Last Updated on
***Linda Wesson is Head of Communications at Arab Research & Advocacy Bureau***
In late November 2017, I traveled to Michigan, in the United States, to visit with friends and attend a lecture given by ISIS rape and torture survivor Nadia Murad.
I have one particular Yazidi friend from Kurdistan who, upon getting his US visa, went to Michigan state because he already had some family there. He both worked and went to university. I volunteered to help edit his papers for grammar and spelling on the subject of education management. He didn’t need much help it turned out, but in reading his papers I learned a lot. We discussed much of the subject matter (on education), and I found our thinking strikingly similar.
We became such good friends that we still often talk to each other several times a week, and sometimes even twice a day. This Yazidi “son” now has his Masters degree in education. But 2014 was not an easy year for my friend as he heard that, within a period of only a few days, ISIS had murdered many Yazidis in his hometown.
My friend also learned that some of his former Muslim neighbours had helped ISIS capture and kill his people. This tore his heart in two and he could not sleep or rest from thinking about it. We spent long hours talking; with me trying to convince him to not blame it on Islam and Muslim people in general. He was so full of hurt and anger. Many Yazidis were murdered, and many females taken to be sex slaves to ISIS commanders and soldiers. The brutality and monstrosity of it all nearly drove my young friend insane.
Alawi’s immediate family narrowly escaped death. His brother Fisal, sister-in-law Samira, and their nearly two year-old baby had to flee out of their homes unprepared into the heat of the desert in temperatures stretching above 110 degrees fahrenheit; and with insufficient water. Many elderly civilians and young children died alongside them, as those who were not captured ran as fast as they could towards Mount Sinjar, which they climbed to hide to save their lives. Alawi’s little nephew, Jahn, survived heat sickness and loss of consciousness.
Another of our Yazidi friends lost nearly forty members of his family in those first two days, including brothers, cousins and uncles, and the very young and old. Five sisters were taken into captivity as sex slaves and older females were killed along with all males over the age of twelve. So, in comparison, Alawi’s family was “fortunate”.
Spending time with Alawi’s family
Alawi’s brother, Fisal, and the rest of his family immigrated early last year and had a larger home rented to which I was invited. My trip was delayed several times until Nadia Murad would also be coming to give a talk at the University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Alawi wanted me to meet Nadia, and I definitely wanted to wait for that too.
Finally I flew to Michigan in November, and Alawi picked me up and took me to stay with the family at their rented condominium. Besides Alawi, also living there is Alawi’s brother and sister-in-law Samira, and their son, who is now four years old. I had heard so much about this little survivor named Jahn. Hard to imagine this little guy had been so close to death. He’s now so full of energy.
On the way, we had stopped to pick up a brother-in-law from work. At the home, the brother-in-law’s wife, one of Alawi’s sisters, arrived soon with her young daughter. They had also immigrated as refugees. Another brother and sister-in-law came knocking and joined us. Late in the day Jahn’s father, Fisal, arrived from his job at Walmart where he works ten hours a day.
We ate homemade Kurdish food, sort of in shifts, as there was not enough room for everyone at one time at the table. I recognised this as a tradition from my own childhood; women always made sure the men and guests ate first. Some things of Middle Eastern culture remind me of customs of traditional American life.
Alawi speaks English well; his brother, Fisal, not so well, but I have had practice through my advisory role at Arab Research & Advocacy Bureau discerning meaning from people whose English is a second language. The most important message I heard from Fisal was that he is here for Jahn’s future. Fisal had been a high school teacher in Sinjar, adored by his students. He loves those students and misses the old days as a teacher very much.
I sincerely believe Fisal’s skills and caring as a teacher are needed in Sinjar, but it is too dangerous a life for all Yazidis, especially for little Jahn. Better to raise Jahn in safety. It’s a sorrow that a wonderful teacher is lost to the young people still in Kurdistan. Fisal struggles with his feelings about this every day. As he works for minimum wage here, he regrets he cannot spend more hours each day with his son, but it is simply better that his son is at least physically safe. No one can guarantee their safety in Kurdistan, Iraq; no one even places their safety as a priority there.
The Yazidi community in the US
Safety as an immigrant has its price, though. Life in a new land is often awkward and difficult for newcomers. The first year is usually full of homesickness and sometimes regret and questioning the decision of moving. The sense of loss – for people who would also have nothing to return to in their homeland – can be overwhelming.
I spent a few days sightseeing and doing the regular tourist things with my friend. Michigan is a beautiful state. We went to Lake Michigan, where I saw one of the famous lighthouses of the American Great Lakes; these freshwater lakes as big as seas. We drove to Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest concentration of Muslims in the United States; with many storefront signs written in Arabic. This is where some Yazidis enjoy shopping; where they can find the familiar foods of a higher quality that most enjoy.
We stopped in to have a sweet bite to eat there, at the famous Arab style bakery Shatila’s. I had fresh squeezed pomegranate juice for the first time and that alone was worth the drive from Lansing. Fresh pomegranate juice rivals my Indian friend Shebby’s pineapple lemonade, and that is not easy to do.
