In North America the ongoing struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is something for the nightly news. It is far away and doesn’t impact us personally. Unless you travel there, in which case it becomes very real.
I was given the opportunity to visit a refugee camp in northern Iraq, Yazidi people pushed out of their homes by an ISIS assault in August 2014. I have mixed feelings about such visits, balancing the desire to know with not wanting to be seen as an insensitive tourist immune to people’s suffering.
This is a small camp, perhaps a hundred tents. Given the size of Yazidi families that means there are a thousand people here, maybe more. The living conditions are best described as primitive.
I don’t speak any of the regional languages. The Yazidis I think speak a variant of Kurdish, but there are a few who speak Arabic, so a couple of people in our group can communicate and I can learn through translation.
The camp is mostly women and children, I am told. There are a few older men, but all the young ones have left. They are fighting with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military, taking part in the battle to liberate Sinjar from ISIS. These people fled here from Sinjar; they want to go home.
The tents have come from a variety of sources. There is the familiar blue on white of the United Nations High Commision for Refugees (UNHCR) found in refugee camps around the world. The grey tents from USAID are stamped as “from the American people.” There are tents from Turkey, from Germany and there are many with the white on blue of Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse.
There is no immediate end in sight. Even with the liberation of Sinjar it is not yet safe to go home. There will definitely be another winter in these quarters, maybe two – and perhaps many more. The tents can get pretty cold when the temperature dips to -5 Celsius. A local church has purchased carpets which are being distributed to this camp, which will make the tents a little warmer. The Yazidis are not Christians, but they are in need, so the church is doing what it can to help. In this predominantly Muslim area, the few local Christians have an impact greater than their numbers would suggest, thanks to the Christian tradition of helping those in need.
The stories can be heartbreaking. This small community is smaller yet because 65 of its members of remain in ISIS hands. One man tells of his daughters, aged five and six, who, along with his mother, were kidnapped by ISIS more than a year ago. Another man, comparatively well off for these poor people, was able to find the $5,000 to ransom his 14-year-old daughter from ISIS’ clutches.
As the world watches the conflict unfold on its television screens, we would all do well to remember that behind every face on the screen is a real person with a story to tell. It may seem unreal because it is so far away, but the human suffering and misery is all very real.