Photos by Eitan Arom

A Diaspora Is Born In Nebraska


Thousands of year ago, when winter came and the days grew shorter, the Mesopotamian forebears of the modern Yazidi people became anxious. They feared that their one true God would take away the sun from them, and so they fasted and prayed for mercy.

As the days grew longer and they saw God had heeded their prayers, they showed their joy and gratitude by feasting and baking batches of holy bread. Civilizations rose and fell around them, and the Yazidis continued to celebrate and praise God during the depths of winter.

But when the Ottoman Empire spread its dominion across the Middle East, a slander arose among neighboring tribes that Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel whom the Yazidis believe is their celestial protector, was actually Iblis, the devil of Islamic lore. As a result, their neighbors falsely accused them of being devil worshipers and rose up against them time and again, issuing 73 genocidal edicts aimed at their destruction. Yazidis estimate that their population numbered 23 million 700 years ago. Today, about 1 million remain, a 96 percent drop.

But the 74th genocide — a campaign of rape, pillage and murder launched by the Islamic State (ISIS) in August 2014 — accomplished what its predecessors could not: It displaced the Yazidis from the Middle East almost entirely, scattering them across Europe and to the United States.

Upon arriving in the U.S., members of this 7,000-year-old tribe, which has proven unwilling to surrender its faith and traditions, settled in greatest numbers  in Lincoln, Neb., making it the de facto Yazidi capital in America.

“The community has had enough suffering. We need to feel how we felt in Iraq — to have at least a little bit of normalcy.” — Yazda Vice President Hadi Pir

Over four days this month, Yazidis in Lincoln acted out the eternal drama of the winter equinox, observing the prehistoric festival known as Rojiet Ezi, or Days of God. With thousands of Yazidis elsewhere enslaved or missing, and hundreds of thousands more trapped in a precarious exile within Iraq, the celebration proved to be an act of resistance.

“A lot of [our] people told us, ‘Why are you organizing a celebration when our people are still suffering?’” said Hadi Pir, a Yazidi community leader who helped organize a celebration to mark the holiday’s joyous final day. “But this is who we are.”

Ever since ISIS overran northern Iraq three years ago — declaring Yazidis devil worshipers to be converted at gunpoint or obliterated — Lincoln’s Yazidi population has tripled to an estimated 3,000. The newly arrived immigrants have spent much of their time mourning loved ones or waiting desperately for news of those captured by ISIS. Celebrations have been few and restrained.

But more than 1,000 people from Lincoln’s Yazidi community showed up at a banquet hall on the city’s outskirts to celebrate Rojiet Ezi on Dec. 15.

There, the sounds of a musician in the hall playing a tanbur, a traditional Iraqi stringed instrument, poured out from speakers into the jam-packed parking lot where groups of men — some wearing red and white headscarves — stood, chain-smoking cigarettes in the freezing cold.

Inside, dancers in a wide circle locked pinkies and wound their way around the room for hours, bobbing at the knees and hips in a traditional dance called a dilan, as sugar-high children darted beneath, behind, among and between them.

Pir, vice president of the Yazidi self-help organization Yazda, which hosted the event, is a former U.S. Army interpreter with expressive green eyes. He came dressed in a suit and tie, and unlike most Yazidi men, was clean-shaven.

As the music reached a deafening volume, Pir retreated to a corner of the room to explain the holiday tradition. In modern days, he said, fasting is meant to remind Yazidis of those suffering or in need — whose numbers have skyrocketed in recent years.

“The community has had enough suffering,” Pir said, facing the crowd gathering under strings of lights and diaphanous swaths of fabric hanging from the ceiling. “We need to feel how we felt in Iraq — to have at least a little bit of normalcy.”

A warm welcome

For refugees more familiar with the mud-hut villages in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, normalcy is hard to come by in Lincoln, a city of wide lawns and rabid support for University of Nebraska football, where few neighborhoods lack at least one Nativity scene at this time of year. But the state’s relatively low cost of living and plentiful employment opportunities have long made it a popular destination for new arrivals. Many of the new arrivals, like Pir, who came in 2013 to work toward a master’s degree at the university, considered it a temporary destination.

“We miss Iraq,” Pir said. “I’ve said this too many times: We thought we were going to come here, get an education and go back. Yazidis, like many other Asian religions, are very attached to their geography.”

Pir and other Yazidis said Lincoln’s American residents have largely received them with friendliness and respect.

Anne Rickover, who teaches English as a second language and is a longtime member of the Reform South Street Synagogue, said Lincoln has a history of accommodating waves of immigrants, beginning with Vietnamese fleeing war in the 1970s. In 2016, Nebraska took in more refugees per capita than any other state in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.  Among the many ethnic groups that have come, Rickover said, “Yazidis probably had the least knowledge of the outside world of almost any group I work with.”

