By Sierra Ramsay
On August 2, Zeina Kasem, 21, was searching for the perfect wedding dress.
In the Yazidi community, couples are officially married shortly after they are engaged, but a large wedding celebration still takes place a couple of months later. Kasem was to celebrate her marriage to Oras Osso, 22, in a traditional Yazidi wedding on Saturday, August 9. Though her new husband was goofy and outgoing, Kasem was shy and spoke with purpose. With her hair dyed bright red, Kasem’s statement was heard loud and clear: This wedding was going to be a party. Yazidi family and friends from all over the world were already arriving in Lincoln, Nebraska, to share in the excitement.
On August 3, the community learned that the Yazidis in Iraq had been raided, captured and tortured by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria earlier that morning.
The wedding was off.
Kasem’s wedding was just one of the events that was either cancelled or indefinitely postponed as news of the crisis tore through the Yazidi diaspora in Lincoln and the rest of the world. The Yazidi community was flipped upside down. Yazidis were plunged into depression, and some even attempted suicide. All eyes were glued to a screen, as people remained hungry for news on Iraqi loved ones.
For Lincoln Yazidis, life had skidded to a halt.
Kasem and her groom rescheduled their wedding for March 14, 2015. Even now, five months after the attack in Iraq, family and friends have been calling Kasem, telling her they just don’t feel like celebrating. Leaders in the Yazidi community told Kasem that it was still too soon. Despite all of the planning and work that has gone into its preparation, the wedding celebration will never take place.
“There are a lot of people that have been so depressed that it’s caused physical illness,” said Shahnaz Osso, a sister to Kasem’s new husband.
With nearly 900 individuals, Lincoln has the largest Yazidi community in the U.S.
The Yazidi religion is pre-Islamic and one that draws from Hinduism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Most of the world’s Yazidis live in Iraq, specifically in the towns of Sinjar and Shekan.
Sinjar and Shekan are the ancient Yazidi cities, according to Osso’s mother, Aishan Bashar. Yazidi temples, which Yazidis are encouraged to attend at least once in their lives, are in Sinjar and Shakan.
“Every Yazidi in the world has been affected by this,” Osso said. “They’re all related to somebody in Sinjar.”
Many groups have been targeted by ISIS, but the Yazidis may have received the worst of it. In fact, the Yazidis have long suffered attacks by many of their neighbors. Laila Khoudeida, secretary and spokeswoman for Yazda, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and funds for those in Iraq, said that this attack began the 74th genocide on the Yazidi people.
“Of all the ethnic minorities in Iraq, the Yazidis have been damaged the most,” Khoudeida said.
Though Christians are also persecuted in Iraq, they are persecuted less harshly, according to Khoudeida. Since Christians have a book, the Bible, they are tolerated. They can either leave the “Muslim land,” as Khoudeida put it, or they can stay and pay much higher taxes.
The Yazidis, however, aren’t given those options. They don’t have written guidelines and therefore lack legitimacy, at least in the eyes of ISIS. For them, it’s either convert to Islam or die.
“We did have books of our own,” Khoudeida said, “but our books all got lost in the many genocides.”
Khoudeida said that the Yazidis now pass their religion down orally. These beliefs are what lay at the heart of the persecution and the ongoing crisis today.
Yazidi’s believe in a Supreme God who created seven angels. The leader of these angels, Tawsi Melek, or the Peacock Angel, is said to have fallen and then regained the grace of the Supreme God.
Yazidis worship the Peacock Angel. Because of these beliefs, many, including ISIS, view the Yazidis as devil worshippers. Over the years, this has been the rallying cry behind the genocides.
This particular genocide began early in the morning of August 3. There were whispers that ISIS may be coming, but most Yazidis hadn’t heard this. During the night the peshmerga, or armed Kurdish forces that normally guarded Sinjar, slipped away in fear, leaving the Yazidi unarmed and unprotected. They told no one.
Early in the morning ISIS attacked. Thousands of Yazidis fled to the mountains where they would starve for the next few months. Thousands more were captured.
