If it wasn’t a requirement of my job to follow current events I think I’d consider a serious break from the news.
From a plane shot out of the sky over eastern Ukraine to a shooting by police and accusations of racism in Missouri, death in Gaza and ISIS spreading like a poison across the Middle East, the summer of 2014 promises to go down in infamy — a season awash in waves of violence.
There’s been so much bad news that I’ve struggled against the desire to tune it out — to willfully ignore all that is awful in the world right now. But recent incursions of Islamic militants into parts of northern Iraq have reminded me that tuning out isn’t an option for locals with loved ones living these headlines.
“It’s been like a nightmare,” says Sabrin Kassem, a 23-year-old property manager from Auburn who has became the ad-hoc spokeswoman for Washington’s handful of Yazidi families in the past three weeks. “It’s pretty much all that’s on our minds right now; there’s nothing else we can think of.”
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Kassem’s family is from the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, home to many of the world’s estimated 700,000 Yazidis — a religious minority with connections to ancient Persia. Earlier this month Sinjar fell under the control of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee for their lives.
Kassem says every day she receives desperate messages from relatives back home. In response she’s helped organize a protest in Seattle in support of the Yazidis (she’s trying to schedule another for this weekend) and has gone online to start a GoFundMe fundraising campaign and a Facebook group to help support displaced people.
But her frustration is palpable.
“We fear the most that we’re going to go extinct,” she says. “I just feel so helpless, I wish I could go over there and get everyone out.”
That sense of helplessness is shared by many others in our region from parts of northern Iraq known as Kurdistan (after the majority ethnic group that lives there) — a relatively stable and peaceful part of Iraq now absorbing displaced people from around the country and the broader region.
“We thought our time of fighting had passed, that it was the time to develop our country and inspire our people,” says Reyal Hajibadri, of the Kurdish Human Rights Watch in Kent, an organization that helps support refugees and serves as a resource center for Washington’s estimated 1,000 Kurdish people. “The situation was improving, people’s lives were improving.”
In the winter of 2010 I spent three weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan as part of a reporting project about the drawdown of the Iraq War.
I immediately fell in love with the place, a combination of ancient ruins and half-built skyscrapers, strip malls and crowded mosques.
Since the establishment of a “no-fly zone” during the first Gulf War, Iraq’s Kurdistan has remained insulated against violence in the southern part of the country. It was surreal to see freeway signs pointing toward Kirkuk and Baghdad while driving past malls and fast-food chains in prosperous northern cities like Irbil and Sulaimaniyah.
Three years later hundreds of thousands of refugees are pouring into this region. Hajibadri says his relatives back home in Iraqi Kurdistan have taken in displaced families themselves.
U.S. airstrikes and the material support of Kurdish fighters (known as peshmerga) seem to be holding ISIS at bay, but Sebastian Meyer, a journalist friend of mine based in Kurdistan, says that last week’s car bombing in the capital (Irbil) has many worried that more violence may be on its way.
As I thought of that grim possibility I was again overwhelmed with a desire to retreat from upsetting global events, until I remembered Kassem’s determination.
“My family in Iraq, they know I’m in America and they think that I can do so much,” she says her voice on the verge of tears. “I’m not a huge powerful person; I can’t really get anything done except raise awareness.”
And if she can keep trying to do that, I can keep paying attention.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a news site covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @SeaStute