Indeed, an International Organization for Migration study in 2011 found that 69 percent of Yazidis in Iraq were illiterate. Rickover has become close with some Yazidi students. When she invited a couple of boys to her son’s bar mitzvah, “they were fascinated with the heat vent in the synagogue. They thought we kept sacred objects in there.”

“We weren’t sure whether we would stay here or move to the Middle East again. Then suddenly, all the Yazidis started coming here.” — Yazidi community activist Khalaf Hesso

In recent years, though, Rickover said she has watched the Yazidis transcend the depravation and persecution of their past.

“Some of them have told me that when they were in school in the Middle East, the only way they would be allowed to read was to read from the Quran, and so they would be banned from school,” she said. “To see them find their voice [in America] has been very interesting.”

With the Yazidi community’s numbers in Lincoln increasing, one of its first domestic actions was to purchase and develop a cemetery, which opened last January. The effort was spearheaded by community organizer Khalaf Hesso, who is considered an “older” Yazidi, not because of his age — he’s in his early 30s — but because he’s been in the U.S. longer than most others. In fact, he said, his extended family was the first to settle in Nebraska in 1997 when the United Nations sent them there after a brief survey of their preferences and proclivities.

“We thought our community would never be any bigger,” he said. “We weren’t sure whether we would stay here or move to the Middle East again. Then suddenly, all the Yazidis started coming here.”

Khalaf Hesso, right, drove genocide survivor Hamo Ibrahim to the newly established Yazidi cemetery in Lincoln, Neb. on Dec. 15. Before the cemetery opened, the Yazidis sent their dead back to Iraq for burial.

A sense of permanence

Although many more Yazidis have ended up in Germany than the United States — some estimate there are nearly half a million there, as opposed to well under 10,000 here — many who had worked with the U.S. military have capitalized on their service since 2014 by obtaining so-called special immigrant visas for their families. Once here, they have turned to more seasoned immigrants like Hesso for leadership.

Almost every week, Hesso said, he drives community elders to the cemetery, where they can reminisce about the homeland they’ve lost. Yazidis customarily visit their dead on holidays such as Rojiet Ezi, and on Dec. 15 Hesso brought along genocide survivor Hamo Ibrahim for a visit.

The cemetery, a 10-minute drive from Lincoln, is little more than a dirt field alongside a highway, unadorned except for a chain-link fence and a few picnic tables. Hesso hopes to add restrooms and a mortuary when funds allow. The gravesites are ringed with the circles of stones prescribed by Yazidi custom and decorated colorfully with artificial flowers and offerings to the dead. On one, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes is sealed from the elements in a plastic jar.

The cemetery is the most tangible sign that members of this monotheistic, pre-Zoroastrian faith — whose origins pre-date Judaism’s by more than 1,000 years — see a long-term future in America.

Walking among the sparse gravesites, Hesso explained that before the recent genocide the deceased were almost always sent back to Iraq or Syria to be buried. Hopes of returning to the Middle East dimmed in 2014, however, as did whatever sense of impermanence still existed among Lincoln’s Yazidis.

“That’s when we really put a lot of our energy and time toward building a cemetery,” Hesso said.

Since January, a half-dozen Yazidis have been buried on the land, including two who were exhumed from other area cemeteries, and another who died in Canada but was brought to Lincoln to be buried.

As Hesso talked, Ibrahim, who spoke little English, stood by the fence smoking cigarettes, dressed in a khaki overcoat and a red and white headscarf. Ibrahim’s gray, tobacco-stained mustache and missing bottom teeth made him appear older than his 51 years — most of which he spent farming on the northern slope of Mount Sinjar, in a mountain range of Iraq that historically has served as a refuge for Yazidis fleeing hostile armies.

There, in August 2014, when calls began to come in from villagers south of Mount Sinjar that ISIS was on the march, Ibrahim’s family joined an exodus of cars, trucks and people on foot fleeing up the mountain. “Ten lines of cars from every different direction — everybody trying to escape ISIS,” he said, with Hesso translating.

Almost 7,000 Yazidis were kidnapped and another 3,000 were executed on the spot. Virtually the entire Yazidi population of Sinjar, estimated at 400,000 by the United Nations before the massacre, was displaced.

Ibrahim’s family members were among the lucky ones: They made their way from Sinjar to a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan before finding their way to Lincoln.

At the cemetery, when it came time to leave, Ibrahim bent down at each grave to touch the headstone and then kiss his hand.

Reaching out to help

That afternoon, Ibrahim sat in the living room of the cramped townhome he shares with his large family in a working-class neighborhood on Lincoln’s periphery. Guests stopped in to wish the family an ezidiya pirozibe — a blessed festival — and drop off plastic bags full of sodas and baked goods.

