After two months in Iraq, I am just a few hours away from returning to France. As the sun sets in the distance, sitting on the roof terrace of our house in Erbil, I think back to the days spent here with the Iraqi families.
08/10/2019. Through the window of the plane taking me to Erbil, I see rocky desert landscapes. I desperately look for houses, rivers or greenery, but nothing. Everything is unknown to me, I am stressed. Only a few hours, only a few minutes, an eternity and yet a moment. All my feelings and apprehensions end up disappearing as quickly as they came. I am at the airport, my extraordinary experience begins.
On arrival, I am assigned to Erbil, more precisely to Ankawa, the main mission site of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient. Accompanied by Abu Dany, our friend and translator, we visit the displaced families every day to listen to their stories, provide them with moral and spiritual support, and meet their basic needs.
On this day, we are welcomed in a tiny, unsanitary living room with torn sofas and damp grey walls. The two-year-old girl is desperate to sit on my lap as the parents begin to tell the story of their exile.
Until 2003, the couple stayed in Baghdad, where they first met. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s government forced them to move to Mosul, where the father opened a large smartphone shop. When the Islamic State arrives, they have no choice but to flee in a climate of panic. They leave everything behind. Moved to Erbil, they were first accommodated in a makeshift camp and then in a caravan, where Lisa was born.
Two months ago, with his meagre savings from odd jobs, the father bought a touk-touk to sell pistachios and almonds. This was a temporary situation, as a few days later it was stolen from in front of his house. Today, he is unemployed and struggles every day to feed his family.
The volunteers hear stories like this every day. “When Daesh attacks a Christian family, they have the choice of giving a huge amount of money, the equivalent of the price of the house, or converting to Islam or dying”, one of our interpreters told me one day.
“The Islamic State Organisation often used to cut off the head of anyone who refused to recant. They would then deliver it to the front door of the family home or to a public square! My father was threatened several times for money. I could have lived through that!
One might think that now the battles are over, that Iraqis are living peacefully, but most of them are suffering from very serious illnesses as a result of post-traumatic shock. Some are starving because they don’t earn money due to lack of jobs. Others are under permanent stress because they do not know if they will have to flee again, if Daesh will come back to strike.
But this humanitarian crisis does not take away their generosity and courage. Each time we visit, everyone without exception welcomes us warmly on their big sofa and rushes to the kitchen to prepare tea, coffee, or wonderful Iraqi pastries. There is no question of refusing, even if we are already full from the sweets enjoyed by the family we visited earlier.
They bring us a lot of peace of mind! Even though we don’t know each other, they take us in their arms and invite us to lunch at their place. This is where I really understood the notions of hospitality and brotherhood.
An empowering volunteer experience.
As a project manager, I had the opportunity to visit the different places where the volunteers were working.
During this trip, in the presence of the head of mission and the secretary general, I discovered sumptuous landscapes, met extraordinary people and managed meaningful projects, such as the renovation of the Aqra cathedral. This looted, stolen and abandoned building deserves to be restored to its former glory in order to welcome the former inhabitants of the city who used to visit it during their childhood.
Later, I was appointed Communication Officer. The workload increases and so does the travel. I went on tour again.
On the road to Badaresh, we meet cows, sheep and geese crossing the highway at checkpoints. We meet Mazboufs sellers, see Yezidi temples, cars with ten people in them, drive on bumpy paths or beggars standing between the two lanes of the highway with their babies in their arms. To the Iraqis, it all seems quite ordinary, but to us Westerners it is totally absurd!
The spirit of the mission.
This 27 November 2019, I have to go to the Bardarash camp where 10,000 Syrian refugees are crammed. Affected by the Turkish offensive dubbed “Source of Peace”, the North-East of Syria has seen tens of thousands of Syrian families flee, some of whom have crossed the border to survive the bombings. Back in October, we came to distribute 150 food packs to alleviate the hunger of some women, children and fathers.
In the sole company of the Secretary General and Abu Dany, we are going to deliver 30 wheelbarrows, so that the families can transport their provisions between the storage areas and their tents. Around us, children play in the dirt and women hang out their laundry. In front of the storage areas, children with jerry cans in hand queue for water. The atmosphere is tense. I feel very uncomfortable and at the same time grateful for all the smiles I receive.
On the way back, in order to relax, Abu Dany makes a diversion to the Mar Matti monastery, one of the oldest in the world. A touching thought! We were only supposed to stay for a few minutes, but we left several hours later. The priest welcomes us at his house for lunch. We couldn’t refuse! This is part of the spirit of the mission. Things don’t always go as planned, there is no such thing as a typical day. No day is ordinary, every day is unique.
Through the contact with the Christians of the East and the volunteers, I learned a lot about the history, the culture, the spirituality and the people. Even among volunteers, the experience is enriching, because we share the same desire to help the Christians of the East, but each one has his own vision, with his own past and his own beliefs.
It is impossible for me to tell the whole story of what I discovered in just two months, but I can assure you that it is the most beautiful experience of my life. The Christians of the East are undoubtedly innocent victims of the conflicts of the powerful! I met them, I listened to them, they need us. The fate of the Christians of the East is forgotten, since it is not mentioned at all in the media.
Iraq is a country damaged by wars, but it has great potential, both in terms of its landscapes and historical places, and in terms of the richness of all its civilisations, languages and cultures.
I still have and will always have a lot to learn about the history of the Middle East and the fate of the Christians, which is why, after two months in France, I am back in Iraq to conclude this text started last November.
Laurie, volunteer in Iraq.
Head of vollunteers