NORTHERN IRAQ — Whoever built this tennis court probably never imagined refugees would be reclining there under temporary shelters. The sprawling picnic area, once a shady respite for Sunday leisure seekers is now a tent city — home to more than 4,000 Yazidi refugees from Northern Iraq.
These mothers, uncles, cousins and children walked seven days through the desert to escape ISIS in August 2014. Their current home has clean water and working toilets, but the camp has only one clinic staffed by a doctor and a few nurses who struggle to meet the medical needs of thousands.
Several months ago, I learned of the urgent need for dentists to treat the people here. I invited an experienced field dental team from the U.S. to come serve the refugees in the camp. They arrived with a portable chair, instruments and supplies to treat a variety of challenges. During their time here, they were able to treat the patients with the most severe conditions — abscesses and painful, deep infections that could spread throughout the body.
One of the nurses at the camp, Murad*, himself a 23-year-old refugee, was overwhelmed by the team’s willingness to come all the way from the U.S. — at their own expense — just to meet the needs of his people here in a “dangerous” part of the world. I got to know the soft-spoken Yazidi one evening after the crowd of ailing refugees had finally dispersed from the clinic building.
“You made us feel like people,” he said. The dehumanizing experience of being a refugee weighed heavily on him. From the time he left his home in northern Iraq until now, he had been working as a nurse, usually unpaid, caring for countrymen who had fallen ill on the arduous journey. Using his medical skills enabled him to maintain his dignity along the way, but many other Yazidis suffered a more tragic fate.
Crisis counselors who worked in the refugee camp stated in a report, “Most of the people we encountered were suffering from traumatic grief. The most traumatized age and social group seemed to be the young women. Many of them wept as they recounted horror stories of their friends and sisters being captured and sold into slavery. They recounted abuse and torture and expressed grief over the past and the atrocities that continue to befall their captured loved ones. One expressed survivor guilt, another expressed hatred for the perpetrator of such violence, and another wept in miserable resignation for her plight in life.”
Murad’s younger sister, Narin,* was kidnapped by ISIS fighters as their family fled their hometown. Murad explained, “She was held for ten months. We heard no word about her well-being. We didn’t know if she was still alive.” His clear light-brown eyes bore into me with anger and brokenness.
He then explained that one month ago the family received a request for a $30,000 ransom if they wanted to see their sister alive again. Somehow they scraped together the money, and their sister was dropped off in a city on the border between ISIS-controlled territory and Kurdish-controlled territory.
Murad showed me a choppy video on his phone of the emotional reunion. Even through the hugs, the tears and the wailing of relatives, Narin appeared in shock. She looked happy and hollow at the same time. A tear streamed down my face as I watched. “Oh, Lord, rescue these people,” I silently prayed.
Murad and Narin represent a terribly oppressed people. The Yazidi don’t want to go back to Iraq where ISIS threatens their lives, but in neighboring countries they are confined to camps where there is no possibility of finding work or buying property to establish a home. The Yazidis are a vulnerable minority stuck between the bitter Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq. Most are hoping a country in Europe or North America will open its doors and welcome them to begin a new life. But even more than a foreign home, they need a spiritual home.
I told Murad I was praying for his people. “Jesus Christ loved me first, so I love Him back by loving God and loving my neighbor, who is you,” I said.
Murad said he had always wanted to read the New Testament but had never found one. I helped him download an Arabic Bible onto his phone. He was thankful, but I knew that though he spoke Arabic, his heart language was Kurmanji Kurdish.
A few minutes before leaving the camp, I asked Murad if he would step into an examination room with me. I thanked him for sharing his life and his stories with me. I shared the Gospel with him and gave him an audio Bible in Kurmanji. I played some of Matthew for him. He strained as he listened at first, but his eyes lit up when he recognized his own heart language. He thanked me profusely and carefully slipped the device into his pocket as we prepared to go.
— by Rob White | BP