The world should be shocked by what I’ve seen in Iraq in the last week. As Director of Emergency Relief & Global Security for Medical Teams International, I oversee the startup of emergency responses around the world. Recently, I went to Lebanon to increase some of our efforts in responding to the health needs of Syrian refugees living in the Bekaa Valley. From there I headed to Erbil, Iraq (Kurdistan) to do an assessment of the needs and security concerns in northern Iraq.
Shortly after I arrived, a car bomb was detonated five or six miles away from where I was. Welcome to Iraq.
While in Erbil, I met Sister Diana, a nun who fled her city with only what she was wearing. Along with two other nuns, she is serving displaced people who have sought refuge and are living in a church and a park. When I asked her about her needs, she replied: “What I really need is to find ways to help my people and let their suffering be heard. That will be the best thing ever.”
Later, an Iraqi doctor asked me why it has taken so long for me (and other international non-government organizations — NGOs) to arrive. He also asked if the only reason why Americans are scared and worried about ISIS is because of the murder of the journalist James Foley: “Is an American life worth more than an Iraqi life?” As we spoke further, he said, “Humanity has developed a new selective conscience.”
As of last spring, there have been 191,000 people killed in the Syrian conflict, though the BBC suggests that this number is grossly underestimated. Christians, Yezidis, and other minority religious groups in Iraq are facing extreme persecution by way of executions, beheadings, crucifixions, and rape. The country is littered with mass graves and places where people are being buried alive.
The couple in this photo arrived from Qaraqosh — the “Christian capital of Iraq” — only two days before I met them. You are looking at all they have. They are sleeping in a church courtyard in Erbil. The woman saved her wedding ring by hiding it in a Kleenex; she kept wiping sweat from her face with the Kleenex so ISIS never found the ring. This couple said they were some of the last Christians in the city.
All this is happening right now, but it was barely a ripple until Americans saw web videos of the brutal and savage murders of American journalists. Suddenly, presidents and heads of state were “deeply shocked”; suddenly, the nation’s conscience was rattled.
Even that stirring seems to have passed now. But why were we not shocked before an American was killed? Why were we not shocked when we heard the first reports of civilians — children, mothers, brothers, sisters — being murdered, killed, raped, beheaded, executed and persecuted? What makes the murder of American journalists more shocking?
Edmund Burke wisely said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men [note: I would add women, sister Diana] to do nothing.” Are we doing nothing? Do we only do something when evil touches our nation, when evil touches someone we know?
These are not mere rhetorical questions. Think in specifics: What actions should we take? What is necessary for this evil to be defeated? Is doing nothing an option? What would we want done if we were an Iraqi or Syrian? If we were persecuted? If our families and loved ones were murdered? If we feared for the lives of our children? Who would we go to for help? Who would we cry out to? Who would we ask the Lord to send?
Here are some specific things you can do:
1. PRAY. If you are a Christian, get on your knees for your brothers and sisters. Do it everyday. Gather together two, three, a hundred others and pray together.
3. ADVOCATE. Email and call your congressmen and senators. There are steps the Obama administration could take immediately to further stop this genocide, including signing legislation that has been sitting on his desk to create a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East, appointing a senior administration official to coordinate the response to this genocide, working with trusted NGOs on the ground to help the victims, doing everything possible to support the Kurdish government and, if necessary, reprograming existing funds to support these efforts. Let him and our policymakers hear from you.
I have been asked if returning to my home and family here in Portland has been difficult. Normally, I reply that having traveled so much, I am used to the extremes. But right now I fee like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit:
“Look, I know you doubt me, I know you always have. And you’re right . . . I often think of Bag End. I miss my books, and my armchair, and my garden. See, that’s where I belong, that’s home. That’s why I came back . . . ’cause you don’t have one, a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.”
Yesterday, I received an email from a friend of mine, an Iraqi doctor who is volunteering at one of the church health clinics. He wrote, “I’m glad to hear that you are back home, safe, and sound. I just pray that one day the thousands of displaced people will be able to write to their friends and beloved ones saying, ‘We are back home.’”
Image courtesy of Mustafa Khayat.