Mushtaq Al-Rashidany kept his composure as he showed the crowd a slideshow with photos depicting his devastated hometown of Bashiqua in Iraq.
In 2014, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants obliterated the town and terrorized its citizens. The slideshow was disturbing, showing rubble, executions and sexual enslavement.
“They looted all property, set up booby traps, burned many houses including my parents’ house, damaged infrastructure and dug tunnels,” Al-Rashidany said. “The irrigated fields and the olive groves died. That’s what ISIS came for: death and destruction.”
The coalition of U.S. and Iraqi forces battling ISIS also wreaked havoc on the town, sometimes bombing entire buildings to take out one sniper.
Al-Rashidany spoke at the University of Montana last week as part of “Soft Landing Missoula Presents,” a series created to inform the community about the countries from which recent refugees have fled.
Al-Rashidany grew up in Iraq but left the country in 2010, after working in risky conditions in Mosul for seven years after U.S. forces invaded in 2003. He earned a master’s degree in linguistics from UM in 2012, returned to Iraq, married, and then sought refuge with his wife and unborn child from war and religious violence. He was resettled back in Missoula by the International Rescue Committee.
He is a member of the Ezidis, a Kurdish religious minority (often also called Yazidis), indigenous to a region of an area that includes northwestern Iraq.
“It’s an ethno-religious group that predates Muslims,” Al-Rashidany explained. “They are ethnic Kurds, but outside the mainstream and culture. They are worshipers of God, but due to long centuries of persecution much of the faith remains shrouded in mystery. The followers are not allowed to share details of their religion and outsiders are not allowed to convert.”
Ezidis are barred from marrying outside, he said, and much of the religion has been orally transmitted through the generations.
Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of Al-Rashidany’s hometown being liberated from the hands of ISIS, but much work remains to be done to rebuild society. The Ezidis suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS, most famously when the town of Sinjar fell in 2014 and many civilians died as they fled to a nearby mountaintop in the sweltering summer heat.
“Ezidis are believed to have been brutally targeted with the aim of annihilating them,” Al-Rashidany said. “Many children and elderly died of hunger despite airdrops. ISIS employed a strict interpretation of Islam, described as untrue by moderates, to justify sexual enslavements and murder and stealing property.”
Al-Rashidany described his home country as a beautiful place with a warm, welcoming culture that was the cradle of civilization. His hometown thrived, he said, with different religious groups peacefully coexisting for hundreds of years.
But war has taken its toll, and he said the battle has exposed divides and allowed foreign political groups with their own agenda to exploit those divides. Growing up in Iraq, he said, was "no honeymoon."
“It was traumatizing,” he said.
Jen Barile, the resettlement director with the International Rescue Committee’s office in Missoula, said her organization has resettled 32 families comprising 91 individual refugees since the office opened in 2016.
“The families are thriving and working out in the community,” she said. “We have many complex and dedicated networks in Missoula to serve refugees.”
The largest group of refugees in Missoula comes from Eritrea, while others are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq and Ethiopia. Missoula was slated to resettle 125 people last year but didn’t quite reach that goal, according to Barile.
“They are running for their lives, and everything we do is in reference to people (who) really need our help,” she said. “The reality is they are fleeing a pretty dire situation.”
Soft Landing Missoula, a group that was formed in 2016 in response to the global refugee crisis, helped bring an IRC office back to Missoula after many years of absence.
"We are so very grateful that the IRC took us up on that request," said Mary Poole of Soft Landing. "We found that with the support of this incredible community, there was certainly a lot more that we could do."