Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

Representing the 1st District of Nebraska

Lincoln Journal Star: Yazidis Open, Celebrate New Cultural Center

Mar 6, 2017
In The News

Stitched in among the quilt of Vietnamese restaurants, Mexican mercados and Middle Eastern groceries along North 27th Street, Lincoln’s Yazidi community added its own patch to “Cultural Row” on Friday.

Yazda, an international organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the religious minority’s heritage in the wake of a genocide launched by the Islamic State group in 2014, opened the first Yazidi Cultural Center in North America.

The center at 300 N. 27th St. will exist as a bridge between Yazidi people moving to Lincoln -- they make up the largest community of Yazidis on the continent -- and young members of the community seeking to connect to their cultural heritage.

“It’s not about countries anymore,” said Hadi Pir, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army who serves as the vice president of Yazda. “Since they lost everything back in Iraq, they are staying here. They need someone to introduce them to the new culture, their new life.”

With the help of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant, Yazda will begin providing opportunities for newly arrived Yazidis to learn English, get driver’s licenses and work toward citizenship, Pir said.

At the same time, young Yazidis who have grown up in the U.S. will find resources to preserve their heritage by learning about their culture as well as the Kurmanji language, said Ziyad Smoqi, an Army interpreter who came to the U.S. in 2010 on a special immigrant visa.

“Many people who go away from their home country adapt to another culture and gradually forget about their own,” Smoqi said. “In addition to their new culture, we want to teach them about the culture we have.”

The inside of the center is filled with posters depicting Yazidi holy days and religious traditions, including one of a man sitting on the steps of the Lalish Temple -- a holy site for Yazidis.

Small statues and paintings of peacocks, revered by Yazidis as the representation of an angel, bring color to the office that includes a small computer lab, office space, classroom and a full kitchen.

Hanging above the front desk is an American flag, the symbol of a new life for hundreds of Yazidi people.

“The grant is going to help Yazidis in the United States, but part of our job will be teaching other people about the Yazidis, where they came from and their background,” Pir said. “I think bringing people together is going to be unique.”

Salema Merza, a former social worker and math teacher who taught kids in the Sinjar region, will be the cultural adviser at the center, teaching the Kurmanji language spoken by Yazidis to community members who grew up learning English in school.

She said the cultural center will be able to teach as many as 20 students at a time with the goal of having the young Yazidis become proficient in both reading and writing the Kurdish dialect.

“I’m so excited to get started,” Merza said.

Program manager Jolene McCulley said the center will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with some evening classes and other special events.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry joined the celebration Friday, shaking hands with Yazidis -- both young and old -- eager to meet the politician who has taken up their cause in Congress.

Spearheaded by the Republican lawmaker, Congress gave its unanimous approval to a declaration of genocide against Yazidis and minority Christians in Iraq about a year ago, drawing attention to the plight of groups there victimized by the Islamic State.

“It’s so important to become established here,” said Laila Khoudeida, secretary of Yazda, who helped bring the Yazidis’ story to Fortenberry’s office in 2014. “Having you with us today encourages us and inspires us. You have been a great advocate.”

Fortenberry thanked the Yazidis for their commitment to rebuilding their lives in Lincoln and the example they are setting as new Americans. He pledged to keep working to secure their homelands in northern Iraq to allow some to return.

Fortenberry also helped a Yazidi family navigate the travel ban enacted by President Donald Trump in late January after they were turned away from boarding a scheduled flight to join family in Lincoln.

“I am so proud to be with you today, because you not only faced persecution in your ancient homeland, you came to a new place and you have tried to integrate quickly and have done so successfully while preserving your ancient culture,” he said.

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