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    Sinjar mountain in Iraq

    The Story of Qassem

    In an excerpt from What We Remember Will Be Saved, a young Yazidi refugee details the journey of his flight.

    By Stephanie Saldaña

    March 12, 2024
    • Larry Smith

      Thank you, Stephanie, for your beautiful ministry, for keeping Qassem’s story, and that of the Yazidi and others alive.

    The nuns were entering and leaving the main gate of the abbey, their black tunics very nearly sweeping the floor. One of them climbed onto a bicycle and pedaled away. I had arrived that afternoon from a long journey of two airplanes, a train, and a bus, the last of which had dropped me at the end of a long road in the middle of the forest. I walked for ten minutes before crossing a bridge and seeing the abbey come into view, a moat directly in front of it, the abbey itself all stone and red roofs, surrounded by a vast silence and trees leaning over the water. I slipped into the chapel in time for afternoon prayers, when the cloistered nuns emerge from the back of the church, singing German hymns in an unexpected and glorious harmony.

    I had come to this convent in Germany because the nuns were giving asylum to some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world. That afternoon, one of the nuns, Sarah, an American who had lived at the convent for a decade, led me around the grounds. Two young men crossed our path near the bridge; one of them was pushing a wheelbarrow. She spoke to the one with the wheelbarrow in his native language, and he shyly put out his hand. I introduced myself in Arabic, and he smiled in surprise.

    Later, we walked to the kitchen of the guest house, where two young women were baking kleicha, an Iraqi pastry of dates and cinnamon wrapped together in tiny rolls. They invited me to join them, and as I rolled out dough, I noticed the tattoos on the younger girl’s arm. They were both Yazidi, members of a small and highly persecuted religious minority from northern Iraq. The youngest, barely twenty, had survived the genocide on Mount Sinjar in Iraq that had been carried out in 2014 by ISIS.

    I was terrible at making kleicha; I cut all the pastries much too large, and they teased me good-naturedly. They laughed together, speaking in their language together and remembering to translate for me into Arabic every now and then so that I wouldn’t feel left out.

    He arrived that first hour, that same man I had seen pushing the wheelbarrow. Young, in his early twenties, I think, but it was hard to tell. He was confident but also hesitant, as if always reading every situation for clues. He pulled up a chair near to where we sat at the table, next to where I was rolling out dough. He surveyed me for a moment.

    “I have heard that you’re a storyteller,” he said.

    “I’m a writer,” I replied quietly.

    He nodded, pausing for a moment. Then without me asking, he began to speak to me about their mountain. The younger of the two women was his sister, he said, and they had spent nine days together on Mount Sinjar, fleeing Daesh, or ISIS, who was pursuing them and trying to kill them. Later, they had spent twenty-nine days trying to escape from Iraq to Germany. They had arrived in the country a few months ago.

    European law said that they should be sent back to the first place they had been caught and fingerprinted on their journey, which in their case was Romania, where they had been arrested. But there was no way they were going back to Romania. Their parents and two brothers were already in Germany, and they were desperate to stay with them. For the moment, they were stranded in asylum in this remote convent, hoping to eventually change their status and appeal in the courts through German law for family reunification.

    He was telling me everything in a rush, in Arabic, and I did not even know his name. It struck me that, in the middle of a German forest, besides the few other Yazidis there and that American nun who had learned their language, he had likely not met anyone in a very long time who he could speak to.

    “Will you still be here after evening prayer?” I asked him.

    He laughed wryly, amused at the idea that he could be anywhere else. They were stuck there, risking arrest by German authorities if they left the church compound.

    I returned that evening after the prayer. And the next, and the next. We sat on two benches across from one another, beneath a tree whose branches shielded us from the sky, beside the field where horses grazed. Germany disappeared, and he channeled the tradition of their Yazidi storytellers: storytellers he had listened to since he was a boy, who recounted the tales of the past and so transmitted them to future generations. In Sinjar, those storytellers had hailed from certain families, and they would visit each Yazidi village to tell them of their past. But everything was different now. He would tell the story because he remained to tell it, and it still needed to be told. He would tell the story so that I could tell the story, so it would be remembered.