As the men gathered for tea in the living room, sitting on couches or cross-legged on the floor, Ibrahim plucked at a tanbur that he had fashioned in his basement workshop. Meanwhile, Ibrahim’s wife, Naam, and daughter Hadyah worked in the garage, baking a traditional holiday flatbread called sawek on an improvised tandoor — a blue, waist-high drum with a propane flame topped with a convex metal plate. It was their first time making the holiday bread since they immigrated in 2015, they said.

Yazidis Celebrate in Nebraska

How a community of 3,000 Yazidis are finding reason to celebrate after fleeing genocide.Read Eitan Arom's beautiful cover story here:http://jewishjournal.com/cover_story/228865/diaspora-born-nebraska/

Posted by Jewish Journal on Thursday, December 21, 2017

Most American Yazidis have family members living in squalid camps or who are unaccounted for, and many bear deep psychological wounds. Since his exile, Ibrahim has suffered from debilitating depression and hasn’t found work. He breaks up his days by fashioning the stringed instruments out of wood imported from Iraq, as well as wooden miniatures of the unique conical domes favored by Yazidis for their temples. His son Saeed is learning the craft.

Saeed, 23, speaking in a halting English that he’s slowly improving in community college, explained his appreciation for his father’s hobby. “People these days, they don’t care about old stuff,” he said.

As Saeed spoke, Ibrahim sat on his living room couch and then lifted the tanbur up to his face. “This … ” he said, planting a kiss on the instrument’s slender neck, “ … Yazidi!”

In the United States, the key to preserving Yazidi customs and traditions is to build a community around them, said Gulie Khalaf, one of Lincoln’s Yazidi activists. “Everything about our heritage and way of life will be lost without a community,” she said.

Like Pir and Hesso, Khalaf is among a cadre of activists who have emerged since the genocide, each putting their lives on hold to help displaced Yazidis in the Middle East and, as time has passed, to put the ballooning American diaspora on solid footing.

Khalaf had taken a semester off of teaching middle-school English in 2014 to prepare for a family trip to Iraq. But then Mosul fell to ISIS, imperiling the Yazidi homeland. Her family canceled their trip, but she used her time off from school to raise awareness of the genocide, eventually traveling to Iraq in a delegation of global Yazidi leaders. Soon, her activism took on a life of its own, and she scrapped plans to resume teaching full time.

Her focus in Lincoln has since shifted to setting up services and doing community-building for new immigrants, which she hopes will bolster their ability to practice their traditions. She co-founded the nonprofit Yezidi International (“Yezidi” is an alternate), which offers English instruction and driving classes to older Yazidi women.

Rickover, the Jewish teacher of English as a second language, is among the volunteer tutors. She said although the Jewish community has discussed how to help Yazidis, it has done little more than participate in interfaith gatherings that include them. “I honestly don’t understand why we don’t do more,” she said. “I think people don’t know what to do.”

Most American Yazidis have family members living in squalid camps or who are unaccounted for, and many bear deep psychological wounds.

While Khalaf acknowledged that some Yazidi customs will erode — the taboo about wearing blue is widely ignored among younger Yazidis, for example — she’s nonetheless optimistic that a sense of identity and tradition will carry on to younger generations.

Khalaf now works as a substitute teacher to accommodate her activism. She recalled that earlier that day, at the public school where she was teaching, a group of Yazidi students asked her, “Miss, are you fasting?”

“I tried to swallow my gum when the kids asked, but they noticed,” she said.
When they laughed at her, Khalaf said, she shooed them from the classroom, and told them to go to lunch. “They’re like, ‘What lunch?’” she said. “‘We’re going to the library. We’re fasting.’ ”

Thoughts of home in their new home

The Yazidi community’s modest means and rapid growth have meant that they have few places to call their own in Lincoln, other than private homes. But one well-established gathering place is the Golden Scissor, a barbershop operated by Hasan Khalil.

The barbershop doubles as a sound studio for Khalil and his friends to play and record music — both contemporary and traditional — and as a hangout for young Yazidi men. A mural on a wall showed Lalish, a mountain valley that’s home to the Yazidis’ holiest shrines, while a poster perched above a  doorway read “Huskers Man Cave,” a nod to the local university teams’ nickname — the Cornhuskers.

On the last fast day of Rojiet Ezi, a few men waited for a haircut from Khalil that they could sport at the party the next day. Among them was Naji Majo, 23, who came to the U.S. six years ago with his family from a small, predominantly Yazidi city called Khana Sour, where clashes between Kurdish and Yazidi fighters have broken out in recent months.

“I wish I could visit there, see my house,” he said. “But it’s kind of too risky.”

Majo said he appreciates the comforts of Lincoln that Iraq lacked — like ubiquitous indoor heating — but is chagrined by the political instability plaguing Iraqi Yazidis there.

“You fast for good things to happen, but instead, bad things happen every day,” said Majo, who decided not to participate in the voluntary fast this year.

