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Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains in Sinjar, Iraq.
Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains in Sinjar, Iraq.
Andolu Agency

The genocide 6,000 miles away

America's Yazidis watch and wait, fearing the worst

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.


Lincoln, Nebraska — The last night Salam Sheikh could sleep was Sunday. That was before Islamic State fighters marched into his home city of Sinjar, in northern Iraq, defeated 5,000 Kurdish fighters within an hour, and made Cheikh's family prisoners in their own home.

Now when the 28-year-old calls his three sisters and his disabled mother, more than 6,400 miles away in Iraq, they speak only in whispers. Speak any louder, they fear, and ISIS fighters might overhear and realize they are still in the city.

Sheikh and his family are Yazidi, part of an ancient religion with about 600,000 adherents around the world, mostly in Iraq. About 200 Yazidi families live in the United States, half of them here in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they began settling after the first Gulf War.

In Sinjar, tens of thousands of Yazidi have fled for their lives as ISIS advances into Kurdish territory. As many as 40,000 escaped to the nearby slopes of Mount Sinjar, where they are besieged by ISIS, stranded without food or water, slowly dying of thirst. The United States began airstrikes against ISIS and humanitarian airdrops over Mount Sinjar over the weekend, and on Monday several thousand of the trapped Yazidi reportedly escaped to Syria. But many thousands are still trapped; it's not clear how long they can hold out.

Some of Lincoln's Yazidi can recount, in excruciating detail, what has happened to their family. When Sheikh calls his younger sister in Iraq, a 19-year-old college student, she cries on the phone, afraid of the ISIS fighters who she fears will break into the house and kill, rape, or mutilate her.

His three sisters have already survived one ISIS search of the house, thanks to a Muslim neighbor who sent the fighters away by telling them there were no young women at home.

Other Lincoln families are in no less devastating limbo. Iekhan Safar's two sisters and their newborn babies are all trapped on Mount Sinjar. They face an impossible choice: die of thirst and starvation on the mountain, or die by the militants' guns waiting for them below.

The Yazidi, who have been persecuted for centuries, say their cultural memory includes 73 attempted genocides. The Nebraska-based Yazidi fear they are watching the 74th from thousands of miles away.

"It's worse than the war," Sheikh says.

Sheikh came to Nebraska as many other Yazidi have: with a special visa for translators who worked with the US Army during the Iraq war. Yazidi began settling in Nebraska after the first Gulf War, in 1991. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam, it brought another wave of Yazidi immigration, including Sheikh, who arrived 16 months ago.

Lincoln is a city of about 265,000 people, home to the flagship state university and a state capitol that towers over downtown. Over the past 30 years, it has also quietly become home to refugees from more than 40 countries. It is now the only city in the US with a sizable Yazidi community.

In the past week, Lincoln's Yazidi have protested at the state capitol and the Nebraska governor's mansion. They have met with lawmakers and sent six vans of people to Washington, DC to try to draw national attention to the Yazidi plight.


Iekhan Safar and her family in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Libby Nelson)

Sheikh says he's proud of his work with the US military. So does Hayder Murad, who worked as a translator from 2005 to 2011 and moved to Lincoln in 2012. The Yazidi "welcomed the US first," Murad says. "We helped the US Army." But now both worry that ISIS might target their families as punishment for collaborating with Americans.

Now the former military translators are hoping to get back in touch with the US army, as it launches strikes against ISIS in northern Iraq. They say they want to warn them not to strike houses where Yazidi are hiding, or even to ask for transportation and weapons to go fight ISIS themselves.

When he came to the US, Murad thought he would never return to Iraq. Now he wants to go back to save his people.

"We are ready to help, to go anywhere," Murad says. "We will join the US Army or make a special team. We are all ready to die for people to save them."

Sheikh says he wishes he had a plane ticket, a weapon — anything to fight ISIS. "I swear to God I will fight," he says. "I don't care about my life. All I care about is my three sisters."

As Iehkhan Safar, 26, pours milk into a bottle for her 2-year-old son, she worries about her sister, trying to feed her own 10-day-old baby while trapped on Mount Sinjar.

Safar's nine siblings are all still in Iraq, some working with the Iraqi military, others in hiding from ISIS. She moved to the United States in 2006, after she met her Yazidi husband while he was visiting Iraq on a trip from his new home in the US. Their three children were born in the United States.

