(CNN) -

Azwan Elias arrived in America this summer filled with excitement and eagerness to learn. Everyone who knows him says he is wise beyond his 17 years, that he is destined to lead others in his restive homeland of Iraq.

He set foot on U.S. soil for the first time in June, part of a group of young Iraqis chosen for a State Department-sponsored leadership program.

But the hopes in his heart vanished as fast as they had blossomed.

He was forced to watch from afar as militants from ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, pressed into northern Iraq, steamrolling Mosul, the nation's second largest city, and then chunks of Ninevah province.

Azwan's family feared for their lives in Bozan, a Yazidi village on the arid plains of Ninevah that's about 30 miles from Mosul.

They had lived there all their lives in a modest home built by Azwan's grandfather. Azwan's father worked as a veterinarian once and owned a small farm with a garden and grazing cows and sheep.

As a child, Azwan played with his five brothers and sisters and his cousins in the garden. They rode tricycles along a paved driveway and cooled off in Iraq's blistering blaze by soaking in a small, portable pool.

On special holidays, they walked up a mountain that rose to the sky above their village for a family picnic. Occasionally, they visited Lalish, the main holy site for Yazidis. Azwan remembers going twice to the temple, squeezed into a crevice between two mountains and just a short drive from Bozan.

Azwan, the oldest boy in the family, was a serious student. His father encouraged his education and had sent him to the Kurdish city of Irbil to study at The Kingery Institute for English and Computing, run by an American.

There, he began working with another American, Brad Blauser, whose charity delivers wheelchairs to Iraqi children with disabilities.

Everyone held high expectations that Azwan would succeed. One day, the family would break from the cycle that kept them bound to an impoverished village.

But now they were on the run. Their community was facing extermination.

And Azwan, whose drive to help others had led him to America, watched from afar, unable to help even his own family.

ISIS fighters were turning their rage on anyone who refused to succumb to their radical Sunni tenets, including Christians and Yazidis, religious minorities in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands were displaced overnight, according to the regional government.

Azwan's family, like many others, fled north to the outskirts of Zakho, a city in Iraq's Kurdistan region on the border with Turkey.

If Azwan returned to Iraq, he would have to fly into the airport in Irbil, under the Kurdish regional government. But he would be cut off from his family because the highway to Zakho goes through Mosul and territory under ISIS control.

He feared that if ISIS managed to enter Irbil, the first thing it would shut down would be the airport. Then, he would never be able to get out.

If he could get permission to stay in America, he would be safe. He might even have a chance at a life he could never dream of in Iraq. But he would be separated from his family, perhaps for a very long time.

The plight of his people bore down on Azwan as he attended classes every day with 25 other Iraqi students. He was the only Yazidi in the group.

The group traveled to various cities in America and spent a chunk of time in Portland, Oregon. Azwan savored the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest and the wildly different taste of Mexican food. But his mind raced across continents and an ocean to the starkly arid, undulating landscape of northern Iraq.

Life-and-death decisions

Azwan was only 13 when he left home in Bozan to study in Irbil.

He loved school but hated that his geography books contained no pictures or illustrations. He looked forward to enrolling at the Kingery Institute, opened in 2008 by American doctor and missionary Paul Kingery.

Kingery remembers the first time he saw Azwan -- slight and so shy that for months he left the room every time Kingery entered. Over time, he relaxed and picked up Americanisms, though Kingery said Azwan remained true to his Yazidi roots: respectful, quick to help elders and hypervigilant about visitors of all religions and ethnic groups who came to the institute.

Eventually, Azwan grew to help manage the institute and assisted Blauser, the former civilian contractor in Iraq who ran Wheelchairs for Kids and was nominated as a 2009 CNN Hero.