Women watched as their fathers, husbands, sons and uncles were either shot or beheaded. One refugee said, “I wanted to die; I wanted to be the next one to be shot in the head because I didn’t want to see anymore of what was to come.”
She told of how children and infants were taken from their mothers and put into Caliphate training, a form of Islamic political-religious leadership. Next, she said that the women—as young as 7 and as old as 70—were separated by age and beauty. That was the last time she saw her mother.
These women were either paraded around the streets in chicken-wire cages being sold to multiple men a day or put into a camp where men would come to look at them and choose who they would purchase.
She was put in a camp. The women were forced to marry whoever bought them. If they resisted, as this woman did, they were badly beaten and forced to bathe in a water and gasoline mixture. If their new “husband” disapproved or grew bored with them, they were returned to be sold to another man.
Two women in her camp hanged themselves before they could be sold. “I wanted to do the same,” the woman said, “but I was too weak and I felt the little girls needed someone to stay with them.”
So she resisted each time someone tried to buy her, and she managed to stay with the girls who were at the camp. Even there, though, the women and girls were raped. Camp leaders would call girls and women into their bedrooms at will, killing them if they didn’t come.
The woman told of a day when a 9-year-old girl was called into a leader’s room. The girl was terrified and vomiting. The victim, knowing she would be killed if she didn’t go, tried to calm the girl and was told to do her hair so she would look nice. When she was finished, the young girl was taken into the room. As soon as she came out she was sold to a Syrian man and never seen again.
It’s stories like these that have plunged Lincoln Yazidis into a state of shock. The day the news broke, the Yazidi community rallied at the state Capitol and the mayor’s mansion.
“It was a moment of panic. It was like, we have to tell somebody and we didn’t know what else to do,” said Jenn Worley, a longtime friend of the Yazidi community.
Roza Shamo didn’t know what had happened when the protests at the Capitol began. “I thought it was a joke,” she said.
Shamo would soon learn how serious the situation really was. Her family received news of her cousin in Iraq who tried to run for the mountains with her children and was captured. She was put in a camp and managed to keep her cell phone for a while. She had buried it in the dirt and, when no one was around, would call her family in Lincoln to tell them she was okay. She and her children tried to escape about a month ago. Shamo and her family haven’t heard from them since.
“My mom was always crying and watching the news,” Shamo said.
Worley, who helps with a Lincoln youth program that is mostly attended by Yazidi children, said that everyone was on their phones, constantly watching for more news. The program was cancelled for a few months, though they would get together to pray for the Yazidi. Some of the Yazidi teenagers agreed to come only if they could talk about something other than what was happening in Iraq. Their whole worlds had been swallowed by the tragedy and they needed an escape.
Osso, who is now a freshman in college, said that her grades have dropped because she can’t focus on anything else. She felt that nothing else, including school, is as important as what is happening to her family in Iraq. Her mother, all of whose family is in Iraq, has suffered from depression since August. Osso’s brother still hasn’t had his wedding.
Shamo, a friend of Osso’s, said that three other weddings have been cancelled because of the crisis. “They had to be cancelled. Everyone didn’t want to have a wedding and no one show up because they’re too sad,” Shamo said.
Osso agreed and said that there isn’t any point to the usual celebrations. “Whenever we get together, all we can think about and talk about is what’s happening, what can we do to help,” Osso said.
Even funerals have been altered. Shamo said that the Yazidi always bury their loved ones in a traditional place in Iraq. Since ISIS has taken over that land, Yazidis have had to bury their family members in a Lincoln plot.
Worley said that the community didn’t even hold its annual post-fast celebration in December. Like weddings, the celebration usually draws in everyone from the Yazidi community. Large halls are rented, bands are hired and hundreds of Lincoln Yazidis look forward eagerly to the feasting and dancing that takes place.
But this December they didn’t dance. They didn’t eat. They still can’t sleep and they feel guilty for being safe and comfortable while their family is tortured in Iraq.
So while Yazidi cries are heard around the world, the empty halls will continue to ring silent.