A group of Yazidis from around the United States are in Washington to meet with administration officials, tell their stories and push for additional humanitarian aid on a mountaintop in Iraq where thousands of members of the minority sect have fled from Islamic militants.
Many of the group of about 15 people are from Lincoln, Neb., home of the nation’s largest Yazidi population. Many of them worked for the United States during the Iraq war, including as interpreters.
“This is a genocide in 2014 in front of the world,” said Basim Karim, who arrived in 2011 after working as an interpreter for the United States.
Karim said a group has met with representatives from the White House and the State Department and is asking for additional airstrikes to combat Islamic militants, known as ISIL, who are targeting and killing Yazidis. Karim said that about 200,000 Yazidis fled to a mountaintop to escape ISIL and that many, including children and the elderly, are dying of dehydration and other ailments on the mountain, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees. An administration official confirmed that a group of Yazidis met with White House officials.
“ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide," President Obama said Thursday night. "So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: descent the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger."
Karim said members of the Yazidi community are asking for additional airstrikes and humanitarian aid to help people on the mountain. The group also held a protest in front of the White House last week.
“Airstrikes are very limited,” Karim said. “We hope that the U.S. government takes more serious action to move forward to save the lives of those people.”
Karim said ISIL militants one day supplanted Kurdish forces that were protecting their villages in Sinjar province. The militants went door to door, killing Yazidis. Thousands of Yazidis fled their towns -- some went one way and got killed and thousands of others drove to the mountain, which has a long history in the Yazidi community in Iraq.
“That was the only option that was left,” Karim said. Some people are willing to commit suicide rather than turn themselves over to ISIS, he said. He said ISIS members are telling Yazidis that they must convert to Islam or be killed.
Karim said it is difficult for all of the humanitarian aid to reach everyone on the mountain because of its rugged terrain.
“Our hearts are broken because we lost thousands of people -- and most of them, they were innocent kids and elderly and a lot of youth just trying to save the families,” he said. “It’s ethnic cleansing against the peaceful minorities who lived and built a civilization and we played a major role in the civilization of the Middle East,” he said. Basically we believe in something different than Islam, and extremist Islamic groups attacked the Yazidis.”
Obama said Saturday that getting people off the mountain and to a safe place would be "complicated logistically." Karim said he does not think it will be, because many people still have vehicles at the bottom of the mountain and their homes are only about 70 miles away.
Karim said many Yazidis worked for the United States as interpreters and security at the U.S. Embassy in Irbil and in other places in northern Iraq. The first wave of migration to the United States started in the early 1990s. There was another in the late 1990s and a third after the latest war in Iraq ended.
“The next biggest wave of immigration started after the U.S. came to Iraq for the liberation and personal freedom of Iraq," Karim said. "Most of the Yazidis were supporting the U.S. as linguists, security, bodyguards. The U.S. Department of State offered visas to refugees for Yazidis.”
Many Yezidis ended up in Lincoln after a few families were resettled there. Many didn’t speak English and were looking for a community, so moved there. About 350 Yazidis live in Lincoln, Karim said, and others are in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Texas.
“The Yazidis we are peaceful people willing to leave here peacefully with basic human needs. We are not extremists, we are very open minded,” he said.
Karim said that many of the militants knew that the Yazidis were working for the United States.
"That was one of the other reasons to hate the Yazidis. We did help them a lot," he said of the United States. "There were thousands of Yazidis who worked for them."
Karim said he and others love living in the United States and want to see their new country help their homeland.
“We just want our land and our home and our dignity and basic human needs, we don’t want anything else,” he said.
Yazidis live in northern Iraq and speak Kurdish, although they are not Kurdish. Karim said they have been persecuted for thousands of years.
"This is not the first massacre" against Yazidis, he said. Yazidis have been falsely accused of worshiping the devil.
Their religion is centered around the worship of Tawsi Melek, known as the "Peacock Angel." Yazidis believe the angel is omnipresent and may manifest itself as a rainbow or a peacock, among other things. Yazidis believe it is a more tangible version of a supreme God, which created seven other angels.
"Yazidi prophecy maintains that Tawsi Melek will come back to Earth as a peacock or rainbow during a time of intense conflict, poverty, famine and distress on the Earth," according to Yeziditruth.org. "He will then transmit some prayers to a holy man, probably a Faqir, who will then take them around the Earth and give them to representatives of all religions."