A Tiny Light Penetrates Through the Thickest Darkness
Haroon Al Hayder
I am originally from Iraq, a beautiful small town called Khanke, which is located on the Tigris river in northern Iraq. The town is populated by Yazidi people who are very helpful, peaceful, generous, hospitable, and respectful. Yazidis are famous for their food and hospitality toward both locals and foreigners who visit them. The most famous Yazidi foods are Briani, Dollmas, lamb, and fish. These special dishes are cooked for cultural occasions and ceremonies like weddings, parties, feasts, and funerals. The land around my town is very fertile and productive for farming, but unfortunately it has become a place for refugee camps and tents for Internally Displaced People (IDP) as the result of war and extermination.
Khanke has many religious sanctuaries and shrines that encircle the town on hills. The Yazidi religion is monotheistic. In our language, we call God “Xode” (the one who created himself). Yazidis believe that the world was created by Xode, who entrusted it to seven holy angels led by one known as Melek Taus. Melek Taus is the primary figure in Yazidism, as he filled the earth with plants and animals. Yazidis do not believe in the concept of Hell; they believe that all people have both good and evil inside of them, and that choices are made free of external temptation. Furthermore, they believe in internal purification through the transmigration of souls called reincarnation, and that the seven angels are occasionally reincarnated in human form. Yazidis believe that they are descended directly from Adam while the rest of humanity comes from the lineage of both Adam and Eve. Yazidis have three main prayers: the prayer of the dawn, sunrise, and sunset. They pray for the blessing of the sun to rise and bring light to the world, and when sun sets they pray again for sun to rise in the morning.
The invasion of Iraq began in 2003 by the United States-led coalitions that collapsed the despotic government of Saddam Hussein (the Ba'ath regime) and ousted him from power. Although, the Ba'ath regime was no longer ruling the country, U.S. occupation became more hazardous. People started feeling like they were being invaded by western civilization, and began resisting the U. S. occupation of Iraq. After the U.S. Army withdrew from Iraq, the situation got increasingly worse. Iraq became a place of sectarian war (the war between the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims) that it had never been before. This divide between Muslims was not a new thing to occur in the region, but it became more dangerous as tensions escalated.
Following the Iraq war came the Syrian civil war, and Syrian people tried to topple their president Bashar Al-Assad. This civil war caused thousands of people to abandon their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries. The terrorist organization ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, appeared during this civil war with the goal of building an Islamic state. They controlled many Syrian territories and extended their forces into Iraq, which was already weak from barely overcoming terrorists from the Ba’ath regime. ISIS overran the Syrian and Iraq frontier through Mosul (Iraq’s largest city) to make it their stronghold for resistance.
In Mosul they began killing, slaughtering, and burning Shi’ite Muslims and those Muslims who were a part of the Iraq army. ISIS also persecuted Christians who did not convert to Islam. After two or three months, they strengthened their military tactics and began taking over neighboring towns and cities. ISIS overran the biggest Yazidi city Shingal on August 3rd, 2014. Peshmarga forces (the local militia) left Shingal to ISIS without any resistance and without informing people of imminent danger. ISIS committed the most heinous crimes and atrocities against Yazidi people: mass killings, burning toddlers and children to death, and raping girls and women. They kept Yazidi girls as sex slaves in their houses. People could not resist their forces. ISIS killed Yazidis because of their faith, and told them they are not ''The People of the Book” (which refers to Muslims, Jews, and Christians). They gave Christians three choices: convert, pay taxes, or leave. Yazidis had to choose between converting or death. Even those who converted were used as slaves and human-shields for coalition airstrikes. ISIS still has thousands of Yazidi girls in their captivity suffering in darkness from rape and hopelessness.
This Yazidi genocide has impacted us psychologically and sociologically. My small town of Khanke received a huge influx of IDPs and refugees seeking food, clothes, sanitation, and shelter. I saw people covered with dust filling up big trucks and pickups; you could not even recognize a single face due to the thickness of dust on their faces. Most of them escaped with nothing but their broken hearts. However, many of the families could not make it to our town because they were killed in ISIS attacks. Those who survived ISIS and were on foot often perished from thirst and exhaustion on their way to relative safety.
