Salim Merza smiles while taking selfie outside in the winter
Salim Merza, a Yazidi refugee from Iraq, smiles while taking a photo of himself outside in Lincoln, Nebraska, in winter 2018.

Salim Merza, a Yazidi refugee from Iraq and a Ph.D. education student at Doane University in Lincoln, fasts periodically to maintain his connection with God and with himself, sometimes for up to 40 days. 

Fasting, a traditional practice of the believed to be 7,000-year-old religion, Yazidism, is practiced by religious leaders within the community and by those who seek to experience its many benefits of health, spiritual connection and a greater understanding of one’s self, according to Merza. A typical fast means no eating or drinking from sunrise until sunset and is practiced by the community on holidays.

“I fast not only because it’s a religious thing, but because I need some time to think about myself,” Merza said. “What am I doing? How am I acting toward other people? Toward my kids? Toward my wife? Toward God? It’s not only a religious thing, but it’s also just something I feel good about.”

In a normal week, Merza fasts on Wednesdays or Fridays, or sometimes both. Every few months, he fasts for five to six days, and back in winter 2018, he did his first 40-day fast. The first few days of the fasting were the most difficult, he said. But, overtime his body adapted. Fasting in the summertime is much more difficult he said, as the days are longer and the body needs more water. 

Merza, who came to Lincoln in January 2015 after the 2014 Yazidi Genocide led by ISIS, works at the Center for People in Need as a client assistant specialist where he helps Lincoln community members get back on their feet. 

“I always try to do something that will benefit my community in the future, here and in Iraq,” Merza said. 

Yazidism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, and its primary focus is to spread love and peace in the community. The Yazidi people, who primarily live in northern Iraq, have long been persecuted for their religious beliefs, and it’s estimated the minority group has lived through 73 genocides. 

Shahab Bashar, a client specialist at the Yazidi Cultural Center located in Lincoln, and a mentee of Merza, said he believes fasting is beneficial for not only spiritual reasons but for one’s health, too.

“I have friends in Sinjar (Iraq) that are fasting for 30 and 40 days for health reasons and not religious reasons. I’m one of the people that believe when I don’t eat for a long time, I am healthy. I can focus,” he said.

Bashar said he believes fasting is also a form of praying to God.

“Fasting is a kind of praying,” Bashar said. “My grandfather told me, ‘When you work, you are praying, and when you give money to those in need, you are praying.’ Fasting is the same way. It’s asking God to help you.”

At some point, Merza hopes to revisit his mother in Iraq and return to the holiest temple to the Yazidi people, Lalish. Yazidis visit Lalish to worship, serve, pray and fast. This is also where Yazidi religious leaders typically partake in two 40-day fasts every year from Dec. 23 to Feb. 2, and from June 23 to Aug. 2. 

“If somebody like me who is not in Iraq and cannot go to Lalish, I just do it for good,” Merza said. “When we fast, it’s not only fasting from food and from drinks. You have to fast yourself from hearing, looking at or saying something offensive.”

Merza finds comfort fasting in private because he believes it’s something between him and God.

“When I fast, I don’t like other people to know that I’m fasting. I’m fasting because I know something in it makes me good,” he said.

Merza plans to continue periodically fasting throughout his life to stay in close relation with God, himself, and his community, and to further purify his heart, body and mind. 

“Religion to me is not a weapon to fight. It’s something born with you,” Merza said. “If I lose a finger, it’s something physical. But if I lose religion, it’s something that would mentally affect me.”

Senior at UNL studying journalism, political science, and human rights.