    Sinjar mountain in Iraq

    The north side of Sinjar mountain, as seen from the Ezidi shrine of Chil Mera 13. Photograph by Levi Clancy.

    A rabbit hopped by us. Laughter came from an open window. I was pulled into the experience of story, memorized and told night after night until it becomes part of the body and can be carried forth. We were no longer in a convent in Germany but at the base of Mount Sinjar, on that day in 2014 when everything changed.

    It was August 3, 2014, and they were coming, he began. He had known they would come, sooner or later, and yet he could not quite believe it. He rose from the terrace where he was sleeping and looked down to see figures scrambling in the street below. He raced down the stairs. The pigeons: he rushed to leave water in their coops. His father was calling for them to hurry.

    He ran to the front of the house and climbed into the truck, with his parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins, all rushing to lift themselves into cars, the houses around him emptying out in a rush of feet, scrambling, in the rising August sun. He forgot to grab enough food. He forgot enough water. Later, he would hear that a woman forgot her child, sleeping in bed.

    Then they were gone.

    That was the last he saw of the house: a glimpse from the truck, rumbling away. The house of clay and branches, of memory and sound, of footsteps and bread, the pigeons waiting to be released from their cages. The house where he had loved Khonaf. The house where he had slept beneath the forgiving sky.

    Over three nights, Qassem told me his story while we sat beneath the tree outside the convent in Germany. Nearly four years had passed since his family had escaped to Mount Sinjar. He was in his early twenties, but he seemed to me an old man held in the body of a young man or even a boy.

    I had never met anyone who could focus for such a long time, who had such patience to pronounce a story in all its complexity. Raised in an oral culture, Qassem possessed a prodigious memory. To tell a story is not just to say it out loud; it is the only way to keep the past alive. He spoke every detail of his journey, often more than once: the pigeons, the white shrine, Khonaf. On the first night, he recounted to me the nine days on the mountain, moment by moment, three long hours of speaking without taking rest. The second night, he spoke of the three years in which he was stranded in Iraqi Kurdistan after the genocide, living in that unfinished building with his family. I listened.

    In Iraqi Kurdistan, he had registered for school, but there was not enough room for all the students in the classrooms, and so he studied alone. On the mountain, he had discovered within himself a strength he did not know that he had. He wanted to offer that strength to others somehow.

    Whenever kidnapped Yazidi women escaped from their ISIS captors, Qassem and his father would run to meet them at the border to Iraqi Kurdistan, begging for news of his missing aunt, uncle, and cousin. Had they seen them? Did they know where they might be?

    Qassem’s mother cooked his favorite food, tashrib, every night to welcome him, and then when they did not show up, the next day she cooked it again.

    Eventually, all three escaped after two long years. Qassem longed for the past, when he and his aunt had climbed to the shrine to pray together. “Even today, on the days I don’t forget, I pray for all those I love,” he told me. “That God will give them goodness, and then I pray for her specifically, that God will give her goodness.”

    As they languished in that unfinished building, thousands of Yazidis were spread in camps across the north of Iraq, freezing in winter and burning in summer, unable to return home again.

    Many Yazidis began pooling money from family members to pay for smugglers to lead them to Europe. Children drowned on the sea passage, their names passing through the camps of northern Iraq as warnings to take the land route instead. Still, they crossed, by land and by sea. Once they arrived in Europe, they scattered.

    The destruction of the religion and culture of the Yazidis began in Sinjar. But as they fled and families fragmented, it continued. The Yazidis might survive as individuals, but if something didn’t change, they might not survive as a people.

