It’s 05:45 o'clock in the morning at the Munich airport. A small team of volunteers meet, their suitcases full of items and clothing for children, and of course full of expectations for the week to come! Within a short time we are sitting in the plane with our course set to Erbil, northern Iraq. High up in the heaven we see the sun rising and everybody feels, this trip is something special.
We arrive in the late afternoon in Erbil, our passports stamped by security and we leave the airport for the city. People in the streets are on edge and some have weapons. There is a strained feeling in the air. The scenery from the airport to the city is bare, brown, clay earth with a few spots of green. Our partners from a local relief organization called SHARQ join us on the ground. They too volunteer in their spare time in order to help the persecuted Christians and other minorities like the Yezidis. Their leader is 28 years old, a medical engineer by profession and about to marry in 6 months.
We drive through the Kurdish capital in SUVs. A quick glance at the skyline shows signs of modern life, however, upon getting closer, many houses are not more than just a shell. Many are empty, bare and grey. We leave the town and go inland, toward the direction of Duhok, to our place of action. A motorway connects Erbil with Duhok, but in between lies Mosul, a town held by ISIS. Hence, we must go over rough streets past numerous military border controls, and take detours to arrive safely in Dohuk. After 2.5 hours of driving we have our first view of the lights of Duhok. About 800,000 people live here; 85% are Muslims, while the rest are represented by different minorities.
In the entrance to the town we overtake an old BMW with a Munich identity plate – what a picture for us “Muencheners!”. We weave our way through the city centre, people are everyone on the street, though mostly we see men. Colored lights and advertisements flash in the shop-windows. Our hotel lies on top of a hill, which looks out over the whole town. We pass the entrance to the hotel once security forces have checked the car with detectors. After 12 hours travelling we are just glad to arrive.
The second day starts with beaming sunshine. Around us the mountains in the horizon are clearly visible and the air smells more of spring than winter. The breakfast consists of an interesting combination of sweet and salty. Beside green olives, feta cheese and pita bread there is very sweet liquid jam and honey dripping off honeycombs. We start the day visiting a Christian family on the edge of the town. Although the father has fallen ill with cancer, a child is seriously ill, and the family itself has fled persecution for the third time, one immediately notices they still hold to their faith evidenced by a figurine of Jesus on the sitting room shelf. Warmth and open arms greet us. The first priority is relationships and people, before any ‘to do’ lists. We drink sweet chai or black tea enjoying each other's company and getting to understand the mentality in this region of the world.
Small trucks full of food start arriving with big bags of rice, noodles, bulgur, lentils, puree tomatoes, oil, salt, sugar and tea. All this has to be unloaded and packed into family-size bags. Despite the different cultures, the most different of languages and life situations, everybody in the team works together. Until late in the evening we pack 300 food bags and physically we are more than exhausted. The servings per family are heavy, as the food must suffice not only for one day but rather for 1-2 weeks. And in this area of the world the families are on average six – eight people. However, everybody keeps on track and even the children get involved with great energy. As the bags are being heaved, one of the German team, Andi, has thought ahead and brought working gloves for the men from Germany. Clearly moved by this gesture, one of the local IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) employed for the day, half joking even wears the gloves at night to dinner. With the aid packed and ready in the truck, we call it a night.
The third day starts with spring like weather. We drive for 1.5 hours out into the direction of the mountains in convoy with the aid trucks. Here in the small villages are numerous IDP families that ran away when ISIS attacked their villages and homes. These are Christians as well as Shia Muslims and Yezidis living in old ruins, unfinished houses or tents. As we arrive, many people surround us, representing each minority and all desperate for the aid. The local priest gives to everyone and is very grateful. The message that we from Germany bring is that we have not forgotten them and are praying for him and the people he supports. It fills his eyes with tears.