When Safar called her family Sunday, they told her ISIS was approaching and they planned to flee. Her brothers carried her mother, who has been sick for years and cannot walk due to diabetes, depression, and arthritis. Two of her sisters have newborn babies.

Her family used to picnic on Mount Sinjar. They would have gone to the highest point on the mountain, where there are some caves for shelter but little vegetation or natural sources of water. The thousands of Yazidis who fled ISIS have been on the mountain for six days now. As the batteries in their phones fade, along with their food supplies, relatives in the US and elsewhere worry they will lose contact.

"Am I going to be one of the many people I see around me burying their babies?" Safar says her sister has asked during one of their recent calls.

In Lincoln, Yazidi families watch the war unfold on Kurdish-language television as their American-born children play on quiet suburban streets.

Safar's five-year-old daughter was reluctant to pose for a photograph during an interview. But she agreed to do it when her mother told her it would help her grandmother, who she knows is in trouble in Iraq.

Sheikh usually works two jobs, one at a manufacturing plant, the other at a landscaping firm. He hasn't gone to work all week. His work won't allow him keep his phone with him, he explains, and he can't bear to break contact with his family.

The family of Waleesa Antar, a 26-year-old Yazidi in Lincoln, is also trapped in their house near Sinjar. Antar can hardly stand to talk to them, she says, she is so afraid that every conversation might be their last.

The distress is so unbearable that she has considered suicide multiple times this week, she says through a translator. The only thing that stopped her is the realization she could not leave her three-year-old daughter alone.

"I cannot think of anything good that might possibly happen to them," she says.

If his family cannot get out, Sheikh says, he has a terrible and desperate wish: that the Iraqi Air Force or Kurdish Air Force or whoever is in the area will bomb the entire city and kill them all.

"I wish they'd bomb the entire city, including my own family," he says. "I would kill my own family instead of having ISIS get in close to them."

Libby Nelson:How much of your family is still in Iraq?

Salam Sheikh:All of them. Three sisters, a paralyzed mother and a disabled brother. That was the reason they couldn't flee to the mountains like the rest of the people. They're still trapped inside our house over there.

They're inside the town. They're trapped inside our houses. There's around 30 more families that are still trapped in their houses.

They're a little better than the people on the mountains, yeah. But they're at the risk of ISIS breaking into the house and taking over the women and all that. I don't want to think about the rest of that.

Libby Nelson:When did the invasion begin for them?

Salam Sheikh:It started happening last Sunday. Sunday is the only day when I can talk to my family, since I do two jobs and the time difference and all of that. I woke up and I got the call saying ISIS took over Sinjar, which is my hometown. It's populated mostly by Yazidi, my people. They're a minority just like the Syrians and the Christians in Iraq. They said they have taken over the area. My family, they basically just got out of the house and they saw there is nobody left, from our neighbors, from the entire city, basically.

They couldn't run away because my mom couldn't walk. Literally could not walk. I have three sisters; they're literally helpless and cannot go anywhere. It's impossible for them to carry my mom and go to the mountains.

It happened within two hours. There were around 5,000 Peshmerga fighters, the Kurdish army, basically. They kept telling the people, We have Sinjar, the entire city and all the villages around it, we have it covered, we have it secure, you don't have to worry about that.

Within two hours, all that collapsed. After midnight, around 3 in the morning, they just fled everything, left everything behind, their weapons and everything. They just ran away.

Libby Nelson:Have you been able to talk to your family?

Salam Sheikh:I've been in contact with them. I've been in contact with them every hour since then. How that affects the people over here? They're our families. We cannot go to work. We cannot do nothing, literally. I swear to God I haven't slept in five days. I haven't probably ate lunch since then.

Libby Nelson:What was life like under Saddam Hussein or during the war? How does that compare to now?

Salam Sheikh:When Saddam Hussein was the president, there were no jobs, yeah. Even if there were jobs, they would pay you so bad you barely could live. There was not a lot of money. There was no variety of options that anybody could have to do with their lives, yeah. But there was this thing that was provided 100 percent: the security and safety. Unless you had something against the government and they knew about it, they wouldn't come and do anything to you. It was absolutely safety controlled and secured.

Since the war, basically, every now and then you'll see a terrorist name pop up on the TV for a couple of months. They're killing here and there. They're doing this and that. A couple of months later they will take him down and another guy will show up. Working with the army made me see a lot of things, including all the dead bodies. We didn't have dead bodies on the sidewalk. We didn't have people getting their head chopped off in front of the public back in Saddam's time. We saw all that since the war.

