Growing up in northwestern Iraq, Hadi Pir often went to Mt. Sinjar for solace. As a Yazidi, a member of an ancient religious minority, he believed that the narrow mountain was sacred, central to the Yazidi creation myth. Aside from the mountain, the region where the country’s six hundred thousand Yazidis live, also called Sinjar, is flat and desert-like. To Yazidis, it seems clear that God created the mountain because He knew that they would need a place to hide.
After 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, Pir and Ismael, like many Yazidi men, took jobs as interpreters for the U.S. military. Because they were a targeted religious minority, there was little opportunity outside the Army, and they were unlikely to join the Iraqi insurgency. In the military, they befriended another Yazidi, named Haider Elias, who, in spite of his poor background, spoke nearly perfect English, with a TV-made American accent.
The three men worked with the U.S. for years, often with the Special Forces. Being an interpreter was dangerous—Pir carried two guns, an automatic rifle to kill insurgents and a pistol to kill himself if he faced being kidnapped. On one mission, Pir, working undercover to collect locations of insurgents, met with a Sunni fighter who later became a high-ranking isis militant. On another, his best friend was killed. “We were soldiers, basically, more than interpreters,” Pir told me. After their service, they received special visas to come to the U.S. Elias and Ismael went to Houston, along with a dozen Yazidi families. In 2012, Pir and his wife, Adula, and their daughter, Ayana, ended up in Lincoln, Nebraska, whose Yazidi community, with about a thousand members, is the largest in the U.S.