Many hands offer to help and what looks a little bit disorganized and chaotic to a German, ends with everybody getting happily involved to unload the trucks. The priest, as the leader of the village, ensures that everyone has the same chance to receive aid. He distributes the aid via their identity cards in a fair and organized way. This happens as well in the second village, where we arrive later in the afternoon. In a converted school and kindergarten are numerous families and children who have experienced the horrors of not only ISIS but also the difficult escape journey from central to northern Iraq. A local priest tells us that he woke up one morning and found many children on the street in the village. Overnight, the children had fled, often becoming separated from parents, and had collapsed on the main road running through the village. Thanks to him and the village, nobody froze to death or died of thirst. Instead, they have found safety and help.
One of the IDPs told us how he had planned a big wedding to marry his bride. However, two days before the wedding ISIS attacked the village and he had to flee with her. He left behind everything, all the preparations and everything he had worked to get ready for the day. Now he lives in a broken down hut and dreams one day that they will be able to return back to a normal life.
The next day dawns with heavy rains and all the streets are flooded in a short time. Many streets are not tarred, making the traffic slow. The people run with flip-flops or bath slippers through the ice-cold water and mud. It's the same picture in an old dwelling house where we are distributing blankets to elderly people and children. Soon everybody knows about our arrival and children are jumping in excitement in the entrance hall. One of the IDPs tells me that they have one inhabitant in the house who has lost his whole family and since his arrival he has not spoken one word. We cannot imagine what he has seen or experienced during his escape from ISIS.
Once again we start driving out of the pulsating town, which has been drenched with rain and cold the entire day. Beyond the town we pass check-points and are allowed through safely. Going further to the east we arrive at a big camp for IDPs, mostly filled with Yezidis. It is a tent town, built up just before the winter, for approximately 3,000 families. The roads between the sectors are muddy, making any headway hard for the car. We have blankets to give out but in comparison to so many people, not nearly enough. The camp commander asks us to give to one sector of mostly new arrivals that are Yezidis. So far they have not received anything and are living in empty tents. We pray that our “5 breads and 2 fish“ will multiply!
The sector leader of the IDP camp instructs us to work in an area with 250 tents and distribute our blankets loaded on the back of trucks. We knock at every tent and hand out the blankets to every family. In one tent an elderly man lies only on a thin blanket on a concrete floor, his four children huddled around him, with nothing else in the tent. This picture pierces deeply into our hearts.
In spite of the rain many children are coming out to welcome us. One woman, despite having nothing in her tent invites us to have tea with her family. The hospitality is outstanding! We politely decline, as we have to work for hours in the pouring rain and cold, going from tent to tent in order to hand out the much needed blankets before dark. The blankets are stored in cardboard boxes. As we tear open the boxes to extract the blankets the children reach out for the cardboard. With nothing but a bare concrete slab forming the base of the tent, these boxes are precious as they will make a “cardboard carpet.’
On the way back we have food packages that we give out to families living in half finished houses that are only a shell. Most have no outer walls or windows and the wind and rain are hardly held back by plastic sheeting. Initially, from the outside, we cannot see who and how many refugees are living in there. We go up to the structures and suddenly many children come out with a few adults. We hear that a number of the children have lost one or both parents, and have seen too much pain. At least the sight of food brings a small amount of happiness as they watch us unloading the food packages. One of them, a girl of 12 years of age, is with an old woman. The woman tells us that she has lost both parents and experienced many bad things the last few weeks. It makes us so sad to hear and see the conditions these people are living in.
This trip taught us one main thing: most important are the people and time for relationships. This is key in this world. We had the chance to invest in people and be a small light in the darkness of the reality of where these IDPs find themselves. The relations with the people we met felt deep and meaningful despite being in such short time. Love, through relations and contact with those suffering meant as much as all the aid. Love is the only thing that changes people forever – both the givers and the receivers. And true to the verse out of the bible:
1 Kings 19:11-12(NIV)
“The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. This was the Lord.”
- Maureen Hoppe, ICF, Munich