They used to call him ‘Hassan the Arabian barber.’
“I would laugh and not get mad. What am I gonna tell these people?” says Hassan. It was an innocent mistake from Americans unaware of Iraq’s religious and ethnic diversity. And Hassan, a 31-year-old parent to three, didn’t have the patience to describe Yezidism—an ancient religion with roots in Zoroastrianism—to every customer in the barbershop.
That changed in 2014 when thousands of Yezidis were displaced by ISIS. Suddenly, people wanted to know where Hassan was from and what he was. “After ISIS invaded Shingal [Sinjar], clients started asking, ‘Hassan, you’re not Arabic are you?’…‘So you’re not Arabic but you are from Iraq, so what are you?’” As he cut their hair, he started to tell them.
Hassan began to barber in Buffalo, New York, alongside Puerto Ricans and African Americans. Eventually, he took over a joint called “Fresh Def Haircuts.” He later moved to Lincoln, Nebraska which has the largest population of Yezidis in the United States. He opened “Golden Scissors” on Halloween in 2014. The shop employs a Mexican, a Muslim Kurd, and two U.S.-born Americans, Fish and Misty. Nearly three years into operation, Golden Scissors is booming.
Past the hairsprays and creams is an open room where Hassan set up a keyboard, speakers, a smoke machine, and a disco ball. He plays music in between clients, on his lunch break, and after work. He likes to blend the Mexican guitar, Native American flute, and Turkish strings. But he also samples Yezidi instruments and beats so that customers learn a little more about his culture. “I always thought that if I’m not going to go to war, maybe through music I can share something,” he says.
Hassan was born in 1985 somewhere between Iraq and Syria, and sometime during his parents’ escape from persecution during the Iran-Iraq war. He doesn’t know his exact date of birth, just that it was in December. He says he has no memories of his homeland, only stories from his grandmother about herding sheep and gathering firewood on Shingal Mountain.
In some ways, his childhood in Syria’s al-Hawl refugee camp in the early ‘90s was like that of an average American boy: swimming, soccer, cartoons on TV. Except there was a high fence that you couldn’t jump. And when Hassan asked his parents why they were there, “Instead of telling the whole truth—knowing that we would not benefit from it—they would tell us things that would excite us. That ‘We’re here to have a better life.’ But we would [over]hear them talk about why. We would hear different answers than what they would tell us,” he says.
In 1993, eight-year-old Hassan saw some cooped-up pigeons in Arab villages near the camp. He wondered, “How do they make eggs? How long does it take for them to hatch? How long does it take youngsters to fly? How do you make them come back home?” He started trading food for birds of his own. Back at the camp, Hassan would fly them on the rooftops of the buildings. It made him feel less lonely. And little by little, he trained them to fly back to him.
Today Hassan still owns birds, like Ukrainian Skycutter pigeons which move their wings in a circular motion and can hover in the air for hours at a time. Their chirping from a parked RV can be heard inside his barbershop. He chooses to leave the trailer’s door and windows open. “I never put my birds in cages,” he says. “A lot of the times it reminds me of the refugee camps we were in.”
Hassan began a life in the United States on September 28, 1999. He didn’t know anyone in the country or how to speak English. But eighteen years later, Nebraska is home. “The door is open for you, opportunities are there for you. Here is your chance to do something and there is no excuses for why you aren’t doing it.”
There are still struggles. In August 2017, his oldest brother suffered a stroke at just 36, leaving behind a wife and five kids. “My brother was a hero,” says Hassan. “He is the reason we are alive. He provided for us in Syria.” Hadji was also the first person who got Hassan to play music on a stage. To Hassan, the loss is immeasurable.
He will mourn his brother for 40 days according to Yezidi tradition. But eventually, he will go back to the barbershop and make music to honor Hadji. “We hope that good souls go to heaven.”