Below is a letter from Dr. Sarah AK Ahmed, Director of Operations for The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and Personal Assistant to Canon Andrew White, detailing her experiences over the last year as the crisis with ISIS in Iraq has escalated to increasing levels of severity. She provides an inside perspective on the crisis, and shares stories from her vast experiences. Please read this letter, share it with your friends and family, and continue to pray for the Christians in Iraq being persecuted daily for their faith.
It all started in the beginning of August 2014. Approximately 30,000 families had fled to Erbil, mainly to Ankawa, an area populated primarily by Christians. During this time, I was booking a flight to go to Baghdad after finishing part of the relief effort in the North. While waiting to book my flight, I got a phone call from my brother saying, “Sarah I saw a whole lot of people next to Saint Joseph Church in Ankawa.” I told him it might be “the stand of solidarity” that Bishop Dawood of the Syrian Orthodox Church had told me about just the day before. But my brother said, “No! I saw a lady sitting on the floor crying, and when I asked her why, she said that she was hungry.” When I heard that, I went to the airlines officer and I told him, “People are crying because they are hungry on the streets. I need to get to work. You either confirm my flight now, or let me leave.” So, I got my flight confirmed after four hours of waiting in the burning sun.
When I arrived in Baghdad, I went to the Church and I saw thousands of people of all ages on the streets, in the garden, and of course inside the Church. I went to the leaders and then asked around, and I was told by some of the leaders and the displaced people that all those around the Church were Christians fleeing from ISIS. The people came mostly from Nineveh – known as Mosul, and its villages – Bashiqa, Bartella, Qaraqoosh, Alqosh, and Batnaya. They were all that was left of the Christian community in Iraq. People came with nothing but their clothes. Some of the families were even forced to leave all their identity cards behind.
When ISIS took over in those communities, they offered the Christians one of two options; either to pay “Jizya,” which is an amount of money paid by those who refuse to convert to Islam, or to leave, because if a Christian family stayed without paying they would be killed. The threat was real – when ISIS was closing in on Khabur, all the Christians, Shabaks, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims started leaving, seeking refuge in Erbil, Kurdistan.
On the Ground in Iraq
With so many people coming, there was so much need. I was working flat out from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. I had to make trips to get food, water, supplies and whatever else all those families needed. Some nights, I spent all night at the Church, making meals for more than 50,000 people per mealtime. I am the Director of Operations for the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East and the PA for Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, so I am used to serving many people, but I have never experienced that many religious minorities in one place before. It reminded me of what happened hundreds of years go in the same land to another religious minority. It reminded me of the genocide – as I call it – of the Iraqi Jewish community. That’s why, even though I am helping the Christians and also the other minorities either to settle in Erbil or to evacuate all together, my heart is still aching because I don’t want what happened years ago to happen again to the Christians, the Yazidis or the Shabaks.
A committee was established to deal with all the internally displaced, especially Christians. At that point, roughly 75,000 displaced families were living on the streets. With so great a need, about 25 centers were opened in schools, sport centers, and such. Then a warehouse was established, where food and supplies could be distributed to all the centers equally. The needs were still increasingly great, but it was getting a little easier, since it all became systematic. I thought I could still help the Christians, and so I started looking for other camps that no one else was monitoring. I was completely shocked by what I found. People were sleeping on rocks. They were sick, had no money, were hungry and they were scared of ISIS. Most of them had had close encounters with ISIS, which is why they wouldn’t allow any pictures to be taken of themselves, thinking that ISIS might see the photos and eventually come after them again.
After President Obama’s speech, letting people know about the situation and ordering the airstrikes, things didn’t get better. More people were coming to Erbil, and there were families living on the streets begging for food and water in 120 degree weather. In one of my runs to get clothes for the camps, I was caught in the middle of a protest where all the protesters were holding the Kurdish flag and yelling, “ARAB MU ZEN,” which meant, ‘Arab is bad.’ Then the shooting started, and I was literally dragged away from the scene by my driver, knowing nothing but the fact that I needed to run faster and speak no Arabic. I now understand why that happened. Before this conflict, Kurdistan was really safe and their people were never in danger. Then ISIS came, along with the Arabs, and bad things started to happen. With all the stories that were being told about ISIS and how they treated their women, the Kurds were really scared for their wives and daughters. The families that left Mosul said that ISIS was making a law stating that each family with boys needed to give up one boy for the war, and if they had girls they needed to give one girl to the ISIS army. ISIS gave the girls a schedule stating the times that they should be with the ISIS soldiers. ISIS justified this by saying they needed the soldiers’ spirits to be high to enforce the word of God! It’s twisted, I know. When I heard that I was shivering – I couldn’t believe what I heard. It made me feel that ISIS members are not humans – they can’t be.
