Journey Back to Dignity: The Internally Displaced Peoples of Northern Iraq
We are often afraid of the unknown.
Some of our fear is justifiable. Our world is in turmoil. We watched the Arab Spring from afar, at first in hope that a corrupt regime would be overturned. But the abscess of war left a gap for jihadists to fill. Offensive and defensive mixed together like spilled ink on paper, becoming muddled and unclear. Sporadic terrorist attacks plague peaceful nations, and people seeking asylum have flooded those same nations by the thousands. Despite officials stressing that most refugees are peaceful and law-abiding, there has been a notable rise in violence and rape amongst areas sheltering young men.
Today we continue to see fleeting pictures of war-torn faces in the news, yet the people’s lives are still far away from us and all that we know. We do not understand their loss or their pain, and it is difficult to acknowledge. But the stories of the Internally Displaced Peoples were our stories long ago. Hundreds of years have passed since we were refugees like them—since we chose to leave the safety of our homeland with the simple hope of a new life; fled due to religious convictions, famine, regime changes; or like the Iraqi Yazidis, became displaced from war. Remember that the IDPs are just like you, just like me. Their stories are our stories.
Here follows one such story of a refugee family. It is the journey of seventy-two-year-old “Baba,” the appointed leader of a Yazidi family community from Sinjar within the ancient region of Nineveh, Iraq. Three years ago, owning much land and many ships to import and export food sources, Baba’s family was very wealthy. Together with his wife of many years, they had given life to and provided for eleven children: six sons and five daughters, not including his extended family.
Baba clearly recalls the words his relatives cried out the day that ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, crossed over the border of Syria to the west and summited the Sinjar Mountains—the only barrier left between the encroaching enemy and the Yazidis, his people. On the night of August 2, 2014, the city of Sinjar was left unprotected without warning when both the Iraqi federal military forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from the area amidst ISIL’s onslaught. ISIL had become an unstoppable tempest, and not even the Iraqi’s passionate defense of their families and homes could stop that force.
“They are coming! The cars of ISIL are coming!” the people screamed when their desolation became evident. The Yazidis defended themselves as best they could, but ISIL had bigger and better weapons. Without time to pack belongings, Baba’s family, along with seven other families, piled into their vehicles and fled Sinjar. Come morning, ISIL had captured the entire Sinjar area and executed those who did not swear allegiance and convert to Islam, including Baba’s eighteen-year-old son, ____. He died at the hands of Baba’s enemy, who committed what the UN Council now deems a genocide.
“My son, my son…” Baba remembers. “Whatever is bad in this world,” he states, “ISIL is doing. Killing, kidnapping, hurting innocent people.”
In a moment, the lives of over 250,000 Iraqis changed, never to be the same again. Their world was interrupted, their way of life left behind along with their wealth, livelihood, possessions, and precious memorabilia, such as family photos of weddings and celebrations. The wealthy became impoverished. Where Baba’s orchard once stood, trees were demolished amidst mortar; where his animals roamed, only dust and scattered bones remain. The wind blows hot on the land that has now become sterile. The Iraqi refugees have grieved the loss of sons and daughters, and because most now live unprotected in camps, they not only worry for their children’s safety each day, but that their daughters will be raped.
We in the West tend to put off ISIL’s continued campaign, believing that once they are overpowered, Iraqis will return to their lands and everything will be as it once was. Yet even if ISIL is overrun, it will take generations for orchards to grow, for the tormented, damaged land to be fertile, and for the people not only to rebuild a bustling Yazidi culture and village life once again, but also to heal from the trauma of war. Life cannot and will not ever go back to the way it was. This is humanity’s history. As Julius Caesar stated over two thousand years ago, “I came. I saw. I conquered.” Man’s legacy has been to believe he is superior to another in race or religion and to conquer those he deems less than.
