She walks alone, trudging gingerly across these snow-covered hills, making her way to a small knoll at the top, barely visible in the fading winter light.
No one else would have tried to coax a Volkswagen Jetta up the too-soft dirt road, barely visible beneath the knee-deep snow. Anyone else would have seen the icy drifts and thought, not today.
But she is not anyone else.
Even from the road, she can see that the small cemetery is barren — no shrines, no signs, no benches. And worst of all, no trees. Not one.
She wanted to do something about that, so she joined the Girl Scouts, and she came up with her own project idea: raise $5,000 to buy hundreds of spruce and pine and fir to make this a prettier place for those buried so far from their homeland.
But that’s the kind of girl she is, the 20-year-old high school senior who swore she’d learn English in a year. Who works until midnight at a fast-food restaurant after school. Who gets up at 4 a.m. to study. Who dreams of becoming a doctor one day, a surgeon.
She’s getting closer now as the snow gets deeper.
There are 11 Yazidis buried on this small knoll in Malcolm, Nebraska, 12 miles northwest of Lincoln. The Yazidis came here seeking refuge from the butchers in Iraq. Islamic State soldiers killed them by the thousands because they weren’t Muslim, and now more than 3,000 have found a home in Lincoln.
Most of the graves don’t even have headstones, including the one she’s looking for on this fading afternoon. With one sharp tug of the gate, she steps inside the chain-link fence surrounding this tiny cemetery.
She remembers back home how the sun was so close it seemed like a friend, and how it sent everyone running home by noon. How the little girl waited for him by the door.
Anyone else would have given up and done their best to forget all that she has seen, all that she has endured.
But Maysaa Khalaf is not anyone else. She remembers it all.
They burst through all the doors on that quiet morning of Aug. 3, 2014, shards of glass exploding everywhere.
Mothers screamed and wept as Islamic State forces stormed into the houses. Women heard their children crying. They heard their daughters wailing. They heard the gunfire on the edge of town — the places where their husbands and sons were forced to dig their graves, then were gunned down to fill the bloody holes.
The Islamic State was intent on wiping out the Yazidis.
Phones rang off the hook that terrible morning at her sister’s house in Sharya.
Where are you? Are you in Sinjar?
Do you know what happened?
Are you safe?
Something in their shaking voices dug a pit inside Maysaa’s stomach. The then-15-year-old’s hands trembled as she picked up her pink cellphone to dial her friend.
She tried again.
Again and again she dialed her friend in Sinjar, the northern Iraqi city that had been caught sleeping. Maysaa had been living there with her parents and siblings but was spending the summer with her older sister and grandparents in Sharya, about 100 miles to the west. At the last minute the night before, her parents had decided to join them.
More than 600,000 Yazidis live in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq.
Long a persecuted religious minority in the Mideast, the Yazidis follow a set of beliefs that predate Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
At first, no one really believed what had happened. But then the cars started arriving in the village of Maysaa’s grandparents. Ten or 15 people crammed inside vehicles built for five. When they sped into the village, the people poured out and told what they’d seen:
Neighbors, who had been like family, turning on them, revealing which Yazidi homes had the prettiest girls.
The Islamic State needed these girls. They needed sex slaves.
Maysaa’s friend would not pick up the phone. Until finally, an answer. She’d made it to Mount Sinjar, and her family was safe. For now.
The house where Maysaa and her family were staying swarmed with people. No one slept that night.
Where can we go?
Where will it be safe?
Where can we sleep in peace again?
Maysaa had a brother in Nebraska. He was studying there in Lincoln, where many Yazidi families already lived.
Heads in their hands, her family knew what they needed to do. They’d travel to Nebraska. The Yazidi families there said that it was safe.
Her family had traveled before, so their passports were ready. They piled into a van the next day and watched her grandparents’ village disappear in the dust.
But the images of home stayed in her mind: Waking up to smell her mother’s flowers. Listening to the chatter of her parents over steaming tea cups. Shaking her head, smiling, at her father as he watched the news. Waiting by the door each afternoon for him to come home so they all could eat together. Those quiet nights in Sinjar when the electricity shut off, sleeping on the roof beneath the stars.
The Islamic State had destroyed her home, but she would find a new one.