Those who drove made it to our town, but many on foot did not make it past the Shingal mountain, ten miles from Khanke. I have a friend named Riadh who got stranded on the mountain for five days without food or water, and had to eat scavenged leaves and dried wheat from home. He witnessed several children and infants left behind by their families who could not care for them in such severe conditions.
At first there were no camps or refugee sites for them to stay. Every single family in our town rushed into helping them and gave them food, water, sleeping supplies, and clothes. We put the IDPs and refugees in schools, abandoned houses, under bridges and trees--anywhere that they could feel safe. Imagine having more than 10,000 people suddenly coming to a small town like ours. It was a real tragedy. Everything began collapsing: the economy, food, health, clean water, clean air, and so on. After one or two months, the IDPs received tents to live in by the Kurdistan government. Soon after, ISIS got stronger and pushed military forces out of some areas and controlled those areas. I remember sitting with my cousin and his family in their garden when a mortar (a small rocket) flew over us at a very low altitude. It felt like my backside ripped off because it was so loud. We were terrified. After three hours, another mortar landed 5 km from the town. There was a lot of fear, confusion, and intimidation, and Yazidis could not trust anyone to protect them. IDPs did not have the will to move on, but the refugees and people from my town evacuated the area.
My entire family of 11 members used to live in a big house on Khanke Main Avenue. We did not have a car when people evacuated the area in their own cars, and we were scared because we did not know how to escape without a car. Then a miracle happened during the evacuation time. My distant cousin Selam, had come from a far Yazidi town called Badri; he was there to get some of his family out of Khanke who were there for a visit. Nobody knew what was going on. Everybody were leaving in a rush. Selam took our family out of town to the mountains first, and then we went to Zakho to cross the Turkish border. Everyone had to go to the Turkish border to seek a safe haven, and eventually cross the border to go to Europe.
It was August 12th when we arrived in Zakho on an unbelievably hot day. We tried to cross the border to Turkey, but we could not because my Grandmother did not have a passport. We decided to stay with her. It was the hardest situation I have ever encountered. My dad cried in despair when we told my Grandmother we would not leave her even though she insisted that we should go without her. We stayed in Zakho instead, and spent ten hours under a tree on the road. It was almost 8:00 P.M. when my Dad took us to a school to stay. We all used our bags and shoes as pillows, and clothes as blankets; there was no fancy mattresses- just a hard floor. I spent most of my nights awake and alert. During this time, I frequently sent e-mails to the U.S. Embassy to try and get us out of this tragic situation, but they kept telling us to wait and find a safe haven to stay in. We stayed in the school for two weeks, and then we heard that the U.S. took action against ISIS. We felt really happy about that.
The reason why I frequently sent emails to the US embassy was because we had already done one interview through the International Organization for Migration (IOM) program to come to the U.S. All Iraqi interpreters were given an opportunity to come to the U.S. with a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to get a better life in America. Interpreters’ lives were in real danger because insurgents or terrorists would call them traitors for aiding the U.S. Army. My uncle Ezzat Alhaider was an interpreter for the U.S. Army during the Iraq war, before the development of ISIS, which meant my family was in danger then, and it continued to be in danger because of ISIS.
When the U.S. warplanes started bombing ISIS, they impeded them from gaining more territories and control. We did not go back to Khanke right when the U.S. bombed ISIS because we were not sure what was going on, or if it was safe. There were still many IDPs left in the town as well. Five days later, after the situation improved a little bit following the U.S. attacks on ISIS forces, we decided to go back home. However, we were always ready to evacuate Khanke in case ISIS attacked again. Back home everything was out of order and everybody was anxious. What surprised me the most was that IDPs had never evacuated their tents. They were Yazidis too they said; they had no other place to go and were sick of fleeing. All this, starting from the ISIS invasion of Shingal, happened in two to three weeks.
Two years passed without any change in IDP’s conditions. They were living in filthy tents and a polluted environment. The economy got really bad; there was no income, no electricity, and even oil refineries were controlled by ISIS groups. My family owned a small store selling school supplies and printing documents, but the income earned from the store could not support our entire family, so I had to get a job as well. I looked for a job every day. I wanted to be an interpreter since there were many international organizations helping IDPs. I started to improve my English by taking some English classes, watching movies, listening to songs, and reading books. I could not get a job for almost two years until 2016.
