Love in a time of war

Haroon Hayder, who received Moorhead’s Human Rights Commission award in December, was honored as a “champion of community involvement and an advocate for human rights, justice and equity.” The M State graduate is now attending MSUM and working as an interpreter at Family Health. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The December flight from Fargo to Erbil International Airport in Iraq was a journey of joy. Haroon Hayder was headed to the Middle East to celebrate his upcoming marriage to his sweetheart, Sipan, in the ancient city of Khanke. The Moorhead student and volunteer, who had lived here since 2016, was enthralled that he’d soon see “my lady – my queen.”

He had nurtured a secret crush on the young woman who was now his fiancee since high school 10 years before. “She never knew,” he confides. But now, four years after his family deplaned in Fargo-Moorhead as refugees from the genocide aimed at their people by ISIS, he was flying back to the mountains of northern Iraq for an incomparably happy occasion.

Accompanied by his father, Haroon ran into problems from the first. His reservations were cancelled and then rerouted due to unexpected international visa adjustments. “It was really tough,” the young man, who carries an Iraqi passport and a U.S. green card, recalls. But then they finally arrived … just as simmering tensions between the U.S. and Mideast factions erupted into violent confrontation.

Haroon is Yazidi – a member of an embattled ethnic group, distinct from their neighbors in Kurdistan and the surrounding Iraqi Muslims. In 2014, when Muslim forces launched their 74th attempt at ethnic cleansing in the Yazidi homeland, his family – like hundreds of thousands who follow their ancient, non-Islamic religion – sought to flee their increasingly dangerous homes. The Hayders were vetted and finally cleared, and arrived at Hector Airport in 2016. Now he was going back to the land they’d left behind.

And then that corner of the world caught fire.

On Jan. 3, the Trump administration ordered the killing of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani. On Jan. 4, Iranian ballistic missiles struck the Ayn al-Asad airbase 100 miles from Baghdad. The U.S. Embassy ordered Americans out of Iraq immediately. But in Khanke among the mountains of the northern border, Haroon and his soon-to-be in-laws were wrapping up plans for a huge engagement party long scheduled for Jan. 6. Their return trip was booked for a week later.

“My father called me with the news while my wife was in the hair salon. He was was afraid that if we didn’t leave immediately, we wouldn’t be able to get home, and he’d lose his job,” the 30-year-old remembers. He called the embassy himself to explain to an official that their once-in-a-lifetime event was Jan. 6. “He laughed and told me, ‘Do that first,’” he recalls. “So we did.”

They had their party. Haroon and his father managed to move their reservations up by just one day. He’s begun the long process of securing Sipan’s immigration papers, expecting to be apart from her for a year or more. “Now the distance does really hurt,” he muses. “Bringing her here is the top priority in my mind. It’s so hard going home at night and not seeing here there.”

Student and volunteer

But Haroon has much to take his mind off the long wait ahead. Since he came to Fargo-Moorhead with his parents and all but two of his 10 brothers and sisters, he has made a place for himself as an avid volunteer, civil rights advocate, student and fan of American freedoms. A graduate of Duhok University in Irag with a degree in English literature, he enrolled at M State shortly after arriving here. “I was still like a blank page. I was good in English, but I wanted to know so much more about world history, leadership, communication. I took classes in religioin, philosophy, sociology, writing, algebra – I was so hungry to learn and have knowledge fill me up! It changed me forever.”

He graduated in 2018 with an associate degree in business and human resources and practical goals – to have a store, as his father had in Iraq, or build apartment houses and hotels. As his horizons broadened, though, so did the kinds of issues that beckoned him. Now he’s working toward a bachelor’s degree at Minnesota State University Moorhead in communication development and training, with a minor in business management. “I want to work to help people understand each other,” he explains. Human relations has become his calling. His dream job? A position within the U.S. State Department. “My ultimate goal is to promote ideas that will work for global peace.”

He has worked in the libraries of both colleges and is an interpreter for Family Health Care in Fargo, where he works with New Americans more fluent in Arabic, the Sorani dialect of east Kurdistand and Badini or Kurmanji, spoken in the west. “And just a little French,” he adds. He has had a passion for English since he was very young, when his father encouraged his children to learn English vocabulary from a list of words he posted on the refrigerator door. “Each time we learned five of them, he’d give us a dinar,” he smiles. “I was a regular kid. I needed money to buy candy.”

The road to America

After graduating from high school in 2011, Haroon completed a degree in English literature at Duhok University not far from his home. But upon graduation, he says, “I couldn’t find a job. Everything is about nepotism. There were no opportunities for me.” He was too young to become an interpreter for the U.S. military, as his uncle Ezzat al Hayder had done during the Iraq conflict, but found some work translating for foreign journalists.

Meanwhile, his uncle’s decade with the Americans was putting the entire extended family in danger. Extremists targeted him as a traitor. But his service ultimately brought both his family and his brother’s to Fargo-Moorhead. After centuries of Yazidi oppression by the surrounding Muslims, the Hayder clan joined the 200,000-person diaspora, dispersing to wherever they could find sanctuary.

“Yazidis have always been viewed as different from the others around us,” he explains. Their religion integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean. Intolerance surrounds them; some Muslims even consider them devil worshippers. Though most speak Kurdish, their culture and traditions are distinct.

“There have been many, many campaigns throughout history to eliminate or convert the Yazidis by any means of torture and tragedy,” he says. “The Yazidi people are adamant about their culture and religion. We have been scattered but not eliminated. We are still here.”

That explains his passion for intercultural understanding. Haroon has volunteered with Cultural Diversity Resources, with Chira Global Development Association, and with several college programs sharing stories between cultures. He founded M State’s “Together We Grow” group, which focuses on volunteer service. Last year he completed the Moorhead Citizen Police Academy, and he was chosen for the Blandin Foundation’s Leadership in Ethnically Diviser Communities program in 2018. And he last month the Moorhead Human Rights Commission presented him its annual award in its civic category, citing him as a “champion for community involvement and an advocate for human rights, justic and equity.”

“Coming to the U.S. transformed my life,” he emphasizes. “It changed me. It made me more human. It uncovered potential that I never knew I had – parts of me that were never encouraged or even recognized in Iraq.

“Here, everyone tells you, ‘Go, go – reach for that opportunity!’ Whoever you want to meet, whatever you want to do, you can open yourself to the possibility. Life is like a flower unfolding. People are willing to show you the way. Here, there are people who want to help.”

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