“We fled to the village outside Mosul the first time ISIS came,” one man told me, his thin, earnest son translating for him. “After things settled down we went back in. The second time we were given 10 hours to leave. At the edge of town they ripped up our passports, they destroyed everything we had.”
On the other side of his son, his wife rocks back and forth, clearly traumatized. Farther along in the room they share with two other families, people lie aimlessly on mattresses, as two ladies prepare a small meal.
“We were on the mountain for days,” two teenagers tell me later. “Then we made it out, through Syria, coming here.” The “here” that they refer to is a shoulder of dirt beside the highway, in the hills, on the edge of a small city in the Kurdish-administered region of northern Iraq. A dozen or more family tents, rough shelters made of tarpaulin and other scraps of material, have sprung up under the line of trees that would elsewhere be a local picnic spot. They tell me more in halting Arabic about their journey from the mountains, where they and their fellow Yazidi people were isolated by the fundamentalist Islamic group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
As we talk, an elderly man points out his dwindling stock of medicine. “I need two of these every day,” he explains, “but what can I do? Who will help me?”
The Yazidi people are now scattered throughout the north of Iraq – in roadside camps like this, under highway interchanges, in schools and in unfinished construction sites. Each site has its own problems. At one stretch of construction in a town near the country’s border, approximately 1,500 people live in vaguely demarcated living areas – but there is no running water and the local authority’s efforts to provide latrines are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people.
Unfinished walls mean children run the risk of falling several stories to the ground below. Elsewhere, in a school housing 75 families, there is uncertainty as to when the new school year will begin and classrooms are needed. The school start date will almost certainly be pushed back, but most estimates foresee it being a month away.
Ray of hope
Now Ata and his wife, along with their four boys, live in a bedroom in a basic motel. The family is one of the luckiest, able to move away from the desperate conditions and searing temperatures of the school building.
Yet among all the despair there is also hope. Ata has not been among those lying on mattresses waiting for help to come. Driving around the area in the car that he and his family used to flee, he has moved among his people, finding out which schools and villages they are staying in. We go with him to one of these schools, talking with the people there about their most pressing needs.
The heavily-treated water is making them all sick, they explain, and they miss bread, which is a staple of their diet. Working with Ata, we order bread from a local bakery and buy bottles of water – in many cases the food resources are available for purchase, yet they are just beyond the buying power of many of those stranded here.
By all accounts the people of these cities have been very generous to the new arrivals – local television shows clips of affected people, with the words, “Helping these people is a national and religious obligation” – but there are limits to what they can provide. Yet it’s still heart-wrenching to drive past store stacked full of goods, while just a few streets away sit those struggling to get through the day.
After we unload over 500 loaves and several cases of water, Ata is able to sit with the community leaders and get a list of people present in the school, along with explanations about their greatest needs. It’s impossible for one group to meet all the needs, but it’s vital to do something.
Due to the growing health concerns of so many people living crowded together, we talk with Ata about focusing on hygiene packs to prevent disease spreading. Experience working with displaced families in neighboring countries has highlighted this as a real need in crowded conditions, which is often overlooked in the rush to provide food and shelter. We make plans with Ata to move to the other schools too and collect numbers there, so that enough washing and cleaning products can be brought to meet the urgent needs.
At one point, as we drive towards the school with the car’s trunk and back seat filled with steaming bags of bread, their heat exacerbating the 113˚F heat outside, I ask Ata why he is doing this. “What motivates you, I want to know, when so many of your fellow people are stuck in a cycle of despair?”
“Because Jesus prepared me for this,” he explains, “because these are my people. God prepared me to do this before the foundation of the world.”
Among a very small minority of his people who have embraced the Christian faith, Ata has faced real persecution from his fellow Yazidi. It would be much easier to stay in his motel room, to follow up a promised job with an oil company, and to ignore the plight of those who had caused him so much harm. But motivated by a deep, genuine sense of the love of Christ, Ata is compelled to serve his people in their time of need, bringing a ray of hope into a hopeless situation.