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Terrorized by ISIS, Yazidi refugees find welcoming community in Nebraska

Nebraska is a long way from northern Iraq. But nearly 3,000 refugees from the region's small Yazidi ethnic minority have resettled there, driven from their homes by the horrific violence perpetrated by the Islamic State group and decades of religious and ethnic persecution. Special correspondent Jack Williams of NET reports on why refugees are finding the city of Lincoln so welcoming.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Many refugees driven from their homeland in Northern Iraq by ISIS have found a new home in a place you might not expect- Nebraska.

    Almost 3,000 Yazidis, a small non-Muslim religious and ethnic minority mostly from the Sinjar region of Iraq, now call the state's capital, Lincoln, home.

    From PBS station NET in Nebraska, Jack Williams reports.

  • Jack Williams:

    Lincoln, Nebraska, is a long way from the refugee camps in Syria, where Hasan Khalil grew up, his family forced to flee Northern Iraq's multiple genocides.

    He spent 11 years living in tents. Like many other Yazidis driven from home after decades of religious and ethnic persecution, he eventually ended up here, in America's heartland.

  • Hasan Khalil:

    It's kind of like back home. It's smaller. You know, we lived in farms back in Syria. It looked, like, really safe. And that's what attracted me the most, besides the Yazidi community that we knew from back home.

  • Jack Williams:

    Khalil opened his own barbershop a few years ago and has done his best to learn a new culture. The transition has been easier because of the familiar faces around him, other Yazidis who were forced to leave family members behind and settled here.

    Thousands of Yazidis were killed in an ISIS genocide in 2014.

  • Hasan Khalil:

    Most every family have probably lost a loved one from the ISIS attack. There are still most families that have uncles or mother or daughter or brother still either captured by ISIS or they might be somewhere in a refugee camp. So, there are a lot of concerns, where people are kind of worried.

  • Jolene McCulley:

    This is our English and citizenship classroom.

  • Jack Williams:

    Lincoln has become such a popular destination for Yazidis, that they have established a cultural center, a place for refugees to learn the language, how to manage money, and even how to drive.

    Director Jolene McCulley says they are also getting over what they left behind.

  • Jolene McCulley:

    With this Yazidi population coming recently, versus the ones that have come many years back, there's a lot more barriers to integration. They're dealing with a lot of trauma. And so right now our goal is to help them overcome the trauma and remember their culture and carry on their culture, before we focus on integration.

  • Jack Williams:

    Even though many Yazidi refugees are initially resettled in other cities, they often end up in Lincoln. Some of the first immigrants arrived several decades ago after working as interpreters for the U.S. military in Northern Iraq.

  • Jolene McCulley:

    One family comes, talks to another family, and then pretty soon you have got family and friends telling family and friends, well, my family is there, I want to be with them, or maybe I can afford a house there or I can get a job there.

    And then the community support is a lot better than some of the bigger cities that they have been resettled in.

  • Jack Williams:

    At Lutheran Family Services in Lincoln, Lacey Studnicka's job is to welcome refugees, and the majority of them here are Yazidi.

  • Lacey Studnicka:

    Nebraska is a flyover state, typically very conservative. But Nebraska resettled the most refugees per capita in 2016. And we have always been at the top of the list for refugee arrivals.

  • Jack Williams:

    So, here we are, 6,500 miles from Northern Iraq in Lincoln, Nebraska. What makes this place so welcoming and attractive to Yazidi refugees?

  • Lacey Studnicka:

    People love Lincoln for the same reason we all love Lincoln. It's low unemployment, very welcoming, a great place to raise a family. And they really have found shared values here.

  • Jack Williams:

    Most Yazidis in Lincoln will never go back home because of the unrest that persists in Northern Iraq. ISIS has been weakened, but internal strife within the region still makes things unsafe for Yazidis. So they're establishing the traditions of their homeland here, including building a cemetery on the outskirts of town.

    Yazidis raised the money to buy 20 acres of land.

  • Khalaf Hesso:

    Everybody is coming together on this project, and they are donating their money and their time.

  • Jack Williams:

    Is this the one of the clearest signs that Nebraska and Lincoln are home for Yazidis now?

  • Khalaf Hesso:

    It is, yes. We have Yazidis from Texas, from California, from other parts of the country moving to here.

  • Jack Williams:

    Back at Hasan Khalil's barbershop, he sometimes can't believe he's in Nebraska, thousands of miles from home, but in a safe place where he has opportunity and a future.

  • Hasan Khalil:

    There's always hope. When I think about those kids in the refugee camps right now that are struggling, I always feel like I want to give them my voice, tell them that there is hope. There is always a door that is going to open up. You just got to never give up and then always have hope, you know?

  • Jack Williams:

    Hope that others might be able to flee the violence and rebuild their lives successfully.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jack Williams in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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