the tank as they inhale lungfuls of the steam coming out.

I ask a veteran environmental engineer, what the dangers are of inhaling this steam or in fact any of the risks of touching, inhaling, or ingesting the different petroleum chemicals around the refinery. He tells me there are easily over a thousand chemicals at sites like these: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, toluene, xylene, and benzene, to name but a few.


Benzene naturally occurs in crude oil and is released when it is either burned or refined. The effects are chilling in their singularity. I ask a number of professors, doctors, and engineers what the effects of exposure are, expecting a list of diseases. All I get back is one simple word: leukemia. Not the vague pathology of 'cancer,' but, specifically,  leukemia.

 Jamal ,17, walks through steam at the refinery.

The family of Yazidis, displaced from Sinjar, live next to an oil refinery in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. The young men run the refinery 24 hours a day with little to no safety equipment.

At the end of the conversation I have with Richard Clapp, a retired professor emeritus of Public Health at Boston University, I double check the risks of benzene one last time to make sure. "That about sums it up," he tells me. "I hope they survive."

Zaidoon and his family have already have become experts in survival. Before the ISIS attack, Zaidoon had been an amateur body builder and although now he only occasionally works out with a set of tension springs, his body still retains the form. It's arguably his physical strength that saved his family six months earlier.

For Zaidoon, it all started at 9am on the morning of the attack. From the family's house in Ishkeyfia, a village on the outskirts of Sinjar, he saw thousands of people making their way toward him across the dusty landscape. Those in the lead, Zaidoon tells me, were driving. Those who were left behind to walk were captured and killed by ISIS.


The family quickly grabbed as much as they could, jumped into their cars and sped towards the mountain.

His mother and father at first refused to get out when they could drive no further, but Zaidoon reminded them that ISIS was intent on claiming ghanima, the Koranic word for 'spoils of war' and they immediately capitulated and started to climb. The temperature hovered around 120 degrees Fahrenheit as they walked through the boulders at the base of the mountain and began to ascend. Six hours later, the family sank to the ground, only 1.75 miles from where they had started.

Hayam was carrying her baby Mazal, who was only four months old. Zaidoon, thanks to his bodybuilding, was able to haul almost all of the family's supplies. Strapping on saddlebags normally used for donkeys, he carried 50 pounds of food and bottles of cooking oil and water on his own. Zaidoon guesses the supplies weighed 100 pounds all together.

That first day they only made it half way up the mountain. As night fell, the temperature dropped and the family huddled next to each other to stay warm. Zaidoon put his son in his wife's arms and then wrapped them in a thin plastic tablecloth called a sifra that Iraqis use for picnics. He then put his arms around Hayam and the baby. "I hugged my son," he tells me, "so he didn't die."

The next day they made it to the summit, but they were running out of food and water. Their pickup truck was full, but it was at the bottom of the mountain and no use to them anymore. Exhausted, sick, and terrified, they collapsed among the boulders in the blazing hot sun. As the women and younger children dozed, the men built a small shelter of stones to give them some protection for the night.


Zaidoon, 20, studies another refinery that works on what he calls "Iranian technology."

At dawn the following morning Zaidoon began the long walk down the mountain to retrieve their supplies. As he descended, he passed women carrying dead infants in their arms, glassy eyed in shock. "I'd never seen anything like this," he tells me, "not even in the movies. It's worse than any nightmare."

Seven hours later he arrived at the bottom. Sneaking through the boulders to avoid ISIS fighters, he managed to find the pick-up. He repacked food into the saddle bags and wired up the car battery to charge his cell phone. At one point he took cover when he heard the crackling of machine gun fire nearby as a fight broke out between ISIS and a group of Yazidi villagers who were fleeing up the mountain.

By two in the afternoon the phone was finally charged and he started the climb back up the mountain again. It had only taken Zaidoon seven hours to get down the mountain, but going up took an excruciating twelve. He arrived at the top at around two in the morning to find his terrified family in tears.

For six more days the family survived on top of the mountain by finding tiny puddles of filthy melted snow in small caves. When those were depleted, Ghazal and Hayam lined up at the wells with thousands of others, straining the dirty water through their headscarves.

Eventually relief came when fighters from the YPG, a Kurdish guerilla group, arrived from Syria with trucks of food, water, and fuel. The next day, Zaidoon and his family started their descent off the mountain.


I ask him if he had been afraid. "No," he laughs. "I had no idea what was going on. I was too busy keeping everything together."

Hayam, his wife, pipes up from where she's sitting a few yards away playing with Mazal in a rare clearing of clean grass, "I was terrified!"

Hayam has found one of the few clean places around the refinery where you can sit down and relax. Thick black oil is everywhere. Even the irrigation canal that was built for agriculture is full of it. Ezidiar, Zaidoon's nine year-old brother, squats in the field next to the refinery and plays with the thick slick that runs the length of the concrete channel. Below him, the viscous black stuff pools in little puddles near the edge of the river.

