The genocide 6,000 miles away: America's Yazidis watch and wait, fearing the worstby Libby Nelson on August 11, 2014 Lincoln, Nebraska — The last night Salam Sheikh could sleep was Sunday (3 August). That was before Islamic State fighters marched into his home city of Sinjar, in northern Iraq, defeated 5,000 Kurdish fighters within an hour, and made Cheikh's family prisoners in their own home.
Now when the 28-year-old calls his three sisters and his disabled mother, more than 6,400 miles away in Iraq, they speak only in whispers. Speak any louder, they fear, and ISIS fighters might overhear and realize they are still in the city.
Sheikh and his family are Yazidi, part of an ancient religion with about 600,000 adherents around the world, mostly in Iraq. About 200 Yazidi families live in the United States, half of them here in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they began settling after the first Gulf War.
In Sinjar, tens of thousands of Yazidi have fled for their lives as ISIS advances into Kurdish territory. As many as 40,000 escaped to the nearby slopes of Mount Sinjar, where they are besieged by ISIS, stranded without food or water, slowly dying of thirst.
The United States began airstrikes against ISIS and humanitarian airdrops over Mount Sinjar over the weekend, and on Monday several thousand of the trapped Yazidi reportedly escaped to Syria. But many thousands are still trapped; it's not clear how long they can hold out.
Some of Lincoln's Yazidi can recount, in excruciating detail, what has happened to their family. When Sheikh calls his younger sister in Iraq, a 19-year-old college student, she cries on the phone, afraid of the ISIS fighters who she fears will break into the house and kill, rape, or mutilate her.
His three sisters have already survived one ISIS search of the house, thanks to a Muslim neighbor who sent the fighters away by telling them there were no young women at home.
Other Lincoln families are in no less devastating limbo. Iekhan Safar's two sisters and their newborn babies are all trapped on Mount Sinjar. They face an impossible choice: die of thirst and starvation on the mountain, or die by the militants' guns waiting for them below.
The Yazidi, who have been persecuted for centuries, say their cultural memory includes 73 attempted genocides. The Nebraska-based Yazidi fear they are watching the 74th from thousands of miles away."It's worse than the war," Sheikh says.
Sheikh came to Nebraska as many other Yazidi have: with a special visa for translators who worked with the US Army during the Iraq war. Yazidi began settling in Nebraska after the first Gulf War, in 1991. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam, it brought another wave of Yazidi immigration, including Sheikh, who arrived 16 months ago.
Lincoln is a city of about 265,000 people, home to the flagship state university and a state capitol that towers over downtown. Over the past 30 years, it has also quietly become home to refugees from more than 40 countries. It is now the only city in the US with a sizable Yazidi community.
In the past week, Lincoln's Yazidi have protested at the state capitol and the Nebraska governor's mansion. They have met with lawmakers and sent six vans of people to Washington, DC to try to draw national attention to the Yazidi plight.
Sheikh says he's proud of his work with the US military. So does Hayder Murad, who worked as a translator from 2005 to 2011 and moved to Lincoln in 2012. The Yazidi "welcomed the US first," Murad says. "We helped the US Army." But now both worry that ISIS might target their families as punishment for collaborating with Americans.
Now the former military translators are hoping to get back in touch with the US army, as it launches strikes against ISIS in northern Iraq. They say they want to warn them not to strike houses where Yazidi are hiding, or even to ask for transportation and weapons to go fight ISIS themselves.
When he came to the US, Murad thought he would never return to Iraq. Now he wants to go back to save his people.
"We are ready to help, to go anywhere," Murad says. "We will join the US Army or make a special team. We are all ready to die for people to save them."
Sheikh says he wishes he had a plane ticket, a weapon — anything to fight ISIS. "I swear to God I will fight," he says. "I don't care about my life. All I care about is my three sisters."
As Iehkhan Safar, 26, pours milk into a bottle for her 2-year-old son, she worries about her sister, trying to feed her own 10-day-old baby while trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Safar's nine siblings are all still in Iraq, some working with the Iraqi military, others in hiding from ISIS. She moved to the United States in 2006, after she met her Yazidi husband while he was visiting Iraq on a trip from his new home in the US. Their three children were born in the United States.
When Safar called her family Sunday, they told her ISIS was approaching and they planned to flee. Her brothers carried her mother, who has been sick for years and cannot walk due to diabetes, depression, and arthritis. Two of her sisters have newborn babies.
Her family used to picnic on Mount Sinjar. They would have gone to the highest point on the mountain, where there are some caves for shelter but little vegetation or natural sources of water.
The thousands of Yazidis who fled ISIS have been on the mountain for six days now. As the batteries in their phones fade, along with their food supplies, relatives in the US and elsewhere worry they will lose contact.
"Am I going to be one of the many people I see around me burying their babies?" Safar says her sister has asked during one of their recent calls.
In Lincoln, Yazidi families watch the war unfold on Kurdish-language television as their American-born children play on quiet suburban streets.
Safar's five-year-old daughter was reluctant to pose for a photograph during an interview. But she agreed to do it when her mother told her it would help her grandmother, who she knows is in trouble in Iraq.
Sheikh usually works two jobs, one at a manufacturing plant, the other at a landscaping firm. He hasn't gone to work all week. His work won't allow him keep his phone with him, he explains, and he can't bear to break contact with his family.
The family of Waleesa Antar, a 26-year-old Yazidi in Lincoln, is also trapped in their house near Sinjar. Antar can hardly stand to talk to them, she says, she is so afraid that every conversation might be their last.
The distress is so unbearable that she has considered suicide multiple times this week, she says through a translator. The only thing that stopped her is the realization she could not leave her three-year-old daughter alone.
"I cannot think of anything good that might possibly happen to them," she says.
If his family cannot get out, Sheikh says, he has a terrible and desperate wish: that the Iraqi Air Force or Kurdish Air Force or whoever is in the area will bomb the entire city and kill them all.
"I wish they'd bomb the entire city, including my own family," he says. "I would kill my own family instead of having ISIS get in close to them."http://www.vox.com/2014/8/9/5985317/ame ... ring-worst