Written by NicoOM writer Nicole James visited Kurdistan, northern Iraq in summer 2015. She spent a week with long-term workers, NGO partners and local pastors, interviewing them and learning about how the events of the last year have impacted their lives.
Kurdistan, northern Iraq - Right now, being a Believer in northern Iraq means being involved, consistently and tangibly spreading God's love.
In Matthew 10:42, Jesus told His disciples that anyone who gave a child a cup of cold water would not lose his reward. In Kurdistan, Believers are giving far more.
Since ISIS invaded Mosul and surrounding areas in summer 2014, threatening the existence of all Iraqis who didn't submit to the regime's extreme Islamist rules, Kurdistan's population ballooned, cities suddenly teeming with thousands of Internally Displaced People (IDPs).
For a few months, every vacant building, regardless of its degree of completion, housed families on the run. Others temporarily camped between trees on the side of the main roads leading north to Turkey.
As the UN and other international NGOs showed up, official camps appeared on the northern landscape, rows of white tents stretching across the horizon. In winter, aid campaigns provided heaters and tarps; the following summer, aircoolers and fans.
Local churches, as well as the long-term workers in the area, instantly felt the crisis' impact, responding and reaching out to the IDPs showing up at their doorsteps.
Although traces of traditional or cultural Christianity linger in Iraq, 99% of the country's 37 million people are Muslim. Vast areas of Iraq remain completely unreached with the Gospel. Iraq's dual languages - Arabic and Kurdish - split mostly along regional lines, although the Arab-speaking IDPs have now made the first language more prevalent in Kurdish-dominated areas.
Historically, OM has operated in Iraq for many years in different areas through various ministries, ranging from literature distribution to church planting to adventure tourism. However, both locals and foreigners involved in evangelism have, at times, faced persecution and opposition, including kidnapping, physical abuse, and serious health issues.
Now, the organisation's efforts in the region focus on providing relationally-based relief for the wide-scale humanitarian crisis continuing to unfold, as well as spiritually discipling and mentoring local Believers overseeing these initiatives. In the first half of 2015, OM's Syrian and Iraqi relief project spent 1.5 million USD, distributed between the two nations, to help refugees and IDPs.
(Watch a video detailing OM's work with refugees and displaced people in Iraq here.)
Tim and Lena
Tim* and Lena* were the first OM workers to respond to the newest Iraqi crisis. Before ISIS invaded Mosul, the couple had planned on using the summer of 2014 to expand their outdoor adventure business.
Living in the Kurdish hills, they had spent the past several years exploring the northern country’s rugged terrain, leading locals and expats on excursions, slowly purchasing additional equipment to help introduce Iraq’s hidden beauty to people living in the region.
When the IDPs began flooding their city, Lena started coordinating relief efforts with a local church, corresponding with international donors, and trying to set up a system for the aid projects springing up around the region. She and Tim also continued meeting with local believers, praying together and encouraging them to stand strong through the most challenging months.
“If you’re called to the people, you cannot run away from them, especially in the time of need,” Tim said. “[God] gave us the peace, just knowing He is with us, to keep encouraging others and praying with others, knowing God is still there. He [had] not left us.”
During fall 2014, OM sent a handful of short-term volunteers for visits ranging from 3 weeks to several months, to assist Tim, Lena and other local partners who had instantly become involved in serving the ever-growing needs of the IDPs.
(Read Tim and Lena's story in more detail here.)
Richard, Kathy, and Byron
Richard*, Kathy* and Bryon*, OM’s current representatives in northern Iraq, arrived in early 2015, providentially filling the hole left by Tim and Lena’s unplanned departure for medical treatment. Less of a conscious decision to come than an affirmative response to a need, their ministry has rushed forward full-speed since day one.
Driving around Kurdistan one summer week in OM’s ubiquitous white van, Richard and Kathy spent five days connecting with nearly every major partner in the region—relationships built slowly over the previous months. During prayer meetings, over countless cups of tea and after an evening church service, they took time to talk to Iraqi Believers, listen to their stories and encourage them to stand strong, echoing Tim and Lena’s message.
Whilst their role by default means spending hours creating spread sheets and counting dollars, their natural bent is towards the people. Byron, too, who desires to share God’s love with others has embraced this season of showing that love in a practical way, working with churches and partners to care for IDPs.
“How does God manifest His love on earth?” Byron asked. “He manifests it through people. If I’m not doing anything, I think I’m not doing the role that Christ would do.”
(Read Richard, Kathy, and Byron's story in more detail here.)
The oil sector has traditionally dominated Iraq’s state-run economy. Already struggling with high unemployment rates, rampant corruption and out-dated business structures, Iraq now faces additional pressure from the over 1.2 million IDPs uprooted since 2014.
Pastors in Kurdistan, caring for congregations constantly shrinking and swelling, are not immune to temptation. One Kurdish woman who has been involved with church planting and relief work for years said that many pastors offer aid only to IDPs whoattend their church services. It’s a strings-attached system, leading to full pews – and possibly bellies – but empty hearts.
