How Muslims and Christians are working together to help refugees in Iraq and Syria

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By Molly Thomas
Molly Thomas and cameramen tour Harshem camp near Erbil, Iraq, with the Iraqi pastor who runs it.
Before the 2003 U.S. invasion, over 1 million Christians lived in Iraq. Today, conservative estimates say less than 500,000 remain. Perhaps nowhere in the world is faith more under fire, than in this country.
This story is part of the Deseret News National Edition, which focuses on the issues that resonate with American families.

Sana Weaa huddles in the corner of her makeshift home in Erbil, Iraq, clutching a rosary and whispering a soft prayer for her seven children, all seeking refuge here in this camp for the displaced. It’s about 50 miles northwest of her hometown. She fled with thousands to escape the civil war and sectarian violence that’s tearing Iraq apart.

Weaa’s children, ranging in age from 6 to 18, have been forced to call Harshem Camp home for the last year. As she prays, the camp outside shudders to life: A truck rumbles past carrying giant jugs of water and rationed food parcels kicking up dust as a little girl in pink tights ties back her ponytail.

Weaa and her children were forced to flee their family home in Mosul, where Assyrians and other Christians have lived for millennia.

“We were scared a lot because you know ISIS, they target Christians,” Weaa explains. “We got out of Mosul at 3 a.m., just when we hear ISIS is coming to our places, we just decided to move. We didn’t take anything with us.”

She’s one of 3 million internally displaced people on the run from ISIS within her own borders. Another 180,000 Iraqis have fled and sought refuge abroad. Unfortunately, Weaa is part of a growing demographic: 60 million people around the world forcibly displaced due to conflict, the largest wave of displacement since World War II.

On a warm day in May, Weaa walks me through her two-bedroom home, which looks more like a converted shipping container, where donated food items, bedding and personal hygiene products have to be lumped together in one central space. The kitchenette that connects the two rooms is so small it’s difficult for her twin daughters to stand side by side. Weaa’s face lights up when she explains how she had a big house and a wonderful garden back home, but her gaze lowers when she tells me that ISIS has invaded her property, taking over a home that’s been in the family for generations.

Faith On the Run

Before the 2003 U.S. invasion, the Brookings Institute says between 1-1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. Today, conservative estimates say less than 500,000 Christians remain. Perhaps nowhere in the world is faith more under fire, than in this country. Like Christians, other minority groups like the Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis, Shabak and Kaka’i also have threats on their heads. Yazidis once numbered 700,000.

A recent report commissioned by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights tells of horrific abductions of women and the rape of Yazidi girls as young as 6 years old. 200,000 Yazidis are believed to have fled Iraq. With a majority Shia population, Kaka’i and Shabak peoples are obvious targets for Sunni-declared ISIS militants. Turkmen are also in the line of fire as many of them try to retain the lands once taken from them during the Saddam Hussein Arabization campaign.

The Kurdish Peshmerga, or freedom fighters, have managed to protect the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but 750,000 internally displaced people have fled into these borders. Minority Rights International acknowledges that religious minorities have long been targets of extremism in Iraq, but it’s different now because the “violence appears to be part of a systematic strategy to remove these communities permanently from areas where they have lived for centuries.”

Extremists, like ISIS, and religious tyrants, like Saddam Hussein and Nouri Al-Maliki, have radicalized religion in Iraq. The U.S. invasion in 2003 pushed sectarian sides further apart. While it might be easy to look at these cases and conclude that religion has ruined this country, I saw a fresh narrative of faith when I stepped onto Iraqi soil earlier this year. Every person I came in contact with had faith in a higher power, and those beliefs dictated their actions inside arguably the most dangerous country on the planet.

Bridging religious differences

This faithful resolve is seen in the eyes of a young Muslim named Dr. Sarah Ahmed. Only 27 years old, she moves between IDP camps across Iraq doing dental check-ups and setting up school programs for kids. Unlike fundamentalist Muslims in her country, she believes Islam represents peace.

“It’s helping each other, it’s loving your neighbor, it’s never to sleep full when your neighbor is hungry,” Ahmed explains.

But that belief comes with a price: separation from her parents and living in constant fear.

Ahmed’s parents fled to Jordan after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. She remained in Iraq to finish school, but when she saw the humanitarian need, she couldn’t leave. She is now part of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, which works with leaders from different faith groups.

She says the goal is simple: “Stop for one second and listen to the other part and accept the other in your life.”

It’s an accepting ideology foreign to ISIS, who knows Ahmed by name. The militant group wants her dead because she belongs to a form of Islam they do not recognize as legitimate. To stay safe, Ahmed can never stay in one place for very long.

“Sometimes I get really scared,” she says, but it’s her compassion for the next generation that compels her to stay. She hopes her relief work across IDP camps, irrespective of religious background, also helps bridge divides.

‘I have to serve them’

Johnnie Moore, the author of “Defying ISIS” agrees that moderate religious groups must join together to lead humanitarian efforts. Moore insists that, “this is the moment where the best of faith has to stand in defiance of the worst of religion.” This sentiment rings true to the many churches I visited during my short time in Iraq reporting on the crisis, who are heroically housing hundreds of IDPs, regardless of religious affiliation. When asked why he continuously takes people in, the Iraqi pastor at Harshem camp casually says, “it’s my work here, I am a father. Jesus didn’t come to be a president. I have to serve them, not them to serve me.”

Read more: Why faith groups can work together to combat religious violence

Workers on the ground in Erbil for World Vision, a Christian relief, development and advocacy organization, were amazed at how the Kurdish community stepped out of its comfort zone to house the displaced. They tell me of Shia and Sunni communities, many in rural areas of Sulimaniyah that housed and fed displaced Iraqis for months before international organizations arrived, this despite religious differences, which are fueling much of the bloodshed in the region.

As the situation in Iraq deteriorates and international funding dries up, the crisis will only deepen. The UN World Food Programme recently announced a third round of cuts to food vouchers for a million IDPs. This means food parcels for families will be cut in half and vouchers will drop from U.S. $26 to $16 per month per person. This comes just after the World Health Organization suspended 84 percent of its frontline health services in many parts of Iraq.

In spite of all these hardships, Iraqis have not lost their faith. Johnnie Moore noticed crosses in IDP camps throughout Iraq on his most recent trip. He even remembers one displaced family having tattoos of crosses on their hands. In a country where one is marked and targeted for having opposing beliefs, this is a fierce symbol of loyalty to one’s faith.

“These are people who are willing to die for what most Christians I know are barely willing to live for,” Moore says.

Back at Harshem camp, I can’t help but notice Weaa’s symbols of faith around the caravan: a Bible, the rosary, drawings of Jesus in crayon.

“I’m so grateful for him and thankful for whatever happened or in the future happens, because Jesus is with us,” Weaa tells me, one tear streaking down her left cheek.

Though she has lost so much, she confidently expresses that her hope and trust comes from one source. When she fears ISIS, when she worries for her children, when she wonders where her next meal will come from, she turns to Jesus.

She has an unspeakable joy you can’t help but notice so I have to ask how her faith is so strong; as she looks up at me, she finally smiles. I expect a profound and elongated answer, yet the simplicity in her words is shockingly beautiful: “I thank God every day,” she says.

Molly Thomas is a reporter and host with Context with Lorna Dueck, a faith-based current affairs show that airs nationally in Canada and on several networks in the U.S.