Yousif Khalaf Shaheen enters the neat sitting room of a north Springfield home, and he is greeted by a bright flood of daylight streaming through the windows. A day after a major eye surgery, he dabs tears away and blinks. The thin Yazidi soldier retrieves a pair of dark sunglasses, fits them over his eyes and then speaks to his host in Arabic:
“I can see.”
His host and translator, Niazi Altuhafi, declares it a “miracle.”
By nearly all accounts, it is. Yousif, also known as Malo, is a 27-year-old Yazidi, a persecuted religious minority from a rugged rural area in northern Iraq. That he ended up half a world away from his homeland, in Springfield, after being partially blinded by an ISIS grenade, may be a miracle all its own.
“It’s strange, especially for a small city like Springfield,” said Altuhafi, an Iraqi native living in Springfield. “He’s from a very remote area in Iraq where they live a very old life — his father and brother are shepherds. How did he land in Springfield in an Iraqi family?”
Ancient faith, long misunderstood
Up until a month ago, Yousif knew little about America, much less the world outside northern Iraq.
The Yazidi are an ancient people spread through parts of Turkey, Syria and Northern Iraq, with an estimated population ranging from a low around 300,000 to as high as 1 million. An insular group, the Yazidi only marry among themselves, and scholars say their religion — which has ancient roots — has been badly misunderstood and misinterpreted. In 2014, the group that calls itself the Islamic State, sometimes referred to as ISIS, declared the Yazidi devil worshippers, based on a faulty understanding of the Yazidi faith.
Christine Robins, the director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in England, called it an “old accusation” that is “completely wrong.”
“They really are not devil-worshippers and this slander has caused them a lot of persecution and suffering over centuries,” said Robins, who has done an extensive study of the Yazidi, who practice a monotheistic faith that has similarities to ancient Iranian religions, among others.
For his part, Yousif dismisses any real differences.
“Yazidi belief is like any other religion,” he said. “We have to be good in society and people have to be honest and true.”
However, ISIS’s cleric saw the Yazidi as pagans, and in August 2014, ISIS attacked the Yazidi in their ancestral home in the Sinjar region of Iraq, between the Syrian border and the town of Mosul.
Thousands of Yazidi escaped up a narrow pass on Mount Sinjar, where ISIS fighters boxed them in and plotted a siege. Only an international effort to airdrop food, water, and supplies to the trapped Yazidis prevented a total catastrophe. A military offensive pushed ISIS back to give the Yazidi a chance to escape.
An estimate last year published in the journal PLOS Medicine suggested that 3,100 people were killed — nearly half by execution after being captured. The rest died during the siege on Mount Sinjar from a lack of food or water or from injuries.
As well, the journal said about 6,800 women and children were kidnapped by ISIS. The United Nations and other organizations reported that ISIS committed sexual assault on captives, forced conversions, inflicted torture, and sold many people into slavery. Boys were sent off for military training to fight for ISIS. Girls were often sold for sex. The study in PLOS Medicine suggested that more than 3,300 Yazidi who had been kidnapped were still missing. And, the report’s authors suggest that their estimates could be understated.
A United Nations report labeled ISIS’ actions as “genocide,” as did several nations, including the United States. Yet, since the defeat of ISIS, the Yazidi are still scattered, many of them living in refugee camps, unable to go back to Sinjar where homes and public services — including water, electricity and utilities — remain in ruins.
'A debt of honor'
For Yousif and his family, trying to restart has been difficult. The Yazidi traditionally lived a simple life often separate from outsiders, due in part to religious differences. But they had been peaceful.
“The (Yazidi) community is quite conservative — they respect quiet, clean living and family values,” Robins said. “In general, they are not wealthy and many of them are farmers. It’s only about a generation ago that Yazidis in Iraq moved from the villages into the towns and sent their children to public schools and to college.”
However, that simple life was upended in 2014 when ISIS attacked. Yousif, who fought with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, was injured several times in the fighting — the worst when an ISIS rocket-propelled grenade blew up in front of him in 2015, showering his eyes with shrapnel and leaving him blind in one eye and with partial sight in the other.
Yousif’s brother Shaheen Khalaf Shaheen, who could speak Kurdish, Arabic and English, served as a translator for humanitarian groups in the area, which is where he met Springfield attorney Tim Hayes. Hayes, a U.S. Army veteran and a licensed emergency medical technician, volunteers with a Christian organization called the Free Burma Rangers that does medical and humanitarian work to help civilians caught in war zones.
Shaheen implored Hayes to help his brother, and on a couple of trips, Hayes brought Dr. Todd Pierson, an optometrist who practices at Ozarks Family Vision Center in Branson, to work on patients. Pierson examined Yousif in 2016, and the news was disappointing.
