Ziyad Smoqi

Ziyad Smoqi poses outside the Yazda Cultural Center, a Yazidi relief organization, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In August 2014, Islamic State militants invaded northwestern Iraq to siege Yazidi communities in the Sinjar region. Women and children endured brutal beatings and rape, while men were separated from their families and killed if they did not submit to IS ideals.

Ziyad Smoqi, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln mechanical and materials engineering doctoral student who has lived in Lincoln since 2010, responded to the mass genocide by helping found Yazda, a global Yazidi relief organization.

“We came to a realization that advocating for our persecuted people should be done under the name of an organization rather than [as] individuals,” Smoqi said. “And that is what sparked the formation of Yazda.”

Smoqi lives in Lincoln with his wife and children and is a first-year doctoral student in the mechanical and materials engineering department at UNL, where he also works as a graduate teaching assistant.

Originally from Sinjar, Iraq, Smoqi moved to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa as a translator for U.S. troops in Iraq.

Following his time as a translator, Smoqi traveled to Washington, D.C., where he channeled his passion for language and empathy for the plight of the Yazidi people to advocate for the Yazidi community.

He met with state department officials and presidential advisors to pressure the United States government to provide more aid and resources.

In direct response to advocates like Smoqi, former President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes against IS and ordered air drops of humanitarian assistance in 2014. But months later, the United States pulled back on its resources and has since provided little aid. The Washington Post reported that 85 percent of the current Yazidi population are refugees.

Lincoln, Nebraska, has become those refugees’ largest community in the world with an estimated 3,000 strong.

Zoan Hyioqi, now a Lincoln resident, fled from Iraq to Lincoln with his family last year because of the immense resources the community offered.

“I knew that Lincoln could provide a space for my family,” he said. “I have found peace and a sense of belonging here. I’m very grateful for what the city has done for me and my people.”

The Yazda Cultural Center, located in Lincoln, serves as an extension of Yazda and provides Yazidi refugees basic services to help them acclimate to life in the United States.

By helping refugees integrate into the American system, providing public safety classes and working to preserve the native Yazidi language, Smoqi said he hopes the community center will grow and continue to extend its resources to more refugees.

“The main goal of the Yazda Cultural Center is to build a stronger Yazidi community that can socially and culturally integrate into the American society while preserving its own culture,” he said. “My hope for Yazda is to increase its financial capabilities and extend its services to more people, especially those who are being prosecuted in their own countries.”

The surge of Yazidi refugees moving to Lincoln has only occurred in the last 10 years, and Hyioqi is certain the community will grow and is grateful for the open arms the city has shown him.

“I’m just amazed at how much love we’ve seen here,” he said. “You see so much evil for so long that when you come to a place where strangers smile at you and your family, well, we never want to leave this and leave this feeling.”