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Iraqi religious persecution hits home in Nebraska

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 13, 2014 at 5:26 pm •  Published: August 13, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Iekhan Safar moved from Iraq to Lincoln for the same reason that hundreds of Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority, came to Nebraska's capital city: to live near family, far from the dangers they've long faced as a persecuted group.

Lincoln has the largest concentration of Yazidis (yah-ZEE-dees) in the United States, and many of them brought their families to the U.S. after receiving visas for serving as translators during the first Gulf War. Now, the city is at the center of a frantic effort to draw attention to the group's plight in northern Iraq, where Yazidis are fleeing from Islamic State militants to escape violence and attempts to convert them to Islam.

Thousands of homeless Yazidi families are packed into a refugee camp on a remote desert Sinjar mountain range near the country's northern border, where there is little access to food, water or shelter. Safar, a 26-year-old mother of three, says her sisters and their children face an uncertain future there. One sister called this week in tears: Her 3-year-old daughter fell off a cliff and died in the rush to escape the extremists.

"I just hope they bring them here. At least they'd be safe," Safar said through tears in her Lincoln apartment. "They don't want (government) help — no Medicaid, food stamps, nothing like that. They'll work hard. They just want their kids to be safe."

Yazidis in Lincoln say they're grateful for the humanitarian airdrops and airstrikes against militants that President Barack Obama ordered last week, but fearful that their loved ones can no longer live peacefully in Iraq.

Uncertain of what to do, Yazidis staged a hastily organized rally at the Nebraska Capitol and the governor's residence this month and reached out to U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who along with four other congressmen sent a letter to Obama calling for immediate humanitarian assistance. They also sent five vans of people to Washington to appeal to the State Department, asking for food, water and protection for their relatives.

Yazidis — also spelled "Yezidis" — have suffered religious persecution for generations because of their beliefs, which include some elements similar to Christianity, Judaism and other ancient religions. Many Muslims consider them devil worshippers, an accusation that Yazidis strongly dispute.

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