Yazidi customs can be a point of tension between youth and their elders. The day before, Majo said, his grandfather caught him smoking a cigarette during daylight, a breach of the fast’s rules, and scolded him: “‘Are you even Yazidi?’”

But others in the barbershop said they chose to fast, and after night fell, Khalil’s brother Khaled disappeared into a back room and brought out a plate piled high with fruit, pastries and sawek.

Yazidis often have looked to rituals during times of distress. As ISIS surrounded the Yazidi village of Kocho in August 2014, the townspeople gathered at the home of a villager, a man named Khalaf, to practice the ritual of Batzmi, an offering of holy bread to God, according to Nadia Murad, a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

“Khalaf began to pray,” Murad wrote in her recent book, “The Last Girl.” “‘May the God of this holy bread take my soul as a sacrifice for the whole village,’ he said, and the weeping grew louder. Some of the men tried to calm their wives, but I thought it was brave, not weak, to cry there in Khalaf’s house where the sound might carry out to the checkpoints.”

Some customs have been adapted by necessity to Nebraska’s culture and climate. Traditionally, for example, Rojiet Ezi is celebrated by going from home to home to deliver and consume sweets and other goods, a practice that’s much easier in a small village than a freezing Midwestern city where urban sprawl makes cars a near-necessity.

Instead, at the banquet hall on Dec. 15, families each claimed a table of their own, piling it with candies, baked goods, fruits, sodas and boxes of Turkish delight, and inviting friends and neighbors to partake. When space at the round banquet tables ran out, folding tables were set up to accommodate the overflow.

According to some in attendance, this year’s Rojiet Ezi festival in Lincoln was the largest cultural or religious gathering of Yazidis in America.

“To be honest with you, the first couple of years it was hard for us to celebrate,” said Jameel Zandnan, 29, as he watched the banquet hall fill up. “But there’s no reason to give up. We have to fight.”

He recalled how ISIS chased his family members up Mount Sinjar — where they spent 10 days in heat that regularly broke 100 degrees — and, in the process, recognized their Sunni Muslim neighbors helping the terrorists.

As Zandnan spoke, his niece, a toddler dressed in a traditional Yazidi outfit of white sequins and gold bangles, clapped her hands and bobbed to the music.

When Zandnan first came to America in 2014, he went to Houston, but he soon packed up and moved to Lincoln. “I decided to spend my life here,” he said.

Gesturing out to the rapidly filling hall, he added, “This is the only place where I can come to have a piece of home. I don’t believe in Iraq anymore, but I miss it.”

Week of December 22, 2017


Yazidi leaders demand ‘Jewish Schindler’ prove he is saving people


A group of Yazidi spiritual leaders, politicians, activists and aid workers have demanded that the Jewish Montreal businessman claiming to have rescued 128 Christian and Yazidi women and children from the Islamic State, or ISIS, provide evidence that he is saving lives.

Steve Maman has been nicknamed the “Jewish Schindler” for founding the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq project, which purports to have saved 128 women and children from sex slavery and abuse at the hands of ISIS.

In a letter published on Wednesday by Vice News, 20 advocates for the Yazidis questioned Maman’s methods and demanded that he inform Yazidi leaders about the specific people his group has rescued.

“All signatories to this letter welcome any legitimate assistance provided to the Yazidi community and any legitimate project that serves the health and wellbeing[sic] of the Yazidis will receive our support,” the letter states. “However it is imperative that any organization claiming to conduct such a high-level project, especially one that deals so visibly with such sensitive problems, recognize the need for accountability and open itself to the scrutiny of the leadership of the Yazidi community.”

Maman has said that his group, which up to Tuesday had raised $580,000 through a public GoFundMe campaign, does not negotiate with ISIS but funds intermediaries who rescue women and children.

“We don’t deal with ISIS, and that’s good enough for me,” Maman told the Canadian Broadcast Corp.

However, the letter – whose signers include the supreme spiritual leader of the Yazidis, Babasheikh Kherto Ismael; a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, Vian Dhakil; and the heads of Yazda, a Yazidi rights advocacy group – raises several issues with the way Maman has conducted his work.

First, the letter claims that while Maman has taken credit for rescuing Christians, there is no evidence that ISIS has abused Christian women. The signees also claim that when CYCI said it had rescued 102 people several weeks ago, it had only raised around $80,000 – a sum that seemed impossibly low, the letter’s signers said.

The letter also argues that Maman has “has brought a high level of visibility to a delicate and sensitive rescue effort that should have been kept low-profile.”

“We are concerned that this may be reckless,” the letter reads.

Maman told Vice News that he has not revealed the names of all 128 people he has saved in order to protect their identities and to uphold the integrity of the work his group is doing. He said that some people, if provided with names and information about those he has rescued, might take credit for the rescues.

