By Amanda Knox
Charly McCreary fumbles with an encrypted text message app on her phone as we sit down at a table by the window inside the Uptown Espresso on Delridge. “He’s getting a little more cautious about protecting his communications just because there’s allegedly a five million dollar bounty for the capture of an American where he is right now,” she explains.
He is John Murphy, McCreary’s ex-husband, business partner, and best friend, who left West Seattle on December 15th to provide humanitarian relief to the Yezidi, an ethnic and religious minority in Northern Iraq facing forced conversion, slavery, and extermination by the jihadist group, I.S.
The existence of the Yezidi, much less their current plight, is not common knowledge to the average United States citizen. However, they were noted by President Obama in August last year, when I.S. jihadists ambushed Yezidi villages and forced roughly 40,000 Yezidi to flee up nearby Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped until Syrian Kurdish fighters could carve out an avenue of escape into Kurdistan. Yezidi refugees are there accommodated in N.G.O. (non-governmental organization) camps, which seek to meet their most basic needs. The U.N., Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have documented and reported of the horrors suffered by the Yezidi who can’t manage to escape: males over the age of ten rounded up and gunned down; males under the age of ten abducted, abused, and forced to convert to Sunni Islam; females raped, enslaved, and murdered.
I.S. (Islamic State), also known in the Western world as I.S.I.S. (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or I.S.I.L. (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), in the Middle East as D.A.E.S.H., in June of last year proclaimed itself to be the religious, political, and military authority over all Muslims worldwide . Territory they lay claim to is subjected to their interpretation of Sunni Islamic creed and law, and Iraqi citizens of ethnic and religious minorities are forcibly either “cleansed” or exterminated.
Murphy and McCreary are cofounders of The Cabiri, an acrobatic theatre company that is “the theatrical emissary of the Anunnaki Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve the mythologies of cultures that have passed into antiquity.” For Murphy and McCreary, the ethnic cleansing of the Iraqi people is particularly tragic.
But Murphy takes the Yezidi’s plight even more personally, enough to risk his life to provide direct support to individuals he’s never before come into contact with. “When he left, it was, ‘I may never see you again,’ but it was never a question of ‘Should I go?’ It was something he really felt called to do,” McCreary explains.
Murphy is approaching the plight of the Yezidi on his own terms, sans affiliation with any aid organization, and sans informing, even, the U.S. government. “He was afraid they wouldn’t let him go,” McCreary explains. As for aid organizations, Murphy writes on his GoFundMe page, “The N.G.O.’s have been doing excellent work, but they have been overwhelmed, and at least a fifth of the refugees are being cared for in homes and by local town community organizations. Heroic efforts are everywhere, but they are not getting their needs met at this time.”
Since August, Murphy has been responding to all sides of the problem. He’s raised his own funds, lobbied congress, and founded the Yezidi Alliance , a nonprofit organization seeking to support the Yezidi abroad and connect the few Yezidi here in the U.S. “We’re looking into refugee Visas, medical Visas…” says McCreary. “Reaching out to elected officials and letting them know that we support military support of the effort over there in terms of shutting down terrorist operations. …We do think the U.S. has a role in helping out over there, whether it’s aid or helping make the terrorists’ job a lot harder to do.” These, of course, are efforts Murphy can do from the security of West Seattle.
The next step that Murphy took, with all the risk it entails and passion it required, is harder to empathize with by anyone less than advocate. McCreary’s phone pings with an encrypted message from Murphy, who’s stayed up past midnight in Şirnak, Turkey in order to join our conversation. “I came here to be with the Yezidi,” he writes. “They took me in and my life is to defend them.”
“A part of the reason for him being there,” McCreary explains, “is so he can be among them, listen, and then come back able to speak on their behalf as best as a Western person can.”
For Murphy, it’s not just about having a heart and feeling for someone else. It’s also not just about recognizing your neighbor as your brother. It’s about recognizing yourself in the other and responding as fully as if you were defending your own freedom and your own life. The leap, then, from advocating from a place of security to advocating from a place of insecurity was not so great an emotional distance after all.
But not everyone who may potentially empathize with the Yezidi will necessarily identify with them in the same way Murphy does. There is an uncomfortable abyss between knowing the facts of a reality and feeling moved by those facts. While we all begin as casual observers to most everything, something must happen inside of us to react as self-sacrificingly and passionately as the advocate. This is the advocate’s dilemma in relation to the rest of society when attempting to reach out for support.
There’s tension on the other side as well. “There’s been some concern and suspicion,” McCreary explains. “He’s been accused of being C.I.A. [by a …There has been suspicion around his motives. I also think it’s just hard for [the to believe an American would come there by himself to volunteer and just hang out and listen. I think he’s had to prove himself.”
Murphy will have to prove himself again and again. The next challenge in his journey will be to translate his direct experience with the Yezidi into meaningful indirect experience for the rest us. Murphy knows that he alone, despite everything he’s willing to sacrifice, can’t save the Yezidi, and “his priority to let them know that they are not alone and that the world does want them to survive,” requires the support of the Western world he calls home.