Ezidiar, 9, plays with an oil slick running through the agricultural land below the refinery.

One afternoon the boys go down to the river to play while Serbest manages the refinery. "Don't touch the water," Zaidoon warns me. "That's the sewage from Sulaimaniyah. All the piss and shit of a million people, right there."

He turns and says, "Dirty!" in English and grins, proud to be showing off his language skills. He then wrinkles his brow, searching for a word, but gives up and asks in Kurdish how to say 'pak' in English. "Clean," I tell him.

"Ahh. That's right. I forgot. I used to know that word, but I don't get to use it anymore and I forgot it."

Even though he's running around in the sun, Azdar, Zaidoon's sixteen year-old-brother, keeps the hood of his sweatshirt up. A month earlier he'd burned his face and hands in an explosion at the refinery. Like so many painful things in Iraq, this is treated with light derision. "Look, his face is so much more handsome now," Zaidoon teases. "The skin is whiter." Everyone laughs, including Azdar, but he's still ashamed. His deformed lips tighten a little and the hood doesn't come down.


Later Azdar and Jamal show me a cellphone video they'd shot one night when some fuel oil had overcooled and become too thick to pass through a pipe. They'd needed something to warm it up and decided to douse the pipes in gasoline and set it on fire.

In the video, the boys woot and cheer as the gasoline erupts in fireball; one even squeals a cowboy 'Yey-haw' and then howls like a wolf. If I didn't know it was an oil refinery in northern Iraq I could imagine I was camping with stoned American teenagers.

Saïd lights a cigarette while Ezidiar, 9, looks at Serdesht's, 13, phone and Ghazal watches television.

On my last evening I stand and chat with Zaidoon next to the PVC work shed. Inside Jamal and Azdar are watching sex-charged music videos and playing on their cellphones. In the blue container, Ghazal and Hayam cook dinner while Ezidiar watches the magician, Chris Angel, on the National Geographic channel.

Zaidoon gets a call and after a moment begins to talk about large sums of money. Then I hear him say, "Germany" and I realize what's going on. A few more minutes go by and Zaidoon hangs up. "It's too much," he tells me. "Eleven thousand dollars for one person; it's too much, right?"

I'm no expert in human smuggling, but I find myself giving Zaidoon advice that I hope dissuades him from trying to smuggle his whole family out of Iraq.

Three days earlier, four dinghies crossing the Mediterranean capsized and 300 people drowned. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is already expecting this year to be deadlier than last when over 3000 people drowned trying to cross into Europe.


"Can you swim?" I ask him.

"No, but I'm sure they'll give us lifejackets."

Jamal, 17, smokes flavored tobacco from a small hookah pipe inside the utility cabin.

It's time for dinner, so we make our way over to the container and take a seat on the floor. The food is simple — onions, tomatoes, and eggplant all fried together — but delicious. Between mouthfuls, I ask Ghazal what she thinks about the past six months.

"It's not a life here, but it's the only place we have," she explains to me, quiet but emphatic. "We are living, but we're dead. We eat, sleep, come and go, but we're not happy; we'll never be happy."

"Do you want to go to Germany?" I ask.

"Listen, my son needs to go abroad. I don't want to. I want to stay. Wherever I am I'll always be sad. I'll never forget what happened."

Outside the sun has already set and a chill has set in. Zaidoon switches on the electric heater, which runs off the refinery's generator, a far cry from having to hug his wife and son to keep them alive. But their struggle is far from over. Zaidoon has managed to save his family from the very visible threat of ISIS, but he now has to face more insidious threats like carbon monoxide and benzene.

For Zaidoon and his family, the displacement has only just begun. If they save enough money to leave, I know they will try to go to Europe despite the risks. He's already convinced his mother to leave their village; I'm sure he'll be able to persuade her to leave the refinery.

Ezidiar, 9, Serdesht, 13, and Saïd sleep on the floor of the shipping container the family calls home.

At around 11, everyone begins to yawn and grow drowsy. Hayam and Ghazal pull the blankets over themselves and baby Mazal. On the floor, Ezidiar, Zaidoon, and their thirteen year-old brother Serdesht curl up with their grandfather Saïd in the red glow of the electric heater. Outside in the refinery, Serbest hands over to the night shift and goes to bed in the cabin next door.

With a combined age of 33, Azdar and Jamal are now in charge of the plant. The last I see of them is at dawn the following morning, bent over the fuel oil drum, inhaling a thick fog of evaporating steam full of benzene and other chemicals. I hope they survive.

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

All photos by Sebastian Meyer

Follow Sebastian Meyer on Twitter: @sebphoto

Watch VICE News documentary, "The Battle for Iraq: Shia Militias vs. the Islamic State."

[ooyalacontent_id="czYXgxdTp6OmZb7ZoePedsu77zGRsS1N"player_id="YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5" auto_play="1" skip_ads="0"]