Bristol couple saw effects of ISIS

By Elizabeth Fisher Correspondent
Jim and Debbie Fine in their Bristol Borough home recall their lives in Iraq working with the Mennonite Central Commitee when ISIS moved into the area they were living in at the time
Jim and Debbie Fine were in their final month of four years of service in Ankawa, a town of 30,000 people located near Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, when they came too close to a brush with ISIS.

Thousands of refugees came pouring into the city to escape the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS is trying to take over both countries to impose its religious extremism on the populations. The terrorists slash their way through ancient towns, killing thousands of men, women and children by firing squads, beheadings and crucifixions.

The couple, an educator and a relief worker for the Mennonite Central Committee who are both 67, said they didn’t feel threatened, at first, because the Peshmerga — the fierce army of Kurdistan — stood ready at their border to fend off ISIS. But two things happened to worsen the situation: ISIS captured a huge haul of sophisticated American weapons abandoned by Iraqi army deserters; and the outgunned Peshmerger retreated to a position that would be easier to defend, the Fines said.

As ISIS slashed and burned its way toward Erbil, the city’s population fled, streaming into Ankawa, doubling its population to 60,000 and creating a humanitarian crisis. People fled only with the clothes on their backs and settled into cathedrals, cemeteries, school buildings, and any other place they could find.

Despite the specter of the ISIS beheading of journalists and aid workers, the Fines took up the task of helping to provide food, clothing and blankets to the refugees.

“We weren’t afraid because we were informed that the likelihood of danger was low,” Jim Fine said. “If ISIS entered Erbil, we had many friends and colleagues that would have risked their lives to get us out.”

The Ankawa population rose to the occasion to help the homeless and hopeless. People collected money, provided food and other necessities. Priests and seminarians of St. Peter’s, a Chaldean Catholic parish, became relief workers. Nuns acquired tents to be used as living quarters.

In the midst of the chaos, a group of high-level architects worked alongside seminarians to help people who took refuge in buildings that had been reduced to mere shells; government officials eased restrictions on permits and sped the process of accepting aid from the outside. Many town residents allowed the displaced to come into their homes to take showers, Debbie Fine said.

“This was all going on in 100-plus degree heat. We worked effectively, but we were always beyond the curve of the humanitarian need. It put tremendous pressure on the government and the churches,” she said.

Conditions deteriorated in many parts of the country, the couple said. Since January, 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced — many of them moving multiple times as they traversed their country looking for a way to survive. For a time, it seemed they would lose the race to the ISIS advance.

But it was U.S. airstrikes that saved the day in Erbil. The strikes began in the wake of the humanitarian crisis that was created when hundreds of thousands of Yazidi took refuge there to escape religious persecution.

“ISIS was 20 miles from Erbil, across a river not much wider than the Neshaminy Creek. We had no idea how successful Kurdish forces would have been against ISIS,” Jim Fine said.

But the airstrikes halted the Islamic extremists and gave the beleaguered cities and towns some breathing room. It was also time for the Fines to return home to Bristol. Before they left, they saw evidence that life went on, despite the threat.

“The couple who replaced us arrived and classes began again at the seminary. We were loathe to leave so many people behind, and the friends we had made,” Jim Fine said.

As the Fines sat in their quiet home and served Iraqi refreshments and tea in small glasses to visitors, they looked back on the devastation while marveling at the spark of hope they found in Ankawa.

For one thing, the hierarchy of the Chaldean Catholic Church, an eastern sect that has its own patriarch but is loyal to Rome, have big plans. They have opened the Mar Quardakh School, a K-12 school that is seeking accreditation as an international baccalaureate facility.

“The archbishop believes that if you provide a good education, it will enable the children to function in the wider world. He believes the Iraqis can establish a way of life where they are. Many people work really hard to provide the Iraqis with a future in their own community,” Debbie Fine said.

The Fines are no strangers to the Middle East. They and their three children lived in Jerusalem from 1975 to 1982. From 1998 to 1999, they labored at the Quaker school in Ramallah.

In between, Jim Fine taught at the University of Pennsylvania and, for a time, lived in Washington, D.C., working as a lobbyist for the Friends Committee for Legislation. Debbie taught at Bristol High School.

The couple left Iraq with a beautifully woven Iraqi rug and a large green and gold crucifix, mementos more precious because they were gifts from Kurdish friends. They said they were sad to leave behind so many in need, but buoyed by the determination of clergy and diverse organizations to plant the seeds of acceptance and prosperity.

They marvel at the example set by Patriarch Luis Salko I, spiritual leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church, whose vision is to help create a pluralistic and socialistic society. His background as former deputy mayor of Mosul and Bishop of Kirkuk, gives him the experience and understanding that could bring his dream to fruition, Jim Fine said.

The Fines consider themselves retired. Maybe.

“For now, we’re sitting in our rocking chairs enjoying the peace,” Jim Fine said with a chuckle.

Correspondent Elizabeth Fisher can be reached through editor Jackie Massott at 215-949-4185 or

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