Baba’s family escaped to Shikhan, another Kurdish region where his friend, a wealthy man of high rank in Yazidi society, took them in and provided for them that first night. Thereafter, they journeyed to a vacated and discarded building in the city of Erbil. Erbil was formerly known as the Dubai of Iraq—that is before ISIL. Located within the center of the independent northern Kurdish region of Iraq, called Kurdistan, the history of beautiful Erbil ranges as far back as 6,000 BC and possibly longer. Its famous historical Citadel, an ancient fortress on a mount, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But in the wake of 2014, all tourism, expansion, and construction stopped. Instead, it became the site of Iraq’s internally displaced peoples. Empty, unfinished, and abandoned skyscrapers are now the makeshift homes of many families like Baba’s who fled the jihadist invasion.
Iraq houses a unique dynamic of many religions within a predominantly Muslim society. ISIL’s goal is to build a caliphate of the entire Muslim world—an area ruled by a caliph, or steward, a religious successor to the prophet Muhammad—and to ethnically cleanse the land from Iraq’s oldest ethno-religious minority groups: the Kurds (Christian, Yazidi, Muslim), Arabs, and Turkmen (ancestors of the ancient nomadic Turkic people). Let us hope and pray that they can and will be stopped.
Today, while many live within refugee camps in the surrounding areas of Erbil, Baba and his family, along with others, find shelter within an abandoned building that was once used as a chicken coop. There are no barriers, and the community is woven tightly together from living in such proximity. Babies’ and toddlers’ cries echo throughout the high, empty, unfinished spaces above, and the air is not only filled with their ethnic dishes of simmering lamb and baked flatbread, but also burning trash. Men walk hand in hand as friends, and women squat to chat with each other. The eyes of most carry sadness, hopelessness. Some carry shame from the loss of their dignity, wealth, and status. But there is also something else in their eyes—the pride of their ancient heritage. Though they have nothing, the people remember that this was not always their life, and may not always be. They are brave and resourceful, making the best of their displacement through rudimentary decorations and furniture. Strangers and foreigners are welcomed in warmly and given water first before chai, a tea made with so much sugar that it tastes like syrup.
Baba and his family proclaim that they are happy and thankful, despite the horrendous losses they have suffered.
“I don’t need anything from you but to see your faces,” Baba says to the relief workers of Light a Candle Project, a branch of worship leader Sean Feucht’s ministry, Burn-24-7. The team of four-plus people live on the ground in Erbil and visit Baba and other families every week, providing sponsorship monies from supporters; psychosocial, women and group programs; instrument, art, and sports lessons; and finally, humanitarian aid. The team did not come to Iraq with their own agenda on how to save the Kurds, which is a common occurrence of Western organizations. Instead, they based their outreach on the people and community’s felt needs, and built from there.
Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, whose ancient land we now know as the West Bank. The Samaritan was an outsider to the Jews, but when a priest did not stop to do a good work for the stranger who had been left half dead on the side of the road, the Samaritan took it upon himself. Jesus used an outsider to illustrate His message. Why? Perhaps it was to show that God recognizes all nations as His children. John the Baptist’s words illustrate this principal well, “And all people will see God’s salvation.”  Regardless of religious or racial background, he who takes in and comforts the least of these best displays the intention of Jesus’ parable.
Remember Ruth the Moabitess who became a refugee in Israel. Ruth was particularly vulnerable as a stranger in a foreign land—she was a poor, unprotected widow whose people, the Moabites, were considered “accursed” by the Israelites. Yet she found comfort in the arms of a foreigner who sheltered her as his own. This outsider was an ancestress of King David, the line that birthed Jesus. Her prominence in Jesus’s story displays a powerful message in our current times.
Family is of utmost importance to the Yazidis, and Baba has adopted the relief workers—Rebecca Burger, Kelsie Plante, Allan Boehm, and Lucinda Legal—into his family, reminding the women often that they are his “daughters.” How could one who has experienced so much sorrow still love so well? It is the nature of his people, and though the team lights a candle of hope for the Yazidis, the Yazidis give back just as much as they receive, if not more. As a result, twenty-five-year-old Kelsie, who has dedicated over a year of her life to Iraq and continues to do so, states, “I have fallen in love with the Kurdish people.”
1 Luke 3:6, NIV.