Yazidis Settle in Nebraska, but Roots Run Deep in Iraq

LINCOLN, Neb. — They came to America seeking the freedom to pray and work in peace. But in death, many hoped to be buried among the hills of their homeland, in northern Iraq.

Yet for the past year, the Yazidi community of Lincoln, about 1,000 strong, has watched in horror as Islamic State militants ransacked ancestral villages, took women as slaves and slaughtered hundreds of people, turning the Sinjar region into a war zone. The prospects of going back, even in a coffin, are bleak.

So the Yazidi elders of Lincoln, which is thought to have the largest Yazidi population in America, have begun contemplating what for many might once have seemed unthinkable.

They would like to build a cemetery in Nebraska.

“After what happened back home, we lost our land, we lost our home, we didn’t have anything left,” said Sheikh Hassan Hassan, a Yazidi clergyman in his 50s living in Lincoln. “People said, ‘If someone dies over here, what are we going to do?’ ”

Yazidis, a tiny religious minority in Iraq, have for nearly 20 years sought refuge in Nebraska’s capital, attracted by a low crime rate, plentiful jobs and affordable rents. Many have raised children here, learned English and even become fans of the University of Nebraska’s Cornhuskers football team. Still, their attachments to the homeland remain strong.

“Most of the Yazidis are not really wealthy,” Mr. Hassan, who left Iraq in 2009 and came to Lincoln two years later, said through an interpreter. “Most of the money they make goes back to their families.”

As conditions have worsened in Iraq, more Yazidis have arrived. Zeyad Eesa, 27, came to town about five months ago with his wife and two children. Other Yazidis furnished his modest but comfortable apartment near downtown Lincoln with used sofas and chairs. A local charity helped him find a job at an all-you-can-eat buffet and provided a van he could drive to work. His older son is making friends at a public elementary school.

The transition, Mr. Eesa said, has been smooth.

“Here it’s freedom,” he said. “It’s a free country. Nobody asks you what religion you are.”

But even as Mr. Eesa settles into a routine in Middle America, his mind is never far from Iraq, which he fled last year as the Islamic State advanced. Using Facebook, he still checks in regularly with friends and relatives overseas. Too often, the accounts are grim.

“I have to know,” Mr. Eesa said. “I think about them every day.”

So does Gulie Khalaf, who left her job as a teacher here last year and helped start Yezidis International, a nonprofit in Lincoln that works to assist Yazidis around the world. (The group uses an alternate spelling for the religion that is favored by many of its adherents.) Ms. Khalaf spends many evenings in Facebook chats with Yazidis in refugee camps, where her organization hopes to establish more educational programs.

“We’re lucky to be here,” said Ms. Khalaf, who was raised in a refugee camp in Syria in the 1980s and moved to the United States as a teenager. “We have a chance to speak for the people back home.”

There had been longstanding tensions between Yazidis, who practice an ancient faith that includes a belief in reincarnation, and larger religious groups. But no persecution from the recent past compared with what happened in August 2014 at the hands of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

ISIS, whose attacks on ethnic and religious groups have been characterized by the United Nations human rights office as possible genocide, cornered Yazidis on a remote mountain without provisions. Many Yazidis were executed or raped, and President Obama was prompted to authorize airstrikes and humanitarian aid. Many Yazidis ended up in refugee camps in the Middle East, where they have found relative safety but limited opportunity.

Ms. Khalaf understands their predicament. She said her family fled Iraq in the 1980s, before she was born, during that country’s war with Iran. The family returned briefly, but then left again during the Persian Gulf war.

Ms. Khalaf moved from place to place as a child, eventually going from refugee camps to Atlanta and then Buffalo, where she and her family were among a handful of Yazidis. After college, she came to Lincoln to be part of a larger Yazidi community.

“You see them in Walmart,” she said, “and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re everywhere.’ ”

The Yazidis in Lincoln, a city of about 270,000, are simultaneously tight-knit and loosely organized. They meet in their apartments and congregate in the parks on weekends: Lincoln has no Yazidi community center, house of worship or commercial district.

For many years, Yazidis would observe religious holidays by renting out a banquet hall. But since the Islamic State started its massacres, those occasions have been canceled. No one feels like celebrating.

“Everyone’s just too sad, too upset, about what’s going on back home,” Ms. Khalaf said.

Still they have continued building their lives in Lincoln. Last fall, Hasan Khalil, a Yazidi who spent part of his childhood in the same refugee camp as Ms. Khalaf, opened Golden Scissor Barber Shop & Salon just a few blocks from a University of Nebraska campus.

Mr. Khalil, 30, has adorned his shop’s windows with the Cornhuskers’ logo, and on the counter he placed a donation jar with the image of an injured Yazidi girl living in a refugee camp. If someone takes a bottle of soda pop from the cooler, he suggests leaving a dollar or two for her.

The business is a testament to how far removed Nebraska is from the turmoil overseas. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Khalil trimmed the hair of another immigrant, a 17-year-old Muslim boy attending high school in Lincoln. They chatted amiably. Mr. Khalil called him a friend. Today in northern Iraq, such an exchange would be impossible.

Nonetheless, events unfolding 6,500 miles away resonate here in very real ways.

Until at least the last two years, the bodies of Yazidis who died in the United States were usually returned overseas for burial. With the advance of ISIS making that an impossibility, Mr. Hassan now hopes to find a suitable burial ground in Lincoln. He said initial meetings with city leaders and advocacy groups had been promising.

Tom Randa, the executive director of the Good Neighbor Community Center, which helps Yazidi arrivals find work and stock their pantries, said securing a section of an existing cemetery might be more achievable in the short term than staking out a separate graveyard.

“We’re at a point where this project is becoming a reality,” Mr. Randa said. “When we started at the beginning of the year, this was just a vision.”

The cemetery project, Mr. Hassan said, is about more than just fulfilling a practical need. It is also an acknowledgment that Nebraska is now home.

“That means we want to stay here,” Mr. Hassan said. “We want to put our roots in Lincoln.”