Maman also told Vice News on Tuesday that he was going to have journalists accompany future rescue trips, including one on Wednesday, to bear witness to his group’s work. On Friday, Maman shared the testimony of a man named Sean Moore, who claimed to have “Canadian International PRESS[sic] creds,” on Facebook.

“I can tell you Mr. Steve Maman is loved here for the work he has done,” Moore wrote. “The VICE report is not accurate at all.”

JTA could not verify Moore’s press credentials.

As of Friday, the CYCI GoFundMe campaign has been shut down, but the project was still taking donations on its website.

Maman had also told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that his Jewish roots inspired him to undertake the project.

“What motivated me is very simple … being Jewish, being part of a people that actually survived the Holocaust,” Maman said.

Letters to the editor: Leonard Fein, Dr. Jose Nessim and ISIS


ISIS Atrocities 

Rob Eshman is to be commended for discussing one of the most disturbing and savage events currently on the planet — the barbaric slaughter of Christians Kurds and Yazidis in Iraq by Islamic Nazis: ISIS (“When Christians Die,” Aug. 15). Several points, though, should be made. As Eshman points out, the silence from Christian communities around the world is deafening. Groups like the Presbyterian Church USA are much more concerned with the plight of the Palestinians who, based on Middle Eastern history, would be first to eradicate Arab Christians as they have in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the Muslim world.  

The frustrating element here, though, is that Hamas, al-Qaida and ISIS are individual teams within the larger league of Sunni Muslim jihadists, as Eshman pointed out. The biased media worldwide treats Hamas as if it is a Hindu pacifist group rather than connecting the dots: If Israel didn’t have the capabilities to defend herself, her fate would have been similar to the Christians of Iraq.

Richard Friedman, Los Angeles


Liberal Deliberations

I was raised, and have raised my children, with liberal values: the rights of all people to be equal, to live a life free from injustice and persecution, to pursue peace and happiness. Inherent to my beliefs of how my fellow man should be treated is the assumption that my fellow man will not try to kill me or deny my right to exist. A liberal who stands by while his house is being bombed isn’t a good liberal; he’s a dead man. I applaud David Suissa’s article, “How Liberal Critics Failed Israel” (Aug. 22), as a thoughtful, and necessary, gut-check for all those who care about preserving and spreading liberal values.  

Stephen Kessler, via email 

David Suissa’s article is just an updated version of the old canard that Jews “shouldn’t wash Israel’s dirty laundry in public.” Progressive, pro-Israel American Jews, like those who support Americans for Peace Now, reject this transparent effort to shut down debate and give cover for policies that are anathema to everything we believe — as Jews, as Americans and as supporters of Israel. Today in Israel, our friends and colleagues are likewise under attack, both rhetorical and physical, from extremists who similarly want to shut down debate. They will not be cowed, and neither will we. We do not apologize for focusing on the imperative of achieving a two-state solution to end the occupation, because the occupation — which for nearly five decades Israel has expanded and deepened with its indefensible settlement policies — is destroying Israel. While Suissa seems mainly concerned about defending Israel’s reputation, we are far more concerned with defending Israel’s survival as a pluralistic, democratic, Jewish state.

Sanford Weiner and Steven Kaplan, Los Angeles area regional co-chairs, David Pine, regional director–Americans for Peace Now

David Suissa responds:

My friends at Americans for Peace Now believe in the value of criticism, except, apparently, when they are the recipients. Then, it becomes an attempt to “shut down debate.” No one is trying to shut down debate. On the contrary, this is a healthy debate about priorities. For those of us in the Diaspora who love Israel, what is the priority? To pressure Israelis to make peace — as if we know something that they don’t? Or is it to defend Israel against unfair attacks from a world that all too often judges Israel based on a double standard? If all we focus on is Israel’s failure to make peace, we cover up Israel’s extraordinary record of tikkun olam and social activism, and reinforce the global lie that Israel is an illiberal demon. Whether or not that’s good for Israel is a healthy debate. 


May Their Memories Be a Blessing

The sad news of Dr. Jose Nessim’s death brought me back to Paramount Studios, where I had the pleasure of presenting him with the 2008 Cohon Award for his work in the field of education and information, which brought benefit to klal Yisra’el — the total Jewish People — by bringing so many young Sephardim closer to us all. His spirit as embodied in the Sephardic Education Center in Jerusalem will surely continue to inspire a new generation to honor his memory.

Rabbi Baruch Cohon via email

It really is so good to have Rob Eshman’s voice back in the Jewish Journal.

His column this week really brings Leibel (Leonard Fein) to all of us (What Would Leonard Say?” Aug. 22). He was a dear friend — we worked together and shared a suite of offices at the then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York (now Union for Reform Judaism). We often sat over coffee and just talked about life. I had him out to Mount Sinai some years ago to spend time with my senior staff and “just talk.” They fell in love with him and did not want him to leave — he brought a unique thinking ability and a graciousness that will never be replaced.

