CC Issue 49 / Reflections / Social Work / Theology / Faith

On Keeping Your Eyes Open, The Power of Friendship and Life Inside an Iraqi Refugee Camp. (Part Two)

I wanted to tell us about Iraq. Yes, me and you, you and me. But of course, as I sit down to write this essay I am struck by how little I know. Like, one percent of the story. Maybe. All month I have thought to myself what can I possibly say about life inside an Iraqi refugee camp! Seriously.

I feel like that about most things. I don’t know enough. It’s true.

So I pray and then I write. Because writing is how I find my voice. I discover what I do know here on an empty page.

And then I offer it because I think that is the best thing I can do. Just offer what I have.

So, I will show you, with trembling hands held out brave these nuggets of truth and love I hold for Iraq, Syria, ISIS, refugees and those working to bring relief. It’s not a lot, but it has deeply affected my heart posture, my world view and my prayers. I don’t know enough. Just a little. But that little bit I know, that handful of knowledge, it is changing me.

Today, Jennifer posted an article. The headline reads: UN halts food aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees due to lack of funds. She writes: “It’s horrible to be the one that has to tell the refugee leaders there’s no food. Or kerosene.”

As I said goodbye to Jennifer in Chicago last month I asked, “What do we need to know?” Her response was simple, “Your money makes a difference. Food rations are being reduced as money runs out. Also, what you read, post and repost matters. It gets the governments attention.” She is the smart one.

Jennifer is just one of the many people working here. If you talk to her, she’s not really interested in telling her story. Of what it’s like to manage two refugee camps, which she compares to running a small city. It is a job full of stress and heartache and risk. There was a car bomb in Irbil last week. Two of her colleagues were injured.

But – she wants to tell their story. The one about the boy who left Syria the day his brother died to start a new job. As many Syrians, his fathers company had been destroyed, leaving him without employment. Without livelihood. His brother was caught in crossfire just moments before his departure. His family didn’t tell him because they wanted him to go. They wanted him to live. His story echoes a common story. Tell this one and you’ve spoken for many…

She wants to tell these stories because they belong to her friends, to people she sees with her eyes, day in and day out. She wants to tell these stories for the same reason I want to tell hers.

We connect to story.

She wants you to know about the young Iraqi girl who asks, “is my sister coming soon?” Her three year old sister was kidnapped by ISIS. She will not be coming and this too is a story that belongs to the masses.

Jennifer went to this location in Northern Iraq to work with Syrian refugees. She started with a camp of 3,500. But then ISIS. Iraqis fled from the Nineveh plains to this same safer ground, in Irbil, Iraq. No one was prepared for this. About two months ago convoys started coming in, night after night after night. (Today she adds, “they are still coming, by the way.”)

Now she overseas a new emergency camp in an unfinished building that houses 1600 Iraqi refugees. When they arrive they receive the basics. Blankets, plastic sheets for the ground and a jerry can for collecting water. That’s it. Some do get mattresses. They are given small rooms in an unfinished building and the half built walls let the cold drift in. They’ve left good homes, good jobs, good communities and have lost families. It is winter. It is freezing. There is no heat.

And Jennifer, she cares about all of this. She works hard to get the supplies, to cooperate with government and councils and inspectors and building owners. But perhaps most importantly (and I only say that because she would) she takes the time to sit in the dirt outside the building.

Don’t miss this point. She postures herself for connection. Yesterday she sat herself down and listened to an elderly women cry, lament, over her lost family, her living conditions, her life. Eventually the translator stopped because there’s no need to translate after a certain point. Grief is grief. No translation needed.

Some things are universal.

And that is where I pause in all of this. Where I find that small flicker of light. I mean, I am here, in the middle of Canada, and you are…where you are. But we are connected. We. Are. Connected.

Sometimes I forget it. I think, Iraq is so far away…so foreign…so large…

And then I let it slip away from me. I carry on with my own life. I forget it over and over again.

But today, I find my heart resting in this sequence of thought, a sweet whisper from my friend and her friends. And for me, I want it to linger in the advent air:

What we pay attention to matters, here and there.

The old, young, disabled and minorities are the most vulnerable, here and there.

Our money makes a difference, here and there.

Listening to another’s story is powerful, here and there.

We are built for connection, here and there.

And please, please, please pray for peace.

Here and there.

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