29 September 2014

The stories we tell

I find myself repeating a single line when people ask me about Iraq, particularly about the security situation: “the Kurdish region is very safe.”  And this is true: living and working in Ankawa and occasionally visiting partners in other cities within the Kurdish region, we are not in danger.  

In this case, our safety is represented in the form of homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Please note that Nathan is reaching for one from the rack with his right hand when he already has one in his left hand.

By emphasizing our personal safety, though, I discard an opportunity to share the impact of this violence on the many people who are not safe from its danger.


You may remember Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author who gave a TED talk on the danger of a single story in 2009.  Adichie critiques the human tendency to quickly summarize another’s experience through a single story, stereotype, or perspective.  MCC uses Adichie’s lecture in its orientation for new staff as an example of what it tries to do in every place it works: look for and tell the myriad alternative stories that complicate and deepen our (North American) single-story understandings of places, peoples, and problems.

This spring, I heard a speech by EMU student Seth Stauffer in which he turned Adichie’s critique back upon MCC: sometimes MCC combats the danger of a single story with its own alternate single story.  We downplay the violence in locations known for little else in favor of highlighting the complex and beautiful life that is being lived in the midst of—and in spite of—that violence.  Both sides are true; one emphasizes the darkness, the other emphasizes the light breaking through.  But neither is the full story, and both miss the spectrum of stories in between.

Remembering this, I felt convicted.  Two months into an MCC term, and I’m already slipping into dualisms of light-and-dark instead of hanging out in the gray area, which I invariably claim to prefer.  Here is my first attempt at combating my own single story of Iraq.


You already know the plot of the dominant single story: daily airstrikes that kill forces of the Islamic State as well as Iraqi civilians; terrorism and attacks that kill Iraqi soldiers and more civilians; the escalating conflict in both Iraq and Syria as more players jump in.  Another part of this story chronicles the millions of refugees and internally-displaced people (IDPs) across Iraq and Syria.  It’s a familiar and heart-wrenching tune.

At camps where IDPs are living, a generally-accepted tent size for a family of 6 is about 10 feet by 10 feet, although in reality an area of that same size---tent or no tent, as shown here---often houses twice that many people.  Look at the room you're in right now and do some quick measurements for comparison (Photo credit: Salar Ahmed).
Now remember that in Iraq the summers have an average high of 110-115 F and an overnight low of 85-90 F, and these people lived outside, without electricity, through the worst of it.  Some people fled Ninevah eight weeks ago, and some people fled Mosul almost four months ago.  Others fled Anbar in February, and others fled Syria two or more years ago.

There are over 1.8 million people living like this all across Iraq.  That’s more than the entire population of Philadelphia, and it’s just as diverse: doctors, street sweepers, grandparents, lawyers, pregnant women, electricians, high-schoolers, architects, people with cancer.  Whole towns and cities left their homes and livelihoods behind overnight and have been living in miserable suspension ever since.

Last Wednesday, Nathan and I were approached by three Syrian beggars asking for money—all Muslim women with small children—over the course of 15 minutes.  Hands to our hearts, we said “no, my dear, I am sorry” in Arabic and turned away.  These three, in quick succession, overwhelmed me with the parallel to Peter’s denials before the rooster’s crow.  What can we do differently?  Always give a set amount when asked and then try to disengage?  Avoid the part of town where beggars congregate?  Learn their names and some of their story before going on our way?  The options expose us to varying levels of others' pain, but none of them fix anything.  When we've given change to beggars in the past, they (rightly) insist on more; they need hospital visits, rent, jobs; not five dollars. 

War is awful.  We avert our eyes because it is grotesque and too painful to comprehend, let alone explain.  The numbers are numbing, and the pictures have saturated our capacity to empathize.  What can we do differently?  As I write it I know this rings hollow, but I can’t get away from it: we have to expose ourselves to the pain.  We have to keep showing—to ourselves and to others—the myriad grays instead of combating the story of darkness with one of all light.  


  1. Thank you for showing us the war way better than our media does. It deeply touched me--your story, another viewpoint. Blessings today (and every day) in all your inner actions. Being God's witness for these people is a wonderful thing to be; I admire and applaud your courage. May He keep you both in His hand.

  2. MCC needs to publish this in A Common Place.