“I said, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we could do here'” in Iraq, Pierson recalled. The cornea in Yousif's right eye was cloudy, a result of swelling from shrapnel injuries, and there was no way to repair that damage in Iraq.
Yousif had already gone through four surgeries in Iraq, but he said none of them did much for his eyesight.
The idea of getting Yousif to America seemed remote — “a 1 percent chance,” Pierson said — because of the various requirements, red tape and visa paperwork.
In the meantime, Shaheen befriended the Americans and the humanitarian groups. Over the course of half a dozen trips over a couple of years, Hayes had grown close to Shaheen and his family. They forged a friendship in the dangers of a war zone.
“Shaheen’s dream was to come to America,” said Hayes, who kept in contact with him through text messaging.
That dream was cut short last May. Shaheen Khalaf Shaheen, Yousif's brother, was helping to rescue a young girl and her father, who had been shot from behind by an ISIS sniper. A second sniper shot at Shaheen and the rescuers. Shaheen was hit in the abdomen. Initially, it looked like he would make it, but he died a week later in the hospital of sepsis.
To make matters worse, Shaheen’s killing, Hayes said, came when “the end was in sight.” Military officials declared the end of fighting just two months later.
At a memorial for Shaheen in Iraq last year, Hayes figured why not try a “hail Mary” to see if they could get Yousif into the country. He promised to sponsor Yousif and worked with Yousif’s family in Iraq to get the visa paperwork done.
In November, a text surprised him, telling him the visa came through, and Hayes bought a ticket to bring Yousif to Springfield. It was Yousif’s first plane flight.
“It’s a debt of honor to bring him over here,” Hayes said.
Venturing into the unknown
Pierson set to work to find medical care for Yousif and called Dr. Dan Osborn, a Springfield ophthalmologist at the Missouri Eye Institute, because of the extent of the damage to the cornea in Yousif’s eye.
“Not a lot of ophthalmologists will do corneal work like that,” Pierson said. “He’s definitely on the cutting edge of the latest technologies and surgeries.”
Osborn said he chose to transplant a layer of corneal tissue instead of a full corneal transplant. The full transplant would have required stitches and significant care after the surgery that is unavailable in Iraq.
“When he goes home, he’s not going to have a lot of follow-up (care) so dealing with stitches would be impossible,” Osborn said. “This is a much lower maintenance surgery. He should be able to do well when he goes home.”
Not knowing how much sight Yousif had before the injury, Osborn could not say exactly how much vision he could reclaim. But assuming all goes well in recovery — there’s a minor chance of the body rejecting the tissue — Yousif’s eyesight should be “good enough that he could do his work, see people’s faces and things.”
Osborn agreed to donate his services, and the Saving Sight eye bank donated corneal tissue that Osborn transplanted in Yousif’s blind eye. Pierson is donating post-operative care.
Now, Yousif will wait to see if his body accepts the tissue and, if so, how much his eyesight will recover. The prognosis, so far, looks good, as Yousif reports being able to see out of the once-blind eye.
For him, the surgery — and the trip — has brought unknowns. He wondered: “After four (other) surgeries, could it work?”
But a day after the Jan. 9 surgery in Springfield, he praised the medical care, saying it was far better than in Iraq.
And although Hayes and his family were willing to put Yousif up and care for him, Hayes found him the perfect host family: the Altuhafis. They have become a second family to Yousif. They speak Arabic, which is Yousif’s second language, and they cook Iraqi food.
Food was important. Although he’s grateful for all the help, Yousif couldn’t handle the rich food here and didn’t think he could make it on an American diet.
“I would have starved to death,” he said laughing.
Return to service
Now, it will take time for Yousif to heal, and he then has to figure out what’s next in his life. Asked what he wants to do, Yousif’s initial reaction is to return to fighting but says if he returns as a soldier, he will be “in big trouble.” He suffered stomach and head wounds in a prior ISIS mortar attack.
Instead, he talks about going back to help in the efforts to find kidnapped Yazidi, as his brother Shaheen did, and work to redevelop Sinjar. He thinks he could provide a connection for the Yazidi to America if he learns English. Altuhafi was already a step ahead: He enrolled Yousif in an English class and sees great potential in Yousif.
“Nobody knows his people like he does or the sacrifice of his family,” Altuhafi said. “He can continue to be a force to restore the Yazidi people.”
Yousif hopes the Yazidi can get the United Nations’ attention.
“I hope my story might reach the United Nations, and the United Nations can put us under international protection,” he said. “I want the world to know who the Yazidi are and to change their attitude about us.”
Credit: Springfield News-Leader