One day I got a phone call from one of my friends saying a short job opened up as a translator for a French journalist. She had come to hear Yazidi girl’s stories who were recently released from ISIS captivity. Their stories were tragic. The way they were abused and suffered by ISIS terrorists. One of the survivors said she was raped three times a day. She was kept in a dark room only for having sex, and her enslaver was married to another woman who tortured her everyday. We interviewed one woman who managed to escape ISIS captivity with her seven year old son. He had been forced into training as a child soldier, human shield, and suicide bomber during his captivity. He was kind of brainwashed, and he was always silent and scared.
After working for the French journalist, I joined the U.S. coalitions as an interpreter and translator. I worked for the U.S. coalitions from October 15th to January 10th, 2016. One day my dad called me and said, “We are leaving for the U.S. on February 1st from Erbil International airport.” I couldn't believe it. It was the happiest news I ever heard.
Unfortunately, not all of my family is here in America. My sister Rjoeen, and her husband and child, are still in Iraq. Whenever they call us, they say people continue to move on to start a new life. The situation is hard because we all miss her, especially my mother. They now own our old family store which still only provides minimal income--just enough for them to survive. Winter and the continued threat of terrorism keeps them in danger. There is nothing that we can do though. We are still waiting on her case to be processed by the U.S. Embassy.
We left Erbil International airport at 6:00 A.M. on Feb 1st, 2016, and arrived in America at the Chicago International airport around 8:00 P.M. When our plane touched down in the Chicago airport, I was surprised to see beautiful views of the city landscape. We spent the first night at one of the hotels in Chicago. I felt really happy to be in my dream country; it is awesome when your dream comes true. We flew to Fargo, North Dakota in the morning, and arrived around 11:00 A.M. We were welcomed by my uncle Ezzat, and our case manager Oliver. When we got to Fargo, it was freezing cold. We had never experienced weather this cold before. Honestly though, being in America distracted me from thinking about the cold. It was just awesome.
Back home the Yazidi religion was never respected. We were accused of being inferior, infidels, and unworthy of a good life. Extremists always condemned us whenever they got the chance. When you live in your country you must have freedom of speech, religious freedom, and basic human rights, so I will never call Iraq my country. I never felt connected to my home country because I never had these freedoms and my people had always been persecuted. I would say my journey as a human being (with human rights, values, respect, dignity, dreams and empathy) started in the U.S. I would like to wholeheartedly extend my gratitude to the United States of America for bringing my family here.
During my first week in Fargo I became a volunteer at Cultural Diversity Resources. I was a front desk agent whose duty was to receive calls and to fill out food/clothes referral forms and send them to the Emergency Food Pantry. I aided people of different backgrounds, especially those who needed food and clothes. I also helped people apply for jobs by creating new resumes for them. After that I became an active member of Fargo Global Shapers, whose work is committed to building the community and creating activities with the Fargo-Moorhead community. I also I worked as an interpreter for Lutheran Social Services for several months.
Now I am an active member of MSUM’s Absent Narrative and Concordia’s Narrative 4. Absent Narrative is a program aimed to bring the community together and sharing life stories to raise awareness and empathy between people. In addition, educated people gather to share their ideas on how we can improve schools for all students.
Narrative 4 is an outstanding initiative designed to foster and promote empathy and consciousness within communities. This initiative is promoted by enthusiastic and passionate individuals who exchange personal narratives to broaden their understanding of people and culture. We listen to each other’s stories because people need to connect with others.
We need to share our stories to raise empathy, a sense of humanity and self-consciousness, and eliminate ignorance that represses our love and care. These kinds of simple activities can mean a lot to people, especially to those whose voices are unheard. We can be the voice and we can surely be the ear for others. I am absolutely glad to be a part of this marvelous initiative which gives us hope, positivity, and optimism. I will continue to do my best to promote humanity, empathy, friendship, and love wherever I go.
In conclusion, I was born in and grew up in The Land between two Rivers, The Cradle of Civilization, which is called Iraq. Even though genocide is being committed against my people, we are surviving. We are the tiny light that penetrates through the thickest darkness.