Taking Refuge

Picture: CC-A, Gagandeep Sapra (Disclaimer: This photo is not of Gulie's recipe.)

Rice and Potatoes: Two Worlds Unite


March 5, 2015


Most of us - myself included - first heard the term "Yezidi" last summer when ISIS sent thousands from the minority group running to Mount Sinjar, where they encountered death. But, this was not the first time Yezidis had been the subject of a humanitarian crisis. Members of the faith have faced persecution long before the rise of the jihadist group, often bordering on genocidal proportions.

One Yezidi woman is working to change that.

Gulie Khalaf came to the United States with her family at age thirteen. While excited to embark upon the journey from the Middle East to America, the family's one-way ticket also symbolized change, fear, and the unknown - the Khalafs were coming to America as refugees.

Born in Syria, Gulie's parents and older siblings had already fled their home country of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Around 1990, when Gulie was three and a half years old, the family accepted dictator Saddam Hussein's amnesty offer, and moved back to Iraq.

But, Saddam's "pardon" proved short-lived.

Soon after their return to Iraq, the Gulf War broke out. Men were required to enlist in the military, but Yezidis had no interest in the war. They were forced to fight a war in which they didn't believe.

Arguably more critical to their well-being, was Saddam's "Arabization" campaign. In his attempt to exert control and expand Arab influence, Saddam bulldozed the homes of thousands of Yezidi families living along the slopes of Mount Sinjar. He forced them into urban centers, reallocating their land to Iraq's Arab population.

Gulie described:

A whole town of Kurdish people where he [Saddam Hussein] spread chemical gas and mustard gas and thousands of thousands of Kurdish people died. We [Yezidis] were afraid that same thing would happen to us.

Saddam had a political agenda to which the Yezidis (and Kurds) fell victim.

So, the Khalaf's packed up and fled Iraq less than one year after having returned. They found themselves back in Syria - this time as refugees.

To my surprise, Gulie described her first few years in Syrian refugee camps as "really good." There was humanitarian aid; food, clothes, and water were plentiful. But, over time, conditions in the camps deteriorated. Gulie describes bread with bugs in it and regular fights breaking out over water - if the water tank even showed up that day.

One thing, however, remained the same from the beginning to the end of Gulie's experience in the camps: school.

I was a very nerdy person. I really wanted to get a certification of excellency. So I would try really hard and I was just as smart as everyone else in my classes, but I would never get the excellency certificate - it would always be the 'good job' one - because I would not read the Qur'an.

As a non-Muslim, certain elements of the Qur'an went against Gulie's faith. But, by refusing to read the Muslim holy book, she was prevented from achieving the highest possible marks in school. And, this was only in elementary school. Had Gulie continued on to middle school in Syria, refusal to read the Qur'an would have resulted in automatic failure.

It wasn't just inside the classroom that faith mattered.

If you're not Muslim or Arab, you could never get citizenship inside Syria. So it didn't matter how many generations you lived there, you could still never get citizenship. And, as a non-citizen, your chances of getting out of poverty, making something of yourself, opening a business, were a lot less.

Thankfully, Gulie and her family escaped. After nine years spent in Syrian refugee camps, the Khalafs were granted refugee status in America. As a non-English speaking teenage girl in America, you can imagine life was difficult. But, Gulie emphasized how excited she was during the transition despite roadblocks along the way.

Although the middle child, her knack for English made her the point person for dealing with the phone company, making doctor appointments, and assisting with other interactions. She became the first child in her family to graduate high school - finally achieving the high marks she deserved - and subsequently completed college.

Gulie took refuge in school, often seeing it as an escape from life's hardships. She also immersed herself in books and thanks one of her ESL teachers for introducing her to the library.

In Syria, we didn't have libraries. And [here] I started reading books - I started with kindergarten books. I don't know how I wasn't embarrassed and ashamed to look at them. After that, slowly, I started reading other books and spent a lot of my time doing that.

Today, Gulie is a teacher herself. She has been living in the United States for sixteen years. But she hasn't forgotten about Iraq:

I love Iraq - it's like being adopted. You're always going to have a certain attachment to your biological family, no matter how terrible it might have been. But, then you also grow to have love for your adoptive family. So, for me, America is like that.

And, she certainly hasn't forgotten about the Yezidis back home. Following the summer's events, Gulie helped mobilize the American Yezidi community, organizing demonstrations and speaking with the press and members of Congress.

Gulie also helps run a website that raises awareness about the Yezidis: www.yezidis.org. Along with important information about the culture, history, and current danger facing the Yezidis, the website features a section showcasing traditional Yezidi cuisine and recipes. Gulie says biryani is her favorite. In terms of American dishes, she prefers a good 'ole baked potato.

I also encourage you to visit Yezidis International on Facebook. In honor of Gulie, please support this vital cause.

Biryani

Courtesy of www.yezidis.org

  1. Soak the rice in warm water, then wash in cold water until the water runs clear
  2. Heat the butter in a saucepan and cook the onion with the bay leaf, cardamom, and cinnamon for about 10 minutes. Sprinkle in the tumeric. Then add the chicken and curry paste. Cook until aromatic and chicken is no longer raw.
  3. Stir the rice into the pan and add the raisins. Then pour the stock over the pan. Place a tight-fitting lid on the pan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a minimum (simmer) and cook for five minutes. Turn the heat off and let sit for 10 minutes. Stir well, mixing in half the coriander.
  4. To serve, sprinkle the rest of the coriander and the almonds over the biryani.