“I feel like Lincoln is not only my home, it is my life,” says Kawwal. Near the vegetable garden in his backyard, pear, peach, and apple trees grow as they did back in Shingal (Sinjar, in Arabic), a region in northern Iraq. Kawwal wanted to make the American plot feel like Malek, his old village. So after he resettled in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1999, he asked his daughter to write down the English names of trees found in Shingal. He went to a plant shop to buy seeds but walked out surprised that some trees—“fig,” “olive,” and “pomegranate”—don’t grow in the Great Plains.
Kawwal is Yezidi, an ancient, ethno-religious minority in Iraq. He remembers his village as a place where religious leaders and holy men spread prayers. Despite being home to thousands of families, Malek was one of 137 Yezidi villages razed in the 1970s during Saddam Hussein’s attempt to stamp out the region’s religious diversity. Some of the collective villages where people were forced to resettle even had Arabic names, after Muslim battles.
Under a pear tree, Kawwal plays a Shingali folk song about a man who refuses to convert to Islam, then recites a sun prayer:
We face the sun
Because we believe God created the sun.
We say please God, accept this prayer.
We wish we had 1,000 heads,
each with 1,000 languages,
so we could pray to you and even that wouldn’t be enough.
Please God, spread peace throughout the world and take the evil away.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Ba’athist regime forced Yezidis, who honor a peacock angel named Melek Taus, to register as Arabs in the census. But it was the sound of a gunshot during a peaceful walk to Khana Soor village that made teenaged Kawwal question his future in Shingal.
A man had been killed for refusing to join Saddam’s army, which was drafting men to fight its war with Iran, a Yezidi leader later told him. “He said the army took money from the family for the bullet they had wasted on him,” says Kawwal. Then the government told the family that no one could mourn their son because he was a traitor to his country.
Kawwal didn’t want to risk his life for a regime that could treat its people so poorly, but to refuse would be an even greater gamble. Three months later, he and about a thousand other Yezidis fled conscription by vanishing into the folds of Shingal Mountain. Then they crossed the border into Syria. Eventually, many moved into a refugee camp where Kawwal would spend the next decade of his life.
“Today I watch TV, watch people suffer,” he says and then points to a swing in his backyard. “I was sitting on that swing the evening I found out ISIS attacked. My nephew called. I asked him, ‘What happened to the Peshmerga [military of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq] and security forces?’ He said they had abandoned. I wished for my own death. It reminded me of our history, and how they said we can never escape.”
At night, he gets together with other Shingal transplants in Lincoln—men he knew in the refugee camp and in Malek. They play cards, smoke tobacco, and talk about the genocide. It is comforting to watch the news with these familiar faces.
Kawwal hopes to someday open a center in Lincoln where Yezidi children can play and learn about their past. Because some Yezidis who arrive in Nebraska didn’t have the time or forethought to ask about their history before they fled.
He says he never thinks about going back. His village is gone. His people cannot return safely to Shingal. He asks, what is there to go back to? “Our history speaks to the fact that Yezidis don’t have a future in Iraq.”