A Diaspora Is Born In Nebraska

December 20, 2017
Photos by Eitan Arom

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.


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.”

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