The Cost of Crisis
In most countries, people help each other during a crisis. However, during the crisis in the north, I noticed the following: the prices were doubled and transportation was very expensive due to crisis-induced high gas prices. With that being said, I went to a particular garage – a place where people go to grab a taxi, a bus, or an SUV to travel from Erbil to Baghdad or other provinces. There I found about 70 families with no water, no food, and having nothing to live off of or to sleep on. They were waiting to grab a cab! The fees were normally a maximum of $200 for a full car to Baghdad. After the crisis, it rose to $1,500, depending on the driver. I understand that the gas prices are $1 per liter, but I thought the obligation that we have as humans to help each other during a crisis would be far more important than money. I ended up renting a whole bus for about $120 per person to take the stranded families to Baghdad and to Najaf. It was far cheaper than transporting each family individually, because, as much as I tried to talk the drivers into charging a lower fee, they wouldn’t budge.
The FRRME is fully funding the work that I do, and I am overseeing and doing the relief on behalf of the Foundation, as the Director of Operations and as the Canon’s PA. On a daily basis, I provided for about 50,000 people on a busy day, and for 25,000 on a less busy day. I tried to get all those families what they actually needed. I would go early in the morning to ask the people, or their leaders, what the camp needed. The needs changed and also increased day by day. Some of the most common needs included water, ice, bread, food, medical care, wheelchairs, cradles, bedding, mattresses, pillows, blankets, medical canes, and clothes. As time went on, needs shifted from what families needed to survive to what they needed to simply live. I didn’t hesitate in meeting all of their needs, and I will share with you some of the testimonies that I encountered during my time of working with all the displaced families.
A Family in Need
Not too long ago, I found a family living by the sidewalk off the main road “Road 100,” and I sat and talked with them. The family told me their story and it was heartbreaking. “They came and warned us to leave or we would be killed! They got us all out and then said to the people ‘come take all that you want, it’s Shabak property and you can use it now, God says ok.’ Aren’t we people?!’” the father said.
I asked, “Can you tell me if they (ISIS) are really humans like us? What do they look like?”
“Scary! I couldn’t look at their faces,” the Dad said.
“They had no shoes and they looked like idiots that knew nothing about life,” the grandma continued.
“They had such long beards and nasty eyes,” their child added. I couldn’t believe it! There is so much evil being done. Humanity has to take a stand and understand what’s happening.
The Importance of Cradles
Another story involves cradles. They are so important to the people in the camps. When I went around asking what people needed or wanted other than food and water, the first thing that came from their mouths was “cradles.” To me, it’s really interesting to see how mothers and fathers cry about getting a cradle for their child. It should be decorated, and prayers should be written all over it. They use it rock the child to sleep. This gift was the one that actually brought smiles to their faces! I felt so happy for this single moment of joy. “I have a cradle,” said one mother. Then she kissed me and said, “My baby can sleep now.”
The Human Face of War
Kids are “the human face of war.” The most moving moments I had were around kids. I remember one boy in particular – all he wanted was to go back to school. When all the other kids were asking for games, toys and clothes, this little boy came up to me, touched my hand and asked about school. He wanted to know what would be done about his schooling. School in Iraq would be starting soon, and he was so worried about it that he cried continuously because he wasn’t sure if he would be able to go back this year. He wanted me, unlike all the other kids, to get him books so he could continue learning. His whole family ran from ISIS with nothing but the clothes on their backs. He was the only one of them that got all his books packed in a bag with him. I went and I got him all kinds of books, coloring books, stationary and all related items. He eventually changed camps and I looked for him for about a week until I finally found him and followed up with him. He was so happy and delighted to see me, but he was not pleased with the school that was set up by the U.N. because, as he said, “I am teaching the other kids Dr., it’s a school, but only for stupid kids.” He is an amazing little boy – his name is Muhamed.