It's worse than the war, actually. At least back in 2003, all the way to 2012, before the army withdrew, at least they had great forces, big American forces on the ground. So they were afraid of that. To kill and rape and circumcise and do all their stuff more freely right now since there are no American forces.

The only thing we are left with are the Iraqi forces, which each one of them have loyalty to a specific party. They're either related to Shia or Sunnis. They're either related to Kurds or Arabs. We are left only with that. When people have more than one affiliation with a party or stuff like that, it's really weak. We are left with that.

Libby Nelson: How did you come to work with the US Army?

Salam Sheikh: I could speak a little bit of English. I worked with them for two years, completely loyal. I risked my life to make the operation go as successful as possible. I'm proud of that. Regardless of what happened, I'm proud of the service I did to my fellow Americans. That's why I got the visa to come over here and become part of this community over here.

Libby Nelson: Was your family hoping to come over as well?

Salam Sheikh:Yeah. That was one of the stuff I discussed with the Congressman. We kept talking back and forth about the people in the mountain and the people in their houses, the people are getting raped and the women are getting sold as slaves.

I applied for my family for over two years ago for a visa. I have a right to apply for my family for a visa because I worked for the Army and the United States gives people the right to come over here. I'm one of the people who applied for his family for over two years and I have not heard a word about that. The only reason that made me apply for my family to bring them over here was the medical treatment my mother needs immediately, the safety that my family... they're not in a safe environment.

Libby Nelson: What are they seeing from within their house? What is going on in the city?

Salam Sheikh:The first couple of days, we have Muslim neighbors, they have obviously connections with ISIS. They are not going to hurt each other. We have three neighbors left. Each single one of them, they would rotate coming to my family and saying, just convert to Islam, you guys are going to be OK. I swear to God.

ISIS came in but they didn't see my sisters. My little sisters were hiding. There was this old man who was our neighbor, he was like, there are no girls over here, just a sick mother and older brother, and they are ready to convert anyway. They kind of knew each other so they laid off my family.

They'll see their vehicles. One of the far neighbors that we have, they took one of their family away. They killed their dad and their younger brother who is even younger than me. They have two sisters, the mother, a couple of little kids. Nobody knows where they are. They killed their dad and their brother right in front of their eyes. They just shot them in front of their family.

Every now and then, you'll see, my house is next to the hill, a hill that takes you to the mountain. Every now and then my brother or my family, they would try to sneak out and get out of there. And they will see one of their big vehicles with a heavy machine gun on it, just standing on top of the hill, and they have their flags all over.

It's terrible everywhere. That entire region. That entire area, it's the worst human crisis I have ever seen in my life.

Libby Nelson: What do they hope will happen?

Salam Sheikh: One of the desperate wishes I was making was that if my family or the families still trapped in there couldn't make their way out, I hope that the Iraqi air forces, Kurdish air forces, or whoever air forces are going to be in that area, I wish they'd bomb the entire city, including my own family. I would kill my own family instead of having ISIS get in close to them.

At night, of course, there is no power, no electricity. They close the doors. I call them, they whisper, they cannot talk. They just want to make sure nobody hears them and they want to make it look like they have abandoned the house and flee to the mountain.

My little sister, I hear her crying. Every single time I talk to her she cries. She's only 19 years old.

I wish they'd give me the weapons. If I had the ability, if I had the money just to buy a ticket, I would. I wish they'd give me the weapons. Just send me over there and I swear to God, I will fight, along with whoever is over there on the ground already against ISIS. I don't care about my life. All I care about is my three sisters. I care for all the people that are on the mountain. Over 75 kids have died from thirst and hunger on the mountain. They cannot dig a hole and bury them.

Libby Nelson: Do you think the airstrikes will make a difference?

Salam Sheikh: I'm hoping so. From my experience working with the Army, I know Americans would not ever shoot a bullet at somebody without knowing what they're doing. There are people over there saying the American airstrikes are going to come over and basically bomb the entire city. For the most part, I believe that American air forces are not going to do that because this is not how they work. But if they don't have accurate and correct information about the people who are left behind inside the city, they might have to do that.

I've been trying to get in contact for some of the air forces over there. Just to tell them, hey, there are families trapped in their houses. Do not bomb the entire city. I'm hoping it's going to help out. As far as I know, there are some local leaders, Yazidi leaders, and all of the civilian guys that are left, they are volunteering and asking for weapons to go and fight for their people and free the city.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Salam Sheikh's last name.


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