Arab friends have joked that Dearborn is like a portion of the Middle East in America, and Islamophobic Americans have a lot of criticism for Dearborn, Michigan. The place definitely has the feel of culture different from where I live in California, but seemed no more different than other towns in the United States where immigrants have settled. Towns along the Mexican border have their own signs written in Spanish. There are random small towns in Texas where locals speak German and serve German foods in old immigrant family-run restaurants. Same as with Cajun French enclaves in Louisiana with their regional patois.
I see Dearborn as just another immigrant town within the United States, not what phobic conservative Americans like to refer as a “no go zone”. I like to see immigrants living among “others” and merging into the “melting pot” of Americanism, I know many immigrants everywhere throughout the US are grouping in areas where rents are less expensive; small pockets emerging in wider “white” communities. If republican Americans isolate these pockets they will become very closed, creating the “no go” vibe that Trump supporters tend to fear.
Meeting Nadia Murad
Arriving back at Alawi’s home after dark, a group of Yazidi men had already arrived, having driven over 700 miles in one day from Lincoln, where many Yazidis have settled in Nebraska state. I had read they are building a religious temple there and have purchased land for a Yazidi graveyard. The more traditional American society there have been welcoming, especially as it is known that Yazidis have been targeted by ISIS.
We ate – like, a lot – and then slept. The following day, Alawi and I met Nadia and her two companions, Haider Elias and Abid Shamden – President and Treasurer of the Yazda foundation, respectively – at the airport in Grand Rapids. Yazda is a political entity advocating for better treatment and aid for Yazidis. Yazda manages and assists with Nadia’s public speaking engagements as the contribution of her voice, called Nadia’s Initiative, is under the umbrella of their mission. The group additionally works with Amal Clooney, the famous Lebanese lawyer and wife of movie star George Clooney. Amal is Nadia Murad’s personal attorney and has represented her in international court forum.
Haider Elias had previously been Alawi’s roommate, during the time they had both served as interpreters for the US military during either the “occupation” or “invasion” of Iraq (depending on one’s point of view). I am told that, when ISIS came to Sinjar, this particular friend, Haider, had been on a cellphone call with his brother when this brother was shot in the face by ISIS soldiers who burst through the door. Haider has suffered much loss because of ISIS. He is an especially kind person, and my sense is that he is extremely intelligent and wise.
The idea to have Nadia visit the Michigan State University was proposed by Alawi to one of his professors, Sebastian Maisel, who is head of Middle Eastern and Arabic studies there. The professor is an immigrant to the United States, with a very slight German accent. He speaks Arabic fluently. He visited their homeland and holy sites during twenty years of visits to the Middle East as part of his studies.
Nadia has already been to many countries in world, making much the same speech she would make the following night, although several Middle Eastern nations had refused to receive her; most notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Seeing Nadia in person for the first time, I was immediately shocked by how small she is. It seemed to me she could not weigh much, if any, over one hundred pounds. Her movements are very careful; very delicate. She accepted the flowers we handed her with a shy smile and seems almost on the verge of tears and complete calm at the same time.
Nadia does not understand or speak much English and we were told she had a bad headache. She had not slept. We exchanged greetings and a gentle embrace and walked to the cars taking the visitors to the hotel where they would be staying. We were asked how far the drive to the hotel is. Alawi had planned for me to sit in the backseat with Nadia, but when Haider told that Nadia becomes car-sick easily, I said she should be seated in the front passenger seat. Ir turns out Nadia prefers this.
I sat behind her and watched the composure of her tiny frame as the car traveled the fairly short but very winding route to the hotel. I imagined she was nauseous and placed my hand in encouragement on her shoulder. She placed her small cool hand over mine. I remembered reading that Nadia had wanted and planned to go to cosmetology school after she graduated from high school. But she had been kidnapped in her tenth year of high school.
Previous to the visit, there were a few days the phone buzzed and rang often from Alawi’s cousins or friends regarding Nadia’s accommodations. The “elders back home” were worried it may appear insulting for Nadia to stay in a hotel instead of the home of some of the Yazidi people here in the US. The accommodations had already been made at a very fine hotel, where I’m sure the rooms were clean and quiet, which Nadia and her fellow travelers went to right away to rest.
After an hour or so, Nadia’s companions phone for Alawi to meet them in the dining room of the hotel, where they order a meal for Nadia which she would eat in her room, though Haider remarked that she eats very little. The men ate and talked in the dining room. Alawi had brought me along to listen and I asked only a few questions despite being highly curious and engaged. Sometimes it is better to listen in the company of friends who have not seen each other in years.
I learned that, upon the recent demand and vote for Kurdish independence and consequent squelch of that movement by leaders and military out of Baghdad, a large amount of Iranian-backed Shia militia flooded onto the Nineveh plains and camped in Sinjar (most of them have now left). These days many Yazidis live in very substandard UNHCR tents away from their homes. The dwellings in Sinjar have been reduced to rubble. The orchards are dead. The livestock long gone.
