LUSIK USOYAN IN A FAR HAPPIER MOMENT There was nothing she could do when her nieces and nephews were burned to death inside their home. She begs the United States not to forget the Yazidis.
  • Courtesy of Lusik Usoyan
  • LUSIK USOYAN IN A FAR HAPPIER MOMENT There was nothing she could do when her nieces and nephews were burned to death inside their home. She begs the United States not to forget the Yazidis.

This morning, 30-year-old Lusik Usoyan woke to the news that the U.S. does not believe her people need rescuing. A small team of U.S. troops and aid workers landed yesterday on Mount Sinjar, where Yazidi people had been trapped for more than a week with little food or water, and determined that there were "far fewer" refugees than they'd thought—"only several thousand"—and they were "in better condition" than expected. The word was that thousands more had struggled their way down the mountain; reports differ on whether those who escaped have landed back in Iraqi Kurdistan or across the border in Syrian refugee camps. The thousands still on the mountain still have that struggle ahead of them.

Usoyan has absolutely nothing negative to say about the United States. This country is the only place she has ever felt safe, she says. "God bless the US," she tells me by phone from the office where she is a paralegal near Tacoma.

But she does not agree with the assessment that nothing further needs to be done for her people who are under siege from ISIS in Iraq. Rather, she believes refugees on Mount Sinjar are dying, not escaping to safety—and that's why there are fewer people there. Air drops of aid have helped those who remain; there is dramatic footage of one such drop from CNN.

THIS IS THE CURRENT SITUATION Kurdish Voice published this photograph on Mount Sinjar 16 hours ago.
  • Courtesy Kurdish Voice
  • "THIS IS THE CURRENT SITUATION" Kurdish Voice published this photograph on Mount Sinjar 16 hours ago. The Yazidis count 73 genocides in their history.

Usoyan gets her information mainly through word of mouth spread across the Yazidi community in the Seattle area. She estimates there are about 20 to 30 Yazidis here, and they all behave like family. They talk on the phone "every single day." There is no one place where they congregate, she says, because they are "very family"; they meet in each other's homes. They do not have a church. Their main temple, which she fears is on the verge of being destroyed, is in the heart of ISIS-controlled territory near Mosul. As of yesterday, the temple was housing refugees.

On Mount Sinjar, "it was like 15,000 people there a week ago, and it’s going to be be much less than that now because a lot of them dead. But okay, I really appreciate what US does, and let’s think about future," she pleads. "The wintertime is coming up, even the people on the border now in a safe place they have no homes, no money, no food, they are sleeping on the streets, no medication, and no friends. They are going to end up dying in the wintertime."

This is no abstraction to Usoyan. She watched her nieces and nephews burn. Her parents's own story is "a lot of bloody."

Usoyan's parents don't like to talk about the details. They lived in Turkey until things got so bad that they were forced to flee to Armenia, where Usoyan was born.

Everywhere they go, Yazidis are an extreme minority—estimates of their total population around the world usually range from 500,000 to a million—and fundamentalists of all kinds, like ISIS, accuse them of being devil worshippers. Their religion is not like any other; it combines elements of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, and features prominently a defiant angel who has similarities to Christian conceptions of Christ and Satan, but big differences, too, and the Yazidis do not believe in hell.

You cannot become a Yazidi; only someone born of two Yazidi parents is Yazidi. They marry almost entirely within their own ethnic group. They are not, as Usoyan emphasizes, recruiting. They just want to survive.

Like Turkey before it, Armenia was not safe for Usoyan's family. They had to run again—leaving behind a home they owned and had built themselves—and this time they landed in Vladivostok, Russia. Usoyan grew up there, and her parents and five siblings remain there, uneasily.

At the dinner table growing up, Usoyan remembers that they talked about Yazidi culture and family history in order to preserve it far away from the main temple in Iraq. Russians looked upon them warily, sometimes making outright threats. Yazidis count 73 genocides in their history.

One day, Usoyan and her older sister left her sister's four children at home to run an errand to their parents' house. The oldest child was age 13; the youngest 18 months. When they returned, the house was on fire. All four children were already dead. They believe the fire was arson motivated by ethnic hatred.

"Nobody did anything. Nobody was arrested," Usoyan says quietly, then bursts into tears and speaks in a torrent. "Right now what I’m hearing is they’re killing families and kids [in Iraq] and it just reminds me this story which I went through when I was only 17 years old, and I think we deserve to be alive. We’re very peaceful. We did nothing. All we want is raise our kids and be peaceful and have a future. We have no place to stay, we have no government, we have no one who can protect us and take care of us."

Usoyan's sister had two more children, who still talk about their four siblings who died in the fire. Even though they never knew them.

"We are begging for help," she continues. "What we can do? Almost nothing, but I hope the US government will save these people. There is no other place like the US. We have freedom here. There is no other place we can ask."

Usoyan first came to the United States in 2007 on a vacation to visit family friends in Richmond, Virginia. As a girl, she'd had an American schoolteacher who inspired her to speak her mind. While on vacation, Usoyan simply made up her mind she was going to stay in the US and get a work visa. She told her husband he could go back if he wanted to, but she was staying. They started a company cleaning air ducts and carpets in Alexandria, then Baltimore and New York.

When they divorced, she moved to Seattle, having heard that Washington weather was mild like Vladivostok's. At first she worked two jobs, one eight hours a night at a printing company in Bellevue, the other five hours every morning at Seattle's Northwest Justice Project, providing legal aid to the poor. She decided she wanted to help people through the law.

Usoyan already had a degree in economics, specializing in crisis management, from Russia. It was seen as useless here; the economies were entirely different, and when she moved to the United States, she spoke four languages already (Russian, Ukrainian, Kurdish, and Armenian)—but not English. English is her fifth language.

Her boss at the Northwest Justice Project encouraged her to take paralegal classes at UW; her professor told her about a job at Palace Law Offices, specializing in workers' comp. She works full-time there now, every day learning legal terminology and practice that will help her go to law school, fulfilling her dream.

Unfortunately she can't think of her dream at all anymore.

"Now all I’m focusing on is people who are there [in Iraq]," she says. "I didn’t know this was going to be like this a week or so ago. I thought I would call my parents in Russia and say, 'Hey, I’m okay,' like I do every night, but now it’s totally different. I saw a picture of a full room of dead little kids at the ages of 1 and 5 or 6, all dead, and we can do nothing to bring them back, this is what I feel. I’m so worthless if I can’t do anything for those kids. We had a protest, and another family that lost half their family [in Iraq], they weren't in condition to come to protest—they couldn’t even talk. I called them last night, they can’t even talk, they don’t know what to do. And they can’t go back to help because as soon as they reach that point, they’ll be killed too.

"When I heard the families on Wednesday, they are just crying and crying, heartbroken. We're going to knock every single door asking for help. When I remember my sister’s family’s kids, there was nothing I could do to save them. By the time when I got there, they all gone. Right now, we can save a lot of lives, you know."