Yazidi advocate takes unlikely path to Husker master's degree

Yazidi advocate takes unlikely path to Husker master's degree

Hadi Pir teaches his class at Lincoln North Star High School
Craig Chandler | University Communication
Hadi Pir teaches a class of English language learners at Lincoln North Star High School

Language and learning have often led University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Hadi Pir down paths of danger and uncertainty. On May 4, they will lead him across the stage of Pinnacle Bank Arena, where he will receive a master’s degree in education.

Pir is Yazidi, an often-persecuted religious minority from northwest Iraq. He and his wife, Adula, and their daughter, Ayana, 8, became citizens March 16. Daughter Yara, 3, was born in Nebraska. Since 2015, Pir has taught English language learners at Lincoln North Star High School, helping immigrant students master basic English vocabulary and simple sentences. He has taught students from Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Central America, Vietnam, Tajikistan and Sudan.

This peaceable life probably would not have been available to him in Iraq. Although he earned his teaching degree from the University of Mosul in Iraq, it was doubtful he would have been permitted to pursue an advanced degree there.

“In Iraq, it was almost impossible for me to admitted to a graduate program,” Pir said. “I am a minority, I spoke a language that is not Arabic and I was from the countryside.”

He won his passage to the United States by volunteering to become an interpreter for the U.S. Army after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. His seven-year assignment became so dangerous that Pir always traveled with two guns – an automatic rifle to kill insurgents and a pistol to kill himself rather than be kidnapped.

Later, after his immigration to America, Pir was among Yazidi immigrants from across the country who rushed to Washington, D.C., to urge U.S. authorities to act when ISIS closed in on the Yazidi village of Sinjar in August 2014, bringing with it the threat of genocide and slavery.

In a story so dramatic it was recently recounted in New Yorker magazine, Pir and a handful of other former interpreters created an ad hoc situation room in a motel, where they relayed information gathered by cellphone from friends and relatives in Iraq. They provided key intelligence and map information that enabled U.S. authorities to save Yazidi people trapped on Mount Sinjar, a holy site where they had fled to escape ISIS.

Theresa Catalano
Theresa Catalano

Pir’s adviser is Theresa Catalano, an associate professor of language education in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education. She describes Pir as an inspiration.

“His story particularly resonates for students who are coming from different backgrounds and situations of adversity,” she said. “If you persevere and have courage, you can travel far in terms of going back and making change in your community. Even though he has a job and he’s settled, he hasn’t forgotten his people and his connection to the world around him.

Pir was directed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after a visit to the Nebraska Department of Education to learn how to qualify to become a teacher.

“I wanted to be a teacher back in Iraq – and they told me, if I wanted to, I could become a teacher here,” he said. “Then I asked Dr. Catalano whether she thought I could get a master’s degree. I did not know how the system works. She said ‘it’s possible, if you get the certificate, we’ll accept you in the program if you come back.’”

Catalano was instrumental in Pir's academic success.

“Dr. Catalano was more than just a professor and adviser to me,” he said. “I had hundreds of questions that I needed answers for, and I was scared and confused before I pursued my teaching certificate and my master’s degree.”

She built his confidence and became a friend and someone he could rely upon, he added.

“Dr. Catalano opened many doors for me, doors that can’t be opened by merely attending classes," he said. "I want to give her credit because she absolutely deserves it.”

With the help of Catalano and Thomas Wandzilak, associate professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education, he earned his Nebraska teaching certificate in July 2014 – shortly before the ISIS attack on Sinjar and his frantic trip to Washington, D.C.

Even though the Mount Sinjar rescue would be hard to replicate, he doesn’t want it to become a one-time thing, Pir said. He and his colleagues with the Sinjar crisis team created Yazda, a Yazidi-rights organization. The group lobbies governments to take in displaced Yazidis, monitors conditions in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and use contacts within the U.S. government to find kidnapped women.

For his master’s degree project, Pir studied Yazidi children’s use of their native language, Kurmanji in most instances. Upon his 2012 arrival in Lincoln, Pir was surprised to realize relatively few Yazidi people graduated from college. Lincoln has the largest Yazidi population in the United States, with the first group arriving in the 1990s.

“Yazidis in Iraq loved school, despite their persecution,” he said.

He studied five Yazidi families with children in the Lincoln Public Schools, some who immigrated in the 1990s and others who immigrated more recently, comparing the students by their age when they immigrated.

“Both had their own unique challenges,” he said.

Older students retained their language and culture but often weren’t able to understand the academic language used in school. Younger students were more likely to lose their language, at the cost of their cultural identity and the unconscious learning derived from listening to and observing elders.

“I have some ideas how to address this, but it needs to be researched more,” Pir said.

Pir is now considering a doctoral degree, perhaps in political science, sociology or psychology.

Catalano said she hopes to continue collaborating with him.

“He’s just a person I admire so much,” she said. “To study and work full-time and have the equivalent of a full-time job helping others. He’s had an impact in so many ways, throughout the community. To me, it’s so inspiring.”