Lincoln Journal Star: Yazidis Ensnared in Trump's Muslim Ban

Jan 31, 2017
In The News

Tuesday was supposed to be a joyful day overflowing with happiness, a day for one Yazidi family to reunite after five long years overcoming indescribable danger and improbable odds.

Haji Hameka was expecting to reunite with his sister, Naam, her husband, and the couple’s three teenage sons as the family joined the more than 1,300 Yazidis living in Lincoln.

But an executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Friday effectively banning refugees and immigrants arriving to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority nations ensnared his sister's family, penning them in a refugee camp in the Kurdistan region with an estimated 200,000 Yazidis.

“It was kind of a shock to my mom, my wife and to all of our family,” Hameka said Monday. “(My mom) was thinking America will be the Yazidi country, the only country that will save the Yazidis who are suffering under this genocide and hardship.

“Even they stopped them.”

The Trump administration's action last weekend was to "prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

However the Yazidis, whose ancestral homelands are in the northern region of Iraq, were not exempted from the ban.

As army interpreters from 2005 to 2011, Hameka and his brother received special immigrant visas to begin new lives in America, settling in Lincoln in 2012.

Hameka, now an interpreter with Lincoln Public Schools and LanguageLinc Interpretation Services, said his sister's family eluded the $50,000 bounties placed on them by Islamic fighters and fled Sinjar ahead of IS before starting the refugee process reserved for Yazidis whose family members aided U.S. armed forces during the war in Iraq.

Although many Yazidis have resettled in Nebraska through the program, it can be a frustrating process to complete, according to Max Graves, executive director for the Center of Legal Immigration Assistance.

“(Trump’s order) is going to make it more difficult,” Graves said. “There is a special refugee status available for Yazidis, but it’s a very rigorous process where people are thoroughly vetted.”

According to Hameka, his sister’s family completed each of the steps -- including obtaining passports and identification papers from the Iraqi government in Baghdad, where they braved an environment unfriendly to Yazidis, and undergoing a medical examination.

The family was set to leave once before, but a delay caused the examination results to expire, forcing them to travel once more and complete an additional step.

Believing they would soon be in the U.S., Hameka said his family quit their jobs and sold belongings. They are running out of money and time, he said, as they wait for word on whether they can join family in America.

The situation has rehashed feelings of disappointment and resentment by Yazidis, who became disillusioned with the Obama administration’s reluctance to offer military and humanitarian support to Yazidis, minority Christians and others in the region who came under the crosshairs of IS when the group invaded the Sinjar region in 2014.

Yazidis in America latched onto Trump’s campaign promises that he would defeat IS, and potentially liberate their homelands and end what they count as the 74th genocide of their people.

“I hope they will do something, but the beginning is not promising,” Hameka said.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry said Monday his office was working to untangle the situation caused by a policy implementation “that has caused confusion, difficulty and concern.”

“I’m readying a letter to the administration as we speak asking for clarification as to what their exemption process will be,” Fortenberry said in a phone interview.

The congressman has led efforts on behalf of Yazidis and minority Christians before, securing a resolution declaring acts against those groups as genocide.

Beyond the label, which attached the "full weight of the government" to the declaration, Fortenberry said it helped create hope for “beleaguered people who have a right to their homeland” and created a framework for international policy to be created.

But Fortenberry said any immigration and refugee action must focus on two principals: "keeping America generous while keeping America safe."

Sen. Deb Fischer issued a similar statement Monday afternoon, saying she agrees with Trump's position on strengthening the vetting process while also working to create an "orderly, careful and clear" policy that keeps out dangerous individuals while remaining a "welcoming country to people of all faiths."

Hameka, who hopes to one day create a rescue organization for minority Yazidis and Christians, said Yazidis were thankful for the declaration, but feel without action, it is useless.

He added little has changed for them in the Middle East in the meantime.

“We are a persecuted religious minority prevented from having basic human rights by our own government,” Hameka said. “We were wishing the U.S. would do something for Yazidis -- mass immigration for them, providing them with protection -- the Yazidis believe the only hope is the U.S.

“I don’t know why we are being neglected.”

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