HARRISONBURG — For weeks the world has watched as the Islamic State — frequently referred to by its previous acronyms of ISIS or ISIL — seized control of vast swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory, imposing a brutal and murderous regime on other Muslims, as well as Christians and anyone else unwilling to submit to their rule.
Some of those who have been lucky enough to escape shared their stories to a crowd of more than 70 people on Court Square on Sunday in a rally organized by the Harrisonburg Refugee Resettlement office of the Church World Service.
Rebecca Sprague, community program coordinator for the group, said the rally was held to help the community understand the plight of refugees from the area, and to welcome several new families of the Yazidi faith to the community.
Nawras Elias took time to explain aspects of the religion, largely unknown in much of the world. Drawing on a mixture of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and ancient local beliefs, Yazidis believe in one God who has placed the world under the guardianship of seven angels. As a result, a peacock with seven feathers is frequently seen as a symbol for the group.
Elias estimated there are roughly 1 million Yazidi worldwide, with 300 to 400 families in the United States, located mostly in Nebraska. Harrisonburg is home to nine Yazidi families, one arriving just a few weeks ago.
Since the vast majority of the history and teachings of the religion are passed down by oral traditions within their own close-knit communities, Elias fears that the faith could disappear if violence continues in northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan brought on by the Islamic State group.
In June, the radical Sunni Muslim organization declared a caliphate, or state based on Islam, in the areas of northern Iraq and Syria it controlled, including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. The group has since sought to enforce strict Islamic law in the areas it controls.
Muslims who openly resist the group are frequently killed. Non-Muslims, including Christians and Yazidis, are given several choices — convert to Islam, pay a tax, exile or death.
The Islamic State has “killed hundreds of [Yazidi] men, raped hundreds of girls and kidnapped hundreds of children,” Elias said.
“We know that Islam does not teach, does not encourage these attacks.”
Thousands of Yazidis have sought safety on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq in recent weeks. American airstrikes and Kurdish ground forces, or peshmerga, have held back fighters from the jihadist group while humanitarian aid has been dropped and many refugees airlifted to safety.
Elias said that thousands remain in danger, estimating that more than 1 million refugees have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, including members of his own family who are now living in a school.
While he spoke, children climbed trees and chased each other on the grass of Court Square behind him, some holding small American and Kurdish flags.
Ziyad Faeedi, a Yazidi who arrived in Harrisonburg only weeks ago, is devastated by what is happening in his homeland. Speaking through Elias, who served as an interpreter, Faeedi said that his brothers and relatives remain in refugee camps in Iraq and Turkey.
Arriving in the U.S. two months ago with his wife, 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, Faeedi said he and his family have been treated well and respected. He hopes to one day be able to return to his country when it is again at peace.
“We are here for our kids and [their] future,” he said.
Many in the crowd —native Virginians, members of the city’s Iraqi and Kurdish communities, Muslims and Christians — welcomed the new family and spoke in solidarity of the Yazidis.
“Violence is never justified in support of any kind of religion,” city resident Ella Pascale said. “We have to do something to help this people, whatever it takes.”
Fernando Ziata, a representative of the city’s Congolese community, felt a kindred spirit with the Yazidis. Remembering the devastation that was brought upon his homeland by the M23 revolutionary group and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, he said he knows that the world needs to gather all of the facts before acting, but it must move quickly in northern Iraq.
“We don’t want the extinction of a people in the 21st century,” Ziata said.
Sprague encouraged residents to write to their elected officials and urge them to take action on protecting and helping the Yazidis and others affected by the conflict in northern Iraq. Donations were also collected to provide for humanitarian aid for those displaced by the conflict.
Upon seeing the larger than expected crowd and warm welcome given to the new residents, she said, “This warms my heart and is what I love about Harrisonburg.”
Contact Bryan Gilkerson at 574-6267 or firstname.lastname@example.org