    A year after the genocide, when Germany opened its borders in the wake of the refugee crisis, two of Qassem’s brothers and seven cousins escaped there. One of them, his brother Hassan, was only ten at the time. When they safely arrived, they applied for family reunification, hoping his parents and his siblings could join them by plane. But the courts ruled that only his parents could join them. As Qassem and his siblings were no longer minors, the courts considered them old enough to be self-sufficient. His father and mother and one younger sister boarded a plane to Germany a few months later, leaving Qassem and one of his other sisters, Lozin, with what they felt was no choice but to attempt the land route to Europe in order to reunite with them. Two of his brothers and one sister would stay behind in Iraq and hope to join them later. The family would be separated.

    For Qassem, the journey to Europe brought back terrible memories of those nine days on Mount Sinjar. They traveled at night to evade detection. They attempted to cross impassable boundaries. Most of all, they simply tried not to get separated. The first time Qassem and his sister attempted the journey, they crossed with smugglers from Turkey to Bulgaria, but after two days in a cave, they were arrested. Qassem had his money and cell phone stolen. Then they were sent back to Turkey and returned, defeated, to Iraq. He told himself that he would never go through that experience again. But as the weeks passed, the reality – the bleakness of their surroundings and his separation from his parents – became more apparent.

    Three months later, he set out again with his sister and members of his extended family. This time, the journey lasted twenty-nine days.

    At one point, he phoned his parents in Germany to tell them that they were making progress. Soon after, however, they were arrested and had to turn back. His mother, who did not know, kept waiting for them. She cooked his favorite food, tashrib, every night to welcome him, and then when they did not show up, the next day she cooked it again.

    When they finally arrived, weeks later, their application to remain in Germany was denied. Dublin laws meant they might be deported back to Romania, the first country where they had been fingerprinted – a fate that for Qassem seemed even worse than the camps in Iraq, where at least he had some of his siblings.

    But they heard a story that carried some hope: a refugee who had been ordered to return to Bulgaria had instead found asylum in a church. And then they heard about a convent on the far end of the country of Germany from where they were, where nuns had created relationships with Yazidis settled nearby.

    The phone at the convent rang one day in December 2017 with a request: A boy named Qassem, his sister Lozin, and their cousin Abid – all survivors of the genocide on Mount Sinjar – had arrived in Germany after traveling for weeks. Now they were in danger of being deported. Could they find refuge at the convent?

    The community had a meeting to discuss the matter. Though they were accustomed to being in contact with the many refugees resettled nearby, giving asylum to them within the convent would be another matter entirely. The older nuns had grown up with the stories about Jews in World War II who had been turned away by ordinary Germans and then sent to their deaths. They were firm: those who had experienced a genocide must never, ever be turned away again. The nuns took a vote. All of them agreed to take them in.

    Qassem, his sister, and his cousin boarded a train toward northern Germany. They arrived at seven at night, and the nuns were waiting at the train station to take them to their convent.

    “We felt like family,” Qassem tells me. “They treated us like their sons and daughters. If you were sick, they would take care of you. We could finally relax. And now we celebrate their feasts with them, and they celebrate ours with us.”

    And there – at that remote convent in the middle of the forest – is where I met him. Yes, that is where I met Qassem and where we sat together beneath the meeting tree, looking out onto a field where horses were standing in the dark, beneath the same sky of stars he had counted from the rooftop lying beside family so long ago and far away in Tel Qasab. That is where I heard the stories of the land that he had carried with him and saved on a mountain. That is where he taught me that story is a way of keeping community together, of remembering, of carrying the past into the present. Story is what keeps us whole. Qassem taught me all of that, beneath the tree, and I would not forget.

    Reproduced with permission from What We Remember Will Be Saved: A Story of Refugees and the Things They Carry by Stephanie Saldaña, copyright 2023. Broadleaf Books.

    Contributed By StephanieSaldana Stephanie Saldaña

    Stephanie Saldaña grew up in Texas and received a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School.

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