Thank you for remembering him in such a meaningful way.

Len Lawrence, general manager, Mount Sinai Parks

‘Terrorists’ help U.S. in battle against Islamic State in Iraq


Washington has acquired an unlikely ally in its battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq – a group of fighters it formally classifies as terrorists.

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), condemned for its three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state, says it played a decisive role in blunting the militants' sweep through Iraq, which triggered U.S. air strikes to halt their advance.

“This war will continue until we finish off the Islamic State,” said Rojhat, a PKK fighter speaking from a hospital bed in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in Iraq.

The involvement of the PKK has consequences not only for rival Kurdish factions who failed to stop the Islamic State's advance, but also for Turkey and the international community, which is being lobbied by the PKK to drop the terrorist tag.

Rojhat, 33, was wounded for a third time in the battle to retake the northern Iraqi town of Makhmur from the Islamic State after the militants – deemed too extreme even for al Qaeda – routed the region's vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The first two times he was fighting Turkish forces, part of a conflict which killed 40,000 people between its beginnings in 1984 with demands for Kurdish independence from Turkey and a ceasefire in March 2013.

His role highlights the challenge the PKK represents for Ankara, which still views it as terrorist but feels seriously threatened by the Islamic State, which has seized dozens of its citizens and decapitated an American hostage this week.

Thanks to Rojhat and his comrades-in-arms, residents of Makhmur who fled in terror at an onslaught that threatened Arbil, 60 km (40 miles) away, are now returning to assess the damage.

They have already sprayed over graffiti that reads: “the Islamic State is here to stay”.

“This is not just about Makhmur: this is about Kurdistan,” said PKK commander Sadiq Goyi, seated beneath a banner of the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, referring to Kurdish-inhabited land in Syria and Iran as well as Turkey and Iraq.

“Islamic State is a danger to everyone, so we must fight them everywhere”.

An armed sister group of the PKK – People's Defense Units (YPG) – has carved out an autonomous zone in Syria's northeast, successfully fending off attacks by IS militants who have proclaimed a caliphate straddling the frontier with Iraq.

When the militants overran peshmerga positions in northwestern Iraq, YPG fighters crossed over from Syria and evacuated thousands of minority Yazidis left stranded on a mountain with scant food and water.

“The PKK is our hero,” said 26-year-old Hussein, one of hundreds of Yazidis being trained by YPG fighters at several camps inside Syria to fight the Islamic State.

PKK commanders say guerrillas have been dispatched to the front line in the cities of Kirkuk and Jalawla as well. They declined to give numbers and fierce fighting makes their statements hard to verify.

PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE

Turkish security forces began clearing villages suspected of sympathizing with the PKK during the 1990s, displacing thousands of Kurds, some of whom fled to Iraq and eventually settled in a camp in Makhmur, recently turned into a base for PKK guerrillas.

The word “Apo”, nickname for Ocalan, is scrawled on walls around the camp, which held more than 10,000 residents until the Islamic State's incursion.

A lone pair of socks still dangles from a washing line and unpicked grapes have begun to shrivel on the vine. The thud of artillery can be heard from the new front line with the Islamic state, several kilometers away.

The militants' surge towards Kurdistan destroyed the aura of invincibility surrounding the region's peshmerga forces, which had not fought for years and ultimately proved no match for fighters armed with weapons plundered from the Iraqi army.

PKK commanders however say the militants' main weapon is fear: “They are waging psychological warfare,” Goyi said. “Islamic State are not as powerful as they're thought to be”.

The PKK's newfound role may prove most worrying to its historic competitor, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The two have long vied for leadership of the Kurdish community across the borders of Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq.

With Kurdish forces from all four countries fighting the same enemy for the first time, for now at least, PKK guerillas and peshmerga stand side by side at checkpoints on the road to Makhmur. Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and also head of the KDP visited the camp himself to thank PKK commanders for their assistance.

But tensions are not far beneath the surface.

A senior KDP official said the PKK's involvement would discourage the international community from providing the Kurds with advanced weapons to match Islamic State's arsenal. “We don't need them,” he said of the PKK, accusing it of seeking to discredit the KDP.

The wounded guerrilla Rojhat said the PKK was more organized and disciplined than the peshmerga, and its tactics better suited to fighting Islamic State, even without the kind of military hardware Iraqi Kurds are seeking.

“This is how we fought the Turkish army for years,” Rojhat said. “War is an act of faith”.

“NO NEED TO PANIC”

Ankara has made little comment on the latest conflict in Iraq, smarting from allegations, which it firmly denies, that its support for Sunni opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad helped the Islamic State to grow and fearing for the fate of dozens of its citizens the militants have captured.

