Pope's Visit to Iraq Comes at Crucial Time
Pope Francis is making a historic trip to Iraq this week. While many of our leaders in Washington seem to be disinterested in religious freedom abroad, the Pope’s visit will throw a spotlight onto the desperate situation of persecuted believers in Iraq. One young woman in Nebraska couldn’t be more delighted.
Nibras Khudaida grew up in the small farming village of Sreshka on Iraq’s Nineveh Plain. Sreshka’s population was around 500 people when she last saw it in 2014. All its inhabitants were traditional Yazidis, members of an ethnic group related to the Kurds who practice a monotheistic faith.
Up until she was about ten years old, Nibras and her family lived with her grandparents and other relatives. Her father, Mazin Khudaida, left Sreshka in 2000 to find work in Baghdad. He was one of the first Yazidis to leave the village. With the money he earned in Baghdad, Mazin built a house for his family in Sreshka – and later a new life for them in America. But I'll come to that later.
Nibras says that during her early childhood the Yazidis in Sreshka "lived and studied together peacefully" with local Christians and other minorities – until 2014, when she was 16. That was the year that “everything got destroyed.”
When ISIS entered Syria, the people of Sreshka knew the terrorists would come after them. It was Nibras’ last day of school. She and her classmates were celebrating completing their final exams. Awards were being handed out and there was music and dancing. Then it happened. “We heard screams, cars, out of nowhere. We turned off the music and sat in silence. We heard in the distance sounds of screaming, kids crying.” Shiite Muslims and Christians fled past. Nibras said barely a word to her friends as they all hurried home. “I don’t remember how I got home. I don’t remember if I ran, if I walked.”
When Nibras arrived home, her family was eating lunch. Her mother Havin gathered the family passports. “Twelve of us, including my grandmother, piled into a small car, closed our house, and left. The food was still on the table.” The extended family – about 25 people – rented a small house in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq. “We thought it would be temporary – a month or two,” says Nibras, of what would become a year-long stay.
Mazinm, who had worked as a contractor in Baghdad for the U.S. army, was eligible for a refugee visa. The family moved to Nebraska, where the Yazidi community is large and there are many other Iraqis there as well. Working hard, Nibras was able to graduate high school on time. With the help of a number of scholarships, she has gone on to college at nearby Creighton University. Nibras is the only Yazidi and only Iraqi at the college. She also works as an intern with the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., a group committed to promoting the cause of religious freedom, in the Institute's words, “for everyone, everywhere.”
Last year Nibras was able to track down her friends from Sreshka. “No one had phones when we were displaced,” she explains. After many months of searching, she found them living in Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. None of them had returned to Sreshka.
Many Christians in the region have fared no better than the Yazidi. Mosul’s once thriving Christian community is today reduced to no more than 70 families. The situation in Qaraqosh, however, is somewhat different. There, a larger number have returned thanks to the reconstruction efforts led by the Knights of Columbus and Christian leaders. Its Christian Refugee Relief Fund, which began in 2014, has been crucial in providing humanitarian assistance and resources for the rebuilding effort. Initiatives like those sponsored by Nasarean.org, an organization providing micro-financing projects for Iraqi Christians, are also making a difference. The group’s founder, Father Benedict Kiely, a priest of the Ordinariate, hopes to help Iraqi Christian families “rebuild their lives, feel empowered, and break the culture of dependency.”
Pope Francis’ visit this week will remind the world of the death-defying courage of Iraq’s religious minorities – their resolute commitment to their faith, the perils they continue to face, and the crucial task of recovery. Nibras Khudaida and others who survived the ISIS-led genocide hope it’s not too late for leaders in Washington to follow his lead.
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Director of the Conscience Project.