04 September 2014

Hope, despair, and the neighborhood

Greetings from Amman!  

Kaitlin and I left Erbil last week for an annual area MCC retreat and meetings in Jordan.  We traveled with Jim and Deb, our predecessors, who have not only done an excellent job of introducing us to partners, church contacts, and friends in towns and cities across the Kurdish region, but have also imparted—we hope—the crucial skills and tricks required to keep a house running in Ankawa.  

This includes everything from constant surveillance and low-grade maintenance of the mubaarida (evaporative coolers), to knowing when the fresh produce arrives at the neighborhood fruit stands (mid-morning), to keeping our rooftop water tanks full, to the diplomacy involved in renegotiating a lease with a landlord’s agent and residency and occupancy with the Kurdish Asayish (internal security) during a time of crisis.

While we will always feel very much like foreigners, having these tools (almost) under our belts and cultivating relationships makes us feel in some ways like we have been in Iraq for much longer than a month.

The road to Suleimaniyyah, one of Iraqi Kurdistan's three largest cities, which we visited in mid-August.

The ongoing crisis of displacement is no doubt part of why we feel as much familiarity as we do.  Work has kept us busy, and perhaps more importantly, we have gotten in touch very quickly with the pain and trauma of the Christian community in which we are living. 

On the way to Mass two weeks ago we were stopped by an older woman who asked us if we could help her get out of the country.  She had lived in Qaraqosh, a large Christian town of about 40,000, and had evacuated to Ankawa just a few hours ahead of ISIS in the wave of displacement on August 6-7.  She was now staying in Mar Elia church, where we were heading for Mass.  When we explained that we didn't have connections with the American consulate and Jim expressed his hope that she would eventually be able to return home, she shook her head.  “They don’t want us. Our neighbors in Qaraqosh.  We taught in their schools, cared for them in our hospitals, and now they don’t want us.”

This rejection, real and perceived, is the worst part of the crisis in northern Iraq.  Their (mostly Sunni Arab) neighbors, as most of the stories go, did not protect Christians and other minorities in the time of crisis, and after the Christians were gone, some of the remaining residents looted the homes of the displaced.  To flee from your home and live as forced guests in cramped quarters is awful.  To do so while every day hearing new stories of former neighbors robbing your home would be unbearable.  This is a wound that will not heal easily, even if the displaced can return home soon.

Indeed, most displaced people we speak with simply want to leave Iraq altogether.  Speaking with a group of men at Mar Yusef church, the largest Chaldean church in Ankawa, one man from a village on the Nineveh plain said, “no one wants to go home.  After this, no one wants to stay here.” One church leader who has worked tirelessly for years to build church institutions and keep Christians in Iraq said, in an understated summary of the anger and pain of the displaced, “The neighbors are not good neighbors.”

Every time this lesson is reinforced—by real events and by the way those events are remembered—more Christians leave.  Already two Ankawa residents we know and had been planning to rely on as important contacts in the community have left or will soon leave as a result of the events of the last month.   The same church leader, above, said a few weeks ago, “This is almost the end of Christianity in Iraq.”

Petros Khammo, an architect employed by the Chaldean Catholic church, observes progress on MCC-supported construction of showers for IDPs in Ankawa.  Petros, who has also designed schools, seminaries, convents, and other buildings across Ankawa said, “I taught architecture in Baghdad for 34 years, but this, I think, is my masterpiece.”

There are, as always, points of light.  The most hopeful moment for me so far was witnessing the ordination of a young priest from Mosul by Bishop Ameel of Mosul in late July.  In this community, such an event is a cause to celebrate at any time, but seeing new leadership affirmed in exile was especially inspiring.  Both men had lost their homes in June.  At the ordination service Bishop Ameel preached: “It does not matter where we are.  The church is not a building.  They can burn our buildings.  The church is not where we are; it is who we are and what we are.”  A church capable of producing someone who speaks words like those at a time like this is a church that has a future.  I hope part of that future is always in Iraq.  


Most of the time if this blog isn't depressing, it will probably be pretty mundane (mubaarida updates, etc.). The remaining part, God willing, will be hopeful.  In Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, Stanley Hauerwas and Rom Coles state,
“Peacemaking, light-bringing, and joy are always already springing forth everywhere—in spite of the disasters.  We must retrain ourselves to witness them…. Such hope is the resource necessary to help us see what otherwise might go unnoticed—that other worlds are indeed possible.”  
This kind of hope is what (I hope) this blog points to—without turning away from the inexplicable suffering that disaster always brings, whether in Harrisonburg or Ankawa.  

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