In May of 2016, Navy Seal Charlie Keating was embedded with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in an area of Northern Iraq known as the Nineveh Plain. Christians, Yazidis, and the Shabak sect of Shia Islam all call the area home, forming a unique cultural mosaic, a centuries-old tapestry of religious diversity. ISIS targeted these communities for genocidal extermination. In a battle to regain control of the ancient Christian village of Teleskof, Charlie and his team were ambushed by ISIS. Charlie fell to a sniper’s bullet.
At this point, America has given so much, lost so much in Iraq, it’s hard to understand why engagement is ongoing and necessary. Much is at stake, especially for beleaguered minorities hanging on for their very survival. Christians in Iraq used to total 1.5 million. Now, in the wake of ISIS, only a few hundred thousand remain. Approximately 400,000 Yazidis are now internally displaced persons living in tent structures.
Last year, three Christian Patriarchs traveled from the Middle East to meet with Vice President Pence and respectfully appeal to the collective conscience of America. Their words were formal and dignified, yet tinged with sadness, given the devastation. As a participant in the meeting, I watched the vice president listen intently, take personal notes, and express his deep solidarity with the suffering of the people. He has since been clear. The administration will prioritize direct American assistance. To assess the current situation on the ground and evaluate our initial aid package, I joined a delegation of administration officials including Administrator Mark Green of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. We were responding to the reports in June of this year that support efforts did not have the intended affect. The peoples waiting for help felt great disappointment. When we stepped into the dusty alleys and streets of villages and camps, we gained firsthand knowledge of the conditions of the indigenous minorities. Our trip included intense discussions with Iraqi religious leaders, international aid workers, displaced children, U.N. personnel, and U.S. military leadership.
Multiple levels of challenge remain. Security is weak, and the prospect of unprecedented exodus is real. If this happens, Iraq risks losing its minority communities and the possibility for a healthy pluralism. Iran will continue to expand its influence, permanent refugee camps will likely dot the landscape, migration pressures will stress aid systems, and ISIS could regenerate.
Despite the situation’s fragility, certain progress is being made. Witnessing facts on the ground revealed courageous acts of ecumenical alliance and revitalization, often with international NGOs and faith-based entities.
To create lasting success, an additional security footprint is urgently required in the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar. A multinational training mission, in concert with the strengthened forces of the Iraq Central Government and the Peshmerga, integrating local indigenous people, is an important option. Importantly, the prime minister of Iraq shared similar sentiments. Experienced USAID and other international funded organizations must also partner closely with groups from within indigenous Christian and Yazidi communities, assuring that local people are central to authoring their own future. The tandem effect of enhanced security and a redefined aid package will greatly enhance the likelihood of sustainable outcomes.
My hometown of Lincoln, Neb., is home to the largest community of Yazidis in America. A forgotten reality is that 3,500 Yazidi women remain prisoners of ISIS. They know too well the tragedy that was and still remains. As one Yazidi doctor who treats ISIS survivors said, “It is easy to rebuild a building, but harder to rebuild a human being."
The vice president directed us to restore what is right and good for some of the most defenseless people on earth, people who gave up all they had—in some instances even life itself—to keep their faith. Getting this right means justice for the oppressed, stability for Iraq, and the preservation of the principles necessary for civilization itself.