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Maysaa strides to the front of a theater-style classroom at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She stops and looks up. What she sees would freeze most high school kids: 250 college students, silently staring at her. But the little girl who used to wait for her father by the door doesn’t flinch.
Chin held high, her voice unwavering, she scrolls through her slideshow and starts to tell her story.
The rows of dead men lined inside a pit, an Islamic State man dressed all in black, shooting at their heads.
Two young Yazidi brothers kidnapped and brainwashed by the Islamic State, smiling in a propaganda video before reportedly carrying out a suicide bombing.
The enslaved Yazidi women, chained to each other as their captor leads them away.
Kidnapped Yazidi women and girls often were sold as sex slaves by their Islamic State captors.
When Maysaa stands in front of strangers, she’s not gauging their reactions. She’s picturing all the girls, the hundreds and thousands of girls, who did not make it out. The ones who were raped or murdered or left with no hope. All the Yazidi women who are still “sabaya,” Maysaa says.
“What they’re facing right now is way harder than what I’m thinking,” Maysaa says.
So week after week, she does things like this, trying to get Lincoln, Nebraska, to understand Yazidis, to understand the world that she came from.
In that world, girls don’t play soccer with the boys. Yazidi women don’t go to college.
When she came to Lincoln three years ago, Maysaa vowed to do something, staying after school until 7 or 8 p.m., true to a promise she made to herself. She’d do whatever she could to learn English quicker than anyone.
One of the first things she asked was whether her new high school, Lincoln North Star, had a soccer team.
“I had no idea what the coach was saying. I just played.”
Then came the Girl Scouts, where Maysaa found her voice. She heard the strange English words “female empowerment” and “leadership.” So she looked up their meaning, and then she knew. She knew her life would never be the same.
Her troop leader, Renae Ninneman, has coached Maysaa from the start, urging her to keep going, to think bigger. That led Maysaa to the cemetery. The barren, treeless cemetery, so unlike the places of beauty and worship and community back home.
“We want to make Yazidi community part of American community, so together, we can make a huge, strong community,” Maysaa says.
Her ability to convey her story to strangers has impressed and inspired her American teachers and mentors.
“Most (English language learner) students are intimidated around American students,” said her ELL teacher, Sarah Currie.
But Maysaa is different.
“She’s very ready to adapt. She doesn’t really care if people are judging her.”
Her presentation over, Maysaa takes a breath. She’s talked for 15 minutes, and now she hears applause.
They hear me. They understand.
“She’s an impressive young woman,” Ninneman says. “Everyone recognizes that she’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Tonight, this force to be reckoned with will toss chicken breasts into boiling grease in her black and red uniform. Her shift ends at 8, but her managers will probably ask her to stay until closing at 11.
She’ll have to be to school at 8 the next morning, but when they ask, she’ll say yes.
Yes, that’s what he’d want her to do. And that’s what she’s always done.
Standing in knee-deep snow, Maysaa thinks of spring. She imagines what it will be like when the cemetery breathes again, when things begin to grow, when it all turns from white to green.
When flowers bloom all around the frozen graves, and the ground sprouts fresh grass. When birdsong replaces the silence of winter, and the sun becomes her friend again.
She can see it now: all the children playing and shouting as their parents spread a feast of rice and nuts and chicken and tea across the picnic tables at the cemetery. She knows there will be laughter and tears, but mostly, there will be peace.
Her family has found a new home.
In April, Maysaa is coming back to finish what she started, and two communities will come together to break this solid ground. Side by side, American and Yazidi volunteers will plant 400 trees.
So many springs to come. So many dreams. Maybe she’ll be completing her surgical residency in some far-off city — New York, San Francisco or Miami. Or maybe she’ll be sharing her story with a bigger audience, continuing to do what she can to help Yazidi girls.
But she’ll always come back here.
The shadows are getting longer now, and she kneels beside his grave.
Just three days earlier was the first anniversary of the death of her father, Kamal Saido. It happened on a normal day as the family shopped for groceries. Suddenly, he clutched his chest. Gone — just like that.
But not really.
“I feel like always he is close to us,” Maysaa says, “because he never wanted to be away.”
“He’s a person that will never leave us.”