Nabi*, on the other hand, provides aid with integrity. The food voucher programme his church facilitates, serving 6,400 families, caters largely to Christian background Iraqis from the Mosul area but also includes Muslims and Yazidis, an especially persecuted minority group. However, religion, and especially denomination, do not factor into families’ eligibility.
“We are very thankful. You didn’t ask where we are from and what’s our faith,” they told Nabi.
Even before ISIS, life in Iraq wasn’t easy, Nabi remembered. Problems with the education system have stunted students’, and eventually society’s, growth. Now, the additional needs of the IDPs, coupled with the steady stream of believers leaving Iraq, have transformed his existence into an endless cycle of serving—coordinating relief, running a church, looking out for his family.
Still, Nabi perseveres. One couple who attends his church noted, “In all thestruggles, we see in our pastor a fresh and genuine love for Christ and a great desire to give the good news to all people. We appreciate his sound teaching.”
Halfway between Kurdistan’s capital city and the Turkish border, several of Iraq’s official IDP camps sprawl across fields for miles. While hundreds of houses – arranged into bizarrely identical building developments slightly set back from the highway – sit empty, waiting for affluent buyers to return to the region, thousands of displaced families crowd into the camps.
At first, Iraqis hoped the situation was temporary, but as ISIS continued to occupy territory further south, camp life stabilized, so a handful of pastors looked for ways to help.
One pastor and his right-hand assistant, Lukas, have overseen the building of two mini-bakeries, metal containers furnished with an oven, a few silver dough bowls, and just enough room for the four women working in each one to produce 5,400 loaves of traditional Iraqi flatbread every day.
OM funds the production costs, subsidizing free bread for families in the camps, one piece per person per week. The pastor overseeing the project also disciples the women who work in the first bakery, along with their husbands, helping them understand the Gospel.
Amira, one of the bakers, said the project transformed her life. “Before I started working here in the bakery, I just sat in the camp and did nothing. But inside my heart I wanted to help [my] people. I think God gave me this job so I can help mypeople.”
(Read more about Daily Bread here.)
Serving the Small
Outside the official IDP camps, hundreds of families live in smaller groups, housed in cast-off tents or unfinished buildings. Ibrahim*, another pastor, has unofficially adopted these people, both Muslims and Christians.
He serves the haphazard communities by coordinating medical distributions, loading supplies and medicines into yet another white van, gathering doctors and volunteers, and sometimes driving for hours through the hills, scouting outlocations where IDPs might live. Because of accessibility issues, large numbers of people have been bypassed by larger NGOs who mainly target the official camps.
At one such campsite – an arrangement of around 40 tents, half of which had been vacated by families seeking more permanent lodging – a young man said that his uncle was still being held by ISIS. And before the community had settled into their tents nestled into the valley against a backdrop of sharply rising hills, 21 people had died of thirst during their internment on Sinjar Mountain.
Within a couple hours drive of Ibrahim’s church, at least 20 such villages exist, probably more, he said. For the people living in them, “their life is just for survival,” Ibrahim’s daughter explained. She’s accompanied her father on distribution trips since the beginning of the crisis. However, she acknowledged that her family’s response to the IDPs is not typical of the region. “Others at university, etc., they are just living their lives. They appreciate what you do, but they are not involved,” she said.
Not only are Muslims impacted by their ministry, but Christian-background Iraqis are also encountering God in new ways. They “don’t know how to open the Bible,” Ibrahim said. “These people here, they need Jesus more than they need the medicine and food.”
Fahid*, a Yazidi man, met Jesus in a dream.
He recalled a man dressed in bright white inviting him to “Come” and join other people who were working in a field.
Confused, Fahid asked his mother, the sheikh (a religious leader) and finally an old Christian friend who the man in his dream had been.
“This is the one that is written about… in the Bible. He is the Lord Jesus Christ,” Fahid’s friend explained.
From that point on, Fahid started growing in his faith, sharing about Jesus in the Bible with his friends and praying for his city. God allowed Fahid to become a leader in his community. People listened to him preach, and he baptised those who also wanted to follow Jesus.
However, after one baptism, pictures of Fahid appeared online. The captions accused Fahid of changing the Yazidis’ religion. Persecution followed. His wife’s parents separated her from him; Fahid was beat up; enemies fired shots at his house and burned the van he used for ministry.
In the midst of these struggles, Fahid cried out to God, “Lord, why did this happen to me? I really love you, Lord, and I’m totally with you. Why do you allow this to happen to me?”
Then, Fahid remembered, Jesus spoke to him: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be terrified. I am with you.”
Fahid persisted in telling other Yazidis about Jesus, despite opposition. Eventually, his wife returned to him, and he continued his ministry. Ahead of the ISIS invasion, Fahid moved again. In his new area, he still has access to many of his people, displaced from the war. He tells them about his own life, encouraging them to follow Jesus.
“Even in this new time of persecution, God has been speaking to me, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am with you,’” he said. “The new Believers, when they get shaken up and are afraid because of the persecution, I will tell them my story and how God has been speaking to me and what He has been doing in my life. Up to now, I am a worker in God’s harvest field, and I want to be His servant.”