Yazidi are tight-knit people who also sometimes acknowledge their shared genetics and kinship with Kurds. Alawi supported the call for Kurdish independence, though we had discussed the poor timing of it. On the heels of driving ISIS out of Mosul – but with much of their presence still skulking around in different sets of clothes – how could this demand for Kurdish independence not be met with disappointment? Even the more sympathetic Arabs of southern Iraq would be exasperated. It was doomed, especially as the new motto out of Baghdad is “A new and united Iraq”, even if the motto is a tad bit delusional.
In the dining room of the guests’ hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Yazda visitors spoke of the politics of Kurdistan and more, some of it in Kurdish language, though Alawi and Haider take time to explain things to me in English. These fellows are brotherly in their affection to each other. In a few hours, looking fresher, Nadia comes down from her room to the hotel lobby. She looks no larger, yet her presence seems bigger. Her focus is strong as she discusses the coming forum with Haider and Abid, and with Prof. Maisel who had joined us.
Maisel would give a talk about the Yazidi people in general from an historic and anthropological perspective. This would be followed by a message from Haider about what the Yazidi people most specifically need at this current point in time. After this, Nadia would speak a few sentences at a time, pausing for Abid to translate before moving to another thought.
In the presentation hall, I sit with Fasil, Sameera and little Jahn, while Alawi sits among Yazidis who have come from near and far in the states to hear Nadia Murad speak. Nadia has come mostly asking for help for her people, and this article I am writing carries this plea farther, I hope. She is asking for a search and rescue for the thousands of Yazidis still missing; many of whom are young women who may still be used as sex slaves, enduring torture, or may have even been killed. She asks that listeners make appeals to their governments for funding to help rebuild destroyed Yazidi homes, schools and medical facilities – something that Arab Research & Advocacy Bureau will be looking into advocating.
Nadia challenged the university to provide scholarships to Yazidi students. Through her interpreter she tells of asking the same thing from other universities and receiving much less than what was hoped for. She told of her disappointment; that so many trips taken to speak in many nations has yielded so little help for the Yazidi people. Yet she does not quit.
Nadia’s talk was followed with a question and answer session. Mercifully, no one asked anything too deep about Nadia’s experiences during captivity. I have read about it, but I didn’t feel ready to hear it aloud. What was done to Nadia and the other women enrages me. I also feel such anxiety about it as I have a daughter and granddaughters within a few years the age of Nadia.
Earlier in the day I’d read an excerpt of Nadia’s book where she describes one of her escape attempts. She was caught before she got far; returned to her “owner”, who punished her by having her gangraped by six men. The tiny young woman lost consciousness. But even this is not as horrific as the deaths of nine year old Yazidi girls who bled to death from repeated rapes on their tiny bodies.
The book’s cover shows a picture of Nadia, looking formidable, wearing a look of defiance; and on a chain around her neck, a symbol of her tribe’s own religion. She becomes a portrait of sheer strength and stubborn resolve. She was only 17 years old when her life had changed.
During the question and answer session, someone had brought up the issue of young Yazidi boys who were kidnapped and have been brainwashed and trained to fight as ISIS soldiers. The questioner asked what if those boys were not able to understand that they had been mislead and what if they would not give up their alliance with ISIS.
This was a striking series of questions, and caused a ripple of anxiety in the audience, as some there may still have or know of missing male children who are believed to be fighting with ISIS. The Yazidis are defensive of these boys, saying they must be retrieved and work must begin to help them understand they had been brainwashed; that they should not be killed; that they are innocent victims.
I found myself thinking of other boys and young men who were born into families or situations sympathetic to ISIS and who were also therefore brainwashed into alliance with the terrorist group. Surely every child is born innocent. None of us choose where and to whom we are born. We cannot condone bad actions, and there are many things we cannot forgive, but there is a way to understand, even while we keep a safe distance from these people raised to hate others.
Following a dinner honouring Nadia, me and her parted ways at the university exited. She smiled and we walked to each other and hugged. I kissed the top of her head. I remembered Nadia’s parents were killed that day ISIS kidnapped her, and wished silently I could be more for this girl. Haider handed me his card. I thanked him and went with Fisal and the fellows who were waiting for me to catch up with them.
I traveled back to Lansing with these boys (who are actually men) but they were calling me “Mom” and telling me I should stay longer and not fly home the next day. They are surely missing their mothers and I was glad to fill in. They were so happy and proud to have seen and heard Nadia.
Two in the car were not Yazidi but would like to join the religion again as their own families converted to Islam in times past. Yazidis have experienced different partial genocides and forced conversions throughout the centuries. The Yazidi tribe precedes Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yazidis seem very insular though, not allowing conversions into their religion; not allowing intermarriage with others outside the religion; and once people have left the tribe and religion they cannot return. I said these rules should be challenged for the survival of the Yazidi people; and my words were echoed and cheered.
My friend Alawi’s university work and Masters degree in education management holds his strong hopes for bringing a love of learning to all people, including the Yazidis. Alawi struggled with his rage and pain, and wanted to hate all Muslims because of the ones who helped ISIS, but there was one particular teacher Alawi had in high school, and this man was a huge influence on him, and this teacher is Muslim. When ISIS moved into Sinjar, this Muslim teacher would not stay living among them. He managed to leave and stay with his community. And so it was fitting that when my friend Alawi received his Masters degree he dedicated it to this former teacher.