The rows of tents all looked the same to a six-year-old who had just arrived at al-Hawl refugee camp in northeast Syria. “I had been playing hide and go seek and they never found me,” says Haedar. The hours before a few Kurdish teenagers helped him find his family’s tent were the most frightening he had ever experienced.
Haedar is a Syrian-born Iraqi who has never set foot in Iraq. His parents left their Shingali (Sinjari) village, Dugir (meaning “Two Trees”), after his dad had been drafted into Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran. The Ba’athists accused him of working for the Syrians. He was thrown into Abu Ghraib prison. Haedar says he used to talk about how people were packed into prison cells. When he got out, he and his wife fled on foot into the hills of Syria.
It wasn’t easy to find work there. So the family moved into a refugee camp in Al-Hawl, a town in Syria’s Hasakah Governorate. Headar’s dad had been a farmer before the Iran-Iraq war, and he was paid by an organization to plant trees inside the camp.
Haedar has some good memories from seven years in the camp: playing soccer in a field until the drought killed the grass. Getting milk, yogurt, and cheese from nomadic Arabs. Crawling under the camp’s fence in the springtime to go mushroom hunting.
He also has some bad memories beyond getting lost: The children would walk or be bussed to a school about 2 kilometers from the camp. Even though he and the other refugees were Yezidi, a religion with major differences from Islam, Haedar says the administration forced them to learn the Koran. One day, a fight broke out between Muslim and Yezidi kids. A hurled book hit the principle’s nose. After that, Haedar says, he and his fellow Yezidis were allowed to miss religion class. (Religious intolerance returned just years ago, when the town was overrun. “ISIS took over that school and used it as a Sharia court,” Haedar says.)
He emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1999, then took a train to Nebraska in 2000. He sees himself as quite Americanized, listening to Iron Maiden, Limp Bizkit, and Metallica. At the same time, a scorpion cast in resin hangs from the neck of his tambor, a reminder of that he is a “scorpion brother.” Yezidi legend says that if a woman who has recently given birth throws breast milk on a scorpion, her baby will never be stung by the poisonous arachnids. Haedar says his mother did just that in their home in Syria and that he’s since caught many scorpions who have never harmed him.
He says it is odd to be an Iraqi who has never been to Iraq. One day, he would like to visit Shingal, which was a Yezidi stronghold before ISIS displaced some 350,000 people.
In Lincoln, he plays his tambor and the keyboard. He also adds his own lyrics to traditional songs and arranges rhythms. “I believe in the healing powers of music. There is music for any situation,” he says.