By Doug Norby
Although he came to America in 2010, Shekh Hassan Hassan always thought that when he died his body would be sent back for burial to the Sinjar District of Iraq, the home of his people, the Yazidi.
That all changed in August 2014 when the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked Sinjar and its neighboring towns, leaving between 2,000 and 5,000 Yazidi dead, thousands of others sold into slavery or held as hostages and roughly another 250,000 displaced.
“They blew up our shrines, they blew up our burial grounds,” Hassan said, speaking through an interpreter. “Even if we did send our dead back, where would we bury them?”
Hassan, a soft spoken but deliberate man, is now spearheading an effort to provide the Yazidi with their own burial site in Lincoln, Nebraska. It is part of a larger effort on his part to make Lincoln, already home to more than 1,000 Yazidi according to Hassan, the new homeland for his people.
The Yazidi are a small religious group, totaling approximately 800,000 worldwide, but they have a deep and ancient religious tradition, which they claim is the oldest in the world.
The tradition includes a specific burial ritual that must begin as soon as the deceased has passed. It begins by washing the body with warm water and wrapping it in a white cloth called a Kefn, then burying the body with the head facing west towards the sunset, to signify the end of life.
The Yazidi believe this ritual blesses the soul, preparing it for heaven and eventual reincarnation. And because an important Yazidi belief is that the soul of the deceased can have an impact on the living world, it is important that the burial rite take place as soon as possible.
Hassan believes the burial ground is an important step towards finding a new homeland for his people, and he wants Lincoln to be that place.
This desire is shared by Hatim Ido, a Yazidi who fled to Lincoln after the Sinjar Massacre.
“We do not consider ourselves being from Iraq anymore,” Ido said. “They killed men, raped underage girls, and forced children to train for ISIS. They could not protect us or keep us safe.”
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of a burial ground is a lack of funding.
“The government is open to the idea, but there is no government money to be spent on it,” Hassan said. “There are very few Yazidi with enough money to be able to donate, and we haven’t been able to raise the money.”
Tom Randa is executive director of the Good Neighbor Center in Lincoln, and he has been assisting the Yazidi in their efforts to secure their own burial site.
“We received a donation of 10 burial plots for the Yazidi at a local cemetary, but with these plots they would not be able to build shrines and perform various other aspects of their funeral ritual,” Randa said. “They are now seeking land outside of town in order to properly perform their funeral services.”
While the Yazidi in Lincoln do not yet have the burial ground they desire, they are slowing working their way towards building a sense of community in Nebraska.
Hassan is encouraging Yazidi from all over the country to come to Lincoln so they can once again have a place they can call home. The Yazidi have a long-held belief that America is the only country where they do not have to fear for their safety because of their religious beliefs.
“My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather told me when I was a young man that America is a country that will last until the end of time,” Hassan said. “They believe this because America is a country where people of all beliefs live together peacefully, and because of this we will never have to fear our fellow countryman.”
This sentiment is shared by Omar Rasho, a Yazidi who fled to Syria from Iraq in 1991, spending eight years in a refugee camp before arriving in America in 1998.
“The Iraqis looked at us like animals for 1,500 years, we had no future there,” Rasho said through an interpreter. “When I came to Nebraska, I saw they are a more friendly and helpful people. I invited all the Yazidi I knew to come to this place where the people enjoy interacting with us.”