Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. We've been telling you about the threat facing the Yazidi people of Iraq. There are around half a million in that country, or there were. Tens of thousands of them are on the run from the militants of the Islamic State, some still on Mount Sinjar. There's also a large community of Yazidis, the largest in the US, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Gulie Khalaf is part of that community and that's where she's been following the news of her people back in Iraq. I started by asking Gulie how her family in Lincoln is dealing with the news.
Gulie Khalaf: They have put their life on the backburner and they have been robbed of their livelihood. All they do now is just do meetings, do rallies, try to talk to the people back at home and try to see if the situation is getting any better.
Werman: When you say "Robbed of their livelihood," we're talking the Yazidi community in Lincoln, are they just so upset by what's going on in Iraq that they can't even go to work?
Khalaf: Some have quit their job, some of them when they do go to their job, anybody who talks to them, they just break down and cry and some of them are so busy just texting and trying to connect with their family that they cannot focus at work.
Werman: You're a teacher. How's it affecting you personally right now? Can you concentrate?
Khalaf: I concentrate more than others because I feel like there's more that we in the Yazidi community over here could do and I'm just busy trying to arrange the next meeting, talk to the next humanitarian organization. So it's like I have a few goals ahead of me and that helps me deal with it, otherwise I would just be among all the others, just home weeping over all that has happened, crying and just being overwhelmed by all of the responsibility that we in the community here in Lincoln are faced with because we are the Yazidis' voices right now.
Werman: What is the latest that you've heard from your relatives, many of whom were stranded on top of the mountain?
Khalaf: A large number of them have made the 18-hour journey into Syria but once they make it into Syria's borders, they're facing death and the horrific conditions don't end. They get into Syria after 18 hours of walking and from there they're packed into pickup trucks and whatever, as if they're sardines, and then they have to go 3 more hours to get back into Iraq, into Zakho. But even there, whether it's Zakho or it's Duhok, their condition does not get any better. One of my relatives has made it to Duhok and he says there's 700 of them now in a school. They're not getting any humanitarian aid and they're not getting any kind of help.
Werman: What goes through your mind when you hear about these conditions?
Khalaf: Me as an American, I worry that the humanitarian aid from here, the taxes and all of that is going toward people who don't need help.
Werman: You're seeing it as going to the Peshmerga or whatever else it's going to but not to the Yazidis?
Khalaf: It might be helping some of them but a lot of them are not getting help because even my aunt, who has finally gotten out of being trapped inside Sinjar, has made it to a nearby refugee camp area in Zakho and they supposedly live in camps and such but it's basically a sheet of fabric or something like that, a flimsy thing -
Werman: Like a tarp.
Khalaf: Exactly. They call that shelter. And then there's a lot of people who get from this mountain situation dehydrated, sick, shocked, broken legs, injury here and there and they are seen maybe the first time but there is no follow-up medical help. The mountain is one thing. Then there's the women who are held as hostage - we have a person over here in Lincoln who talks to his sister who's among the hundreds of people who are held hostage. She has managed to smuggle a phone with her and she's talking about how they're right now dividing them into groups of young boys, elderly women and then women and they don't know what they're going to do with them. Another relative tells me women are being sold as merchandise for 250 dinars. Then there is the town of Kojo, it has 400 families, that's the estimate, about 4,000-5,000 people and they're telling them "Convert now or you're going to be killed."
Werman: You grew up in a refugee camp in Syria, so you know what those people are going through. It's not fun, it's roughing it when you don't want to be roughing it.
Khalaf: It's actually, for me, where I lived, compared to what they're living in, mine is kind of almost a good life. It was a good life.
Werman: Yeah, I'm sure it is. Just remind us who the Yazidis are and why ISIS is targeting them Gulie.
Khalaf: ISIS people see Yazidis as apostates, they seem them as devil worshippers. Our teachings tell us it's one of the oldest religions, it has some ties to Zoroastrianism and we believe in God and seven angels. I do not know too much about my religion unfortunately because just like all the other Yazidis throughout our history, we have been persecuted, we have had to try to blend in and not bring attention to ourselves.
Werman: But you identify as Yazidi, right?
Khalaf: I identify as Yazidi, yes.
Werman: And you're American and you're Yazidi. You lived in Iraq for awhile. Do you remember feeling different from other Iraqis because you were Yazidi?
Khalaf: I was 4-years-old when we ran away and fled from Iraq to Syria and I spent basically my childhood in Syrian refugee camps. I remember they would force us to read the Quran and when we would try to leave the class, at least the Quran class, sometimes we would get beaten. Even though I was one of the top students, my grades would always be lower. This was in an elementary school. In the middle school, if you did not take the Quran class, you would not pass. Sometimes I would wish that I was a different religion because of that.
Werman: I'm just really curious Gulie what the concept of home means to you. Is Lincoln home because of those families there or will it never feel that way?
Khalaf: Lincoln is home but right now we're trying to help all the Yazidis get out of Iraq because the Middle East is no longer a place for the Yazidis. But if we were never to go back there, it's like we're cut off from our roots. We don't want any Yazidis in the Middle East. The Middle East that they don't tolerate minorities and minorities cannot survive among them, so we don't want any of them to be left there. But if we were without Iraq, we feel cut off from our identity. It's just really saddening.
Werman: Gulie Khalaf, a Yazidi who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. Thanks very much for speaking with us, we really appreciate it.
Khalaf: Thank you for having me.