Iraqi religious persecution hits home in Nebraska

August 13, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. — Iekhan Safar moved from Iraq to Lincoln for the same reason that hundreds of Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority, came to Nebraska’s capital city: to live near family, far from the dangers they’ve long faced as a persecuted group.

Lincoln has the largest concentration of Yazidis (yah-ZEE-dees) in the United States, and many of them brought their families to the U.S. after receiving visas for serving as translators during the first Gulf War. Now, the city is at the center of a frantic effort to draw attention to the group’s plight in northern Iraq, where Yazidis are fleeing from Islamic State militants to escape violence and attempts to convert them to Islam.

Yazidis in Lincoln say they’re grateful for the humanitarian airdrops and airstrikes against militants that President Barack Obama ordered last week, but fearful that their loved ones can no longer live peacefully in Iraq.

Uncertain of what to do, Yazidis staged a hastily organized rally at the Nebraska Capitol and the governor’s residence this month and reached out to U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who along with four other congressmen sent a letter to Obama calling for immediate humanitarian assistance. They also sent five vans of people to Washington to appeal to the State Department, asking for food, water and protection for their relatives.

“Once a small group of relatives establishes a home base somewhere, it serves as a magnet for other families,” said Sebastian Maisel, a professor of Middle East Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who has extensively researched Yazidis. “It’s the way that many communities from the Middle East like to live. They rely on a support network in the larger community.”