The time was passing and everyone was getting edgy – frustrated and in disbelief as to what was happening. I went to one of the centers to deliver some aid, and to take care of a couple of medical emergencies, when I got a phone call from one of the Christians that had fled to Mosul. “You should burn us and get it over with. Death is better than this,” B. Azo said to me. Mr. Azo is actually among the blessed ones who has a roof over his family, and lives in a school where food is provided. He still thinks death is better than how they are living, and I totally understand. So many people left with nothing when they used to have everything. What he said made me only more determined to provide as much aid as I can for the Iraqis.
The Plight of the Elderly
I had to travel for a couple of days and when I returned, I set out to deliver much needed wheelchairs to the camp. But when I got to the camp, most of the people who had needed wheelchairs were gone. We didn’t give up however, and kept going around and asking people about the situation. Finally, I found out where they had moved all of them, and I went and delivered them one by one. I saw the happiness in this simple thing that I was providing. Eventually, I was left with one last wheelchair to deliver. I was so excited because the last one was for “Amo” (Uncle) and he had cried when I told him I would make it easier for him to get around by finding him a wheelchair. When I met him a week ago he was on the ground unable to move, thinking that the only thing he needed was a wheelchair. When I said excitingly, “Now take me to Amo,” they all looked down at the ground and said, “Sorry Doctor, he died.” It was a heartbreaking way to end my day.
The medical need is still extremely great because most of the population is elderly and have so many health issues. And since many of the families are living in the desert with no electricity, the canned food they are receiving spoils quickly. So many people came to us complaining of diarrhea and vomiting. They said, “Even the food we get is spoiled Doctor,” and, “This is not a life.” The situation is devastating and the things I saw can’t even be put into words. People are dying, people are suffering. The U.N. provided tents, but after the rain they all fell and one woman died because of that. I guess they were not constructed very well.
The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East
FRRME has been helping this crisis since it all began. I was the first person from an NGO to be on the ground with people, helping and providing. We promised ourselves that we would not stop until the situation was resolved. And we won’t stop as long as there is one displaced family left in Kurdistan, or anywhere else in Iraq. What is happening to people in Iraq, from persecution to starvation to killing, is affecting the population in more ways than the rest of the world can even imagine. It has affected me as well. A few Christians told me, “They think that they can take Jesus out of us. ISIS doesn’t know that He told us about them and about this day! Jesus told us that there will come a day when people will come and try to kill you in the name of God; they will take from you everything that is yours in the name of God. They will throw you out of your land in the name of God. But Jesus told us, those people are not me. ISIS does not know that our faith is getting stronger.”
We are going through hard times, but I know that God is with us. Some days, when I finish my relief work, I just sit in a corner after the driver drops me and start crying. I feel as if I have taken on all of the emotions that the displaced people are showing. I discharge all the sadness and all the negativity, then I pray. I know that God is with them because they have so much strength. They have so much courage and whenever they are asked they say, “It’s better today – nothing like home, but better.” Families have customized their life, accepting the new situation until a better solution presents itself.
On devoted Christian told me in tears, “I am with God and God is with me always, I am the son of God and I have to act in him. I know that ISIS has to go and ISIS will go. They try to take my faith away, but they will never be able to. They will always make it stronger with their actions. I do not care about money, cars, or houses. I care about God. You have to let people know about us Dr. You need to show the world what’s happening to us. Dr. Sarah you need to show them that we still exist and we need rescuing. We want to leave here, because we have absolutely nothing to stay for.”
Peace and Love from Iraq,
Dr. Sarah AK Ahmed
Dr. Sarah AK Ahmed is the Director of Operations for The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and Personal Assistant to Canon Andrew White. She is a peace, human rights and women’s right activist, and holds a bachelor’s degree in Dental Science and Oral Surgery – BDS from the University of Baghdad, College of Dentistry. She is a senior associate in the Red Thread Foundation for women, as well as the country representative and girl ambassador for Voices of Women Worldwide (VOWW). Besides her current relief effort aiding Iraqis displaced by ISIS, she also currently serves as a volunteer dentist in a medical center in Baghdad, providing quality health care free of charge to anyone who needs it.
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Also, Canon Andrew White was here at the Daystar studios in Dallas, Texas recently, and we had the chance to film a couple of Joni Table Talk episodes with him. Be sure to tune in next week on Tuesday, October 28th and Wednesday, October 29th for an update from Canon Andrew White on the current situation in Iraq!