But Turkish officials played down concern the PKK would be embolded by its role in Iraq into stirring unrest in Turkey, seeing the fight against Islamic State as a separate issue from their struggle with Ankara for Kurdish rights.

“In Iraq there is a crisis and the PKK has engaged in this fight along with other elements there,” a senior Turkish government official told Reuters, adding that he did not see its engagement there as permanent.

“There is no fear of a division in Turkey or a fear of unification of the Kurdish population outside of Turkey. Since there are no demands through armed conflict or violence from the PKK in Turkey, there is no need to panic,” the official said, asking for anonymity to allow him to speak more freely.

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said this week the government may hold direct talks with the guerrillas, whose leader Ocalan is jailed on an island in the Marmara Sea. It proposes a plan involving the disarmament and reintegration of fighters into Turkish society.

The PKK see the new enemy and the old as very much linked, accusing Turkey of funding and sending Islamists to fight Kurds on their behalf in Syria, allegations Ankara denies.

But it has dropped its demand for a separate state for Kurds in Turkey's southeast in favor of devolution of power in each of the four countries across which Kurds are divided.

A European diplomat in Ankara said that the PKK would see its actions in Iraq, in particular its help in protecting members of the Yazidi community, as helping a diplomatic push to persuade the European Union to remove it from its list of terrorist groups.

“It is quite paradoxical that an organization proscribed as a terrorist group by the EU appears to have played such a significant role (against Islamic State),” the diplomat said.

“They’re challenging the legal basis on which the EU proscribed them in the first place. They will see all of what has been happening in the past few days as grist to that mill.”

The European Union, however, would be highly unlikely to make any such move without Turkish agreement, he said.

“The Turks would be strongly against … We’re not at the stage where Turkey would be willing to contemplate anything like that, absolutely not.”

Why doesn’t the world seem to care when Christians die?


When Jews are killed, we make sure the world knows. When Palestinians are killed, the Web explodes. So why is it that when Christians are murdered and persecuted en masse, no one seems to care — not even other Christians?

We see this mystery playing out in Iraq with the hundreds of thousands of members of Christian minorities whose deaths have not yet provoked an outcry. 

It was only last week, when the torture and killing had reached such extreme levels that the world began to take notice, that President Barack Obama ordered United States humanitarian and military intervention to rescue some 40,000 members of the Yazidis, a non-Muslim minority cornered by radical Muslims on a mountain outside of Mosul. 

“It’s a full-scale genocide,” Nuri Kino, a Swedish-Assyrian journalist, told me recently. “They are bombing near Mosul as we speak.  It’s so frustrating to hear the U.S. media say this is so sudden and surprising. Systematic ethnic cleansing has been going on from day one, and it’s going to get worse.”

For 10 years, Kino has been writing about the growing strength of fundamentalist Sunni groups in Iraq and Syria, and of their persecution of those countries’ non-Muslim groups. 

What Kino has been writing and speaking about for years is now on CNN. But when I reached him by phone last week in Sweden, just before his next secret trip into the Middle East, Kino was far too emotionally wrought to feel vindicated.

A fundamentalist Sunni Muslim group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over swaths of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is murdering, pillaging and exiling thousands of people from other ethnic and religious groups. ISIS gives Christians who live in the many villages in northern Iraq a choice: Convert to Islam, leave or be killed.

“Being a Turkmen, a Shabak, a Yazidi or a Christian in [Islamic State] territory can cost you your livelihood, your liberty or even your life,” Human Rights Watch’s Middle East executive director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a press release on Saturday from Iraqi Kurdistan.

As of last week, America has finally taken notice — and action. Kino and others fighting for the cause worry that tomorrow the airdrops and the spotlight will disappear, but the problem won’t. 

The Yazidis are an ancient minority whose religion recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but also combines elements of Zoroastrianism, Islam and other local traditions. They are just the latest target in ISIS’ genocidal campaign focused largely on Christian minorities.

Assyrians are Christians who speak a linguistic relative of Aramaic. Of the 2 million Assyrians worldwide, about 400,000 live in the United States. Only 250,000 remain in their homeland.  

There, ISIS’ documented abuses include executing Assyrian women who refuse to wear a hijab; raping a mother and daughter for not paying a religious tax; destroying the purported tomb of the Prophet Jonah, whom Assyrians revere; kidnapping; forced sexual slavery; and depriving refugees of clean water and food.

Since taking power from the Iraq army, ISIS has gone on a spree of killing and forcibly exiling all of the Assyrian, Chaldean and other Christian communities in its path. As far back as 2007, ISIS bombed a Yazidi village and killed 500 people.

In July, in Mosul, ISIS thugs painted the Arabic letter ن (noon) on the doors of Christian homes after their original inhabitants fled, were forced out or murdered. ن is the first letter of the Arabic Nasrani, the word for Christians.

