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Yazidi cemetery tree-planting

Maysaa Khalaf stands next to a tree planted Sunday afternoon at the Yazidi cemetery near Malcolm. Members of the United Yezidi Community of America as well as representatives from the Girl Scouts and National Forest Service assisted in the planting.

Maysaa Khalaf was 15 when the Islamic State began murdering her people.

The 2014 genocide of Yazidi people forced her family to flee Iraq, seeking refuge in Turkey and Jordan before coming to the United States in 2016.

The 19-year-old spent a blustery Sunday afternoon honoring her family, home and religion with her Girl Scout Gold Award project.

Partnering with the Nebraska Forest Service and members of the United Yezidi Community of America, Khalaf planted 10 trees on the grounds of the only Yazidi cemetery in the U.S., 12 miles northwest of Lincoln near Malcolm.

"While this new cemetery makes us proud, it has no trees, flowers, benches or anything to make it look nice," she said. "I want to honor my community and our dead by making the cemetery beautiful and welcoming to families that have lost a family member."

Her family is included in that group as her father, who died in March, is buried at the cemetery. 

"I want to honor his memory and make him proud of me," Khalaf said.

When Khalaf started school at Lincoln North Star, she played sports and joined clubs both to get involved in the community and learn English. One club was the Girl Scouts. In Iraq, her gender limited the education and opportunities available to her, but upon arrival in the U.S. she realized there was more she could do.

"It made me think, 'It doesn't matter, I will just change something,'" she said. "It doesn't matter who I am, it doesn't matter what age I am. There will always be something in me saying, 'I have to work hard for my religion and make them be known.'"

Renae Ninneman, a program and outreach specialist for the Girl Scouts, said Khalaf joined the group through an after-school outreach program for refugee girls that was started three years ago and will be the first from the program to reach the highest achievement.

"The gold award is earned by very few girls every year," Ninneman said. "We haven't had any outreach girls receive the gold award, so she's breaking new ground in many, many ways. It's been a privilege to help her work on this project."

Khalaf hopes her influence can spread beyond the cemetery beautification and she plans to do more projects in the future to make an impact.

"I want to fight ISIS," she said. "They fought us by killing us, raping girls and doing all these things. I want to fight them with education and by making people know me for trying to make us known."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or wstone@journalstar.com.

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Newsroom intern

Newsroom intern at the Journal Star.

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