LINCOLN, Nebraska: Iekhan Safar moved from Iraq to a city in the middle of the American heartland for the same reason as hundreds of Yezidis, a Kurdish religious minority: to live near family, far from the dangers they’ve long faced as a persecuted group.
Lincoln, the capital of the state of Nebraska, has the largest concentration of Yezidis in the United States, and many of them brought their families to America after receiving visas for serving as translators during the first Gulf War. Now, the city is at the center of a frantic effort to draw attention to the group’s plight in northern Iraq, where Yezidis are fleeing from ISIS militants to escape violence and attempts to convert them to Islam.
Thousands of homeless Yezidi families are packed into a refugee camp on a remote desert Sinjar mountain range near Iraq’s northern border, where there is little access to food, water or shelter. Safar, a mother of three, says her sisters and their children face an uncertain future there. One sister called this week in tears: Her 3-year-old daughter fell off a cliff and died in the rush to escape the extremists.
“I just hope they bring them here. At least they’d be safe,” Safar said through tears in her Lincoln apartment. “They’ll work hard. They just want their kids to be safe.”
Yezidis in Lincoln say they’re grateful for the humanitarian airdrops and airstrikes against militants that President Barack Obama ordered last week, but fearful that their loved ones can no longer live peacefully in Iraq.
Uncertain of what to do, Yezidis staged a hastily organized rally at the Nebraska Capitol and the governor’s residence this month and reached out to Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, who along with four other congressmen sent a letter to Obama calling for immediate humanitarian assistance. They also sent five vans of people to Washington to appeal to the State Department, asking for food, water and protection for their relatives.
Yezidis have suffered religious persecution for generations because of their beliefs, which include some elements similar to Christianity, Judaism and other ancient religions. Many Muslims consider them devil worshippers, an accusation that Yezidis strongly dispute.
Those who didn’t flee into the mountains are still in their homes in the town of Sinjar, making whispered phone calls to relatives in Lincoln as extremists roam the streets outside. Relatives have received reports of women in northern Iraq being raped or having body parts cut off, and Yezidis being threatened with death if they don’t convert to Islam, said Laila Khoudeida, a spokeswoman for the Lincoln community.
Khoudeida said Yezidis in the U.S. are asking for continued military protection and possible asylum for those left homeless. If granted, many would likely join relatives in Lincoln, where roughly half the nation’s Yezidi population – about 200 families – lives.
The first families came over to the United States in two waves – after the first Gulf War and then the U.S. invasion in 2003 – under a special visa for military translators and congregated in Buffalo, New York, and Atlanta. Church groups in Nebraska and volunteer families heard about the Yezidis’ situation and offered to help, said Gulie Khalaf, Safar’s sister-in-law and a sixth-grade teacher in Lincoln. The population slowly grew in the city southwest of Omaha, which was quieter and offered less poverty and crime than the bigger cities.
“Once a small group of relatives establishes a home base somewhere, it serves as a magnet for other families,” said Sebastian Maisel, a professor of Middle East Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who has extensively researched Yezidis. “It’s the way that many communities from the Middle East like to live. They rely on a support network in the larger community.”
Safar’s husband came to the U.S. with his family in the 1990s after spending seven years with his siblings and parents in a refugee camp in Syria. He eventually made it to Lincoln. Safar joined him and some of his family in 2006, but her sisters remain overseas and under attack.
“For Yezidis, it’s no longer safe to be in the Middle East,” Khalaf said. “The Middle Eastern countries’ rules and laws do not protect religious minorities.”