The Assyrian diaspora community in Europe and America has been trying, without success, to draw the world’s attention to this campaign of intimidation and terror. A group called A Demand for Action organized a series of protests across the United States earlier this month, including one in front of the Federal Building in Westwood that drew about 200 marchers, mostly local Assyrians and Chaldeans.

“It is a modern-day Holocaust,” Suzan Younan, the organization’s spokeswoman, told me. “I compare Jewish homes that the Nazis painted a Star of David on with Christian homes that ISIS painted an ‘N’ on. There is a another genocide happening as we speak.”

What especially frustrates Kino is that this has been going on with almost no outcry from American politicians or religious leaders.

“We hear, ‘Gaza, Gaza, Gaza.’ ‘Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine.’  But where are the Christian leaders of the United States?” Kino demanded, his voice breaking. “These people are the roots of Christianity. They speak Jesus’ mother tongue. Shame on Sarah Palin, all those so-called good Christians. Shame on both Democrats and Republicans.”

Kino heaped scorn on American politicians who didn’t see this genocide coming.

The region is full of ethnic minorities with competing claims and agendas. The Assyrians are the largest of the Christian minorities, buffeted on one side by Kurds, who want the oil-rich Nineveh plains — the Assyrian ancestral homelands — as part of a future Kurdistan, and on the other by ISIS, which wants them gone, or dead.

Saddam Hussein granted Iraq’s forced-together minorities their religious rights, even as he denied them political rights. The Ba’athist Assad family ruled neighboring Syria the same way.

At the risk of raising the back hairs of died-in-the-wool partisans, much of the blame for the current debacle belongs to the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

“When the U.S. invaded Iraq,” Kino said, “it was amazing how unaware they were of the different sects of Islam and other religions. But this genocide was easy to predict. It’s what happens when you take power from the Sunnis and give it to the Shiites, then you guys leave the country and the Shiites discriminate, then of course the radicals will react.”

Fundamentalist Sunni groups have been marauding through the area for decades. Ideologically, they are the spawn of the extreme ideology that bred the Muslim Brotherhood — Hamas and al-Qaida.  

“ISIS is just al-Qaida. There’s no difference,” said Kino, who wrote a novel, The Line in the  Sand,  and an as-yet-unproduced screenplay about the Assyrians’ plight.

But this is the difference between ISIS and many radical Islamist groups: ISIS has plenty of guns and money. Where ISIS has overpowered the Iraqi army, it has captured the latest American weaponry. It controls oil fields and their revenues, and some $400 million it extracted from Mosul banks when it captured the city.

Savina Dawood, who represents A Demand for Action in Iraq, works among the refugees in the Kurdish city of Erbil, helping them find places to stay, medical care and supplies. When I reached her by phone there, she said the U.S. humanitarian relief to the Yazidis hasn’t noticeably relieved the Assyrian situation.

“This has had no impact,” she said. “People are still displaced, and they haven’t gone back to their homes.”

Dawood, 24, an Assyrian native of Erbil, has collected stories of extreme hardship. In the town of Singal, Iraq, she was told that ISIS took hundreds of women captive to serve as sex partners for the ISIS fighters. In Erbil, she met women whose husbands had been taken by ISIS weeks ago and have yet to be seen. 

Meanwhile, Assyrian refugees crowd into churches, public parks and community buildings around Erbil and other larger towns — protected, for now, by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. 

Dawood said she has no idea when, or if, they will ever be able to return to their homes.

I asked her if the Assyrians have received any help from the international community.

“The attention we’re getting internationally is only from our own people outside Iraq, not others,” she said, speaking of the Assyrian Christian diaspora. “ISIS is trying to force us out of our ancestral country because we are indigenous people, and we are Christians. But we are also human. So if people don’t care about Christians or indigenous people, fine, but can they help us as humans?”

Helping the non-Muslim minorities in Syria and Iraq and stopping ISIS will take long-term resolve. Kino and others say the best way to begin is to immediately establish a safe haven in northern Iraq’s Nineveh plains. United Nations forces, or other international security forces, can be deployed to protect them from attack.  

The Assyrians want their safe haven to evolve eventually into an autonomous nation of their own, where they can protect themselves. A hundred years ago, at least 250,000 Assyrians were slaughtered in the genocide perpetrated by the Young Turks regime that decimated the Armenian population as well. Now, a hundred years later, they face a second round of extermination. Carving their own bit of land out of an oil-soaked swath of Kurdistan and Iraq with no army and no international support may be a distant dream.

In the meantime, what they most want, and need, is protection and assistance from an indifferent world.

“The international community must help us,” Dawood said.  “Their silence means they are fine with it.”


For more information and for ways to help, visit this column at jewishjournal.com. Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @foodaism.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com.

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