As the latest crisis unfolds in Iraq, members of Lincoln’s Yazidi community and other Iraqis in Nebraska are watching closely. But they are focusing on different concerns.
On a peaceful weekday morning in Lincoln, Shahab Abdullah sat in a quiet apartment a few blocks from the Capitol with his wife, Shireen Ismael, and their 4-year-old son, Shaher. Abdullah has been here about a year, after translating for the U.S. Army in Iraq.
The couple is from Sinjar, a town in northern Iraq taken over by the Islamic State, an extremist Sunni Muslim organization fighting the Shia Muslim-dominated Iraqi government. Abdullah’s family is Yazidi – members of an ancient religion targeted for conversion or death by the Islamic State. Abdullah said his immediate family escaped from Sinjar after the extremist group took over earlier this month.
“I called them. They are right now in the Kurdish region. But still they are not safe,” Abdullah said.
Abdullah said even in the Kurdish region, there is religious prejudice against Yazidis. And there are not enough supplies for refugees.
Yazidis are a minority among Lincoln Iraqis, who are estimated by social service agencies to number up to 10,000 people. But the several hundred Yazidi families here are said to be one of the largest Yazidi communities in the United States.
At a meeting later on the same evening in a Lincoln church, Adnan Shamo, another Lincoln Yazidi, described the conditions of Yazidi refugees in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Shamo said Yazidis need other countries to accept them as immigrants, because it’s no longer safe for them anywhere in Iraq. And he blamed the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Pesh Merga armed forces for not standing up to the Islamic State when that Sunni Muslim extremist group took over the city of Mosul before the attack on Sinjar.
“The first people who pulled out of Mosul and let Iraq collapse is the Iraqi Army. And then the Pesh Merga pulled back. They didn’t fight,” Shamo said. “You expect the civilian people…to pick up an AK and go fight them? We cannot fight them. We want to stay out of Iraq.”
That led Jawad Alhefi, a member of Lincoln’s Shia Muslim Iraqi community, to defend his counterparts in Iraq.
“When the ISIL entered Mosul, do you know how many Shia were killed in one time?” Alhefi asked, before saying it was 1,000. “We are all Iraqis bother,” he added. "Let us give them a complete picture.”
Shamo responded, referring to Shia Muslims’ status in Iraq.
“You are the majority of Iraq. You are 60 percent of Iraq. You have the prime minister. You have the government leaders. You have the army. You have everybody,” Shamo said.
Alhefi acknowledged the Yazidis are in a critical situation. But he said other people are suffering at the hands of the Islamic State as well.
“There is a crisis in (the) north of Iraq. There is Christian, and Sunnis, and Shias and Shabak and Turkemans. They …all suffer,” Alhefi said.
Ali Alhaidari, another member of Lincoln’s Shia Muslim community, also urged people to look at the broader picture, condemning governments he said were supporting the Islamic State, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf States.
Shamo argued that was a distraction from the immediate issue.
“We (are) not going to discuss what country is supporting ISIS and what country is not supporting ISIS. This is not my concern,” Shamo said. “My concern is I want to get my people to a safer place. I want some food delivered to them. I want some refugee camps open for them. That’s what I want.”
Back in his apartment near the Capitol, as Shahab Abdullah discussed the situation, his wife Shireen cried quietly in the background. Asked what she was crying about, Abdullah replied simply, “All of us are crying. Not just my wife. All of Yazidi people are crying, because all our family is stuck in there (Iraq).”
Thursday, President Barack Obama said the situation for Yazidis who had been stranded on a mountain outside Sinjar had greatly improved, thanks to U.S. air drops and air strikes. The situation for Yazidis in Kurdish refugee camps, and other Iraqis throughout the country, may be determined in days to come.