By Ranna Abro
Whenever you see Iraq online or on TV, you are shown image after image of war and destruction. That is not what I saw when I was there on a two-week mission trip with The Shlama Foundation.
I saw everlasting lush green fields, towering mountains that supplied fresh spring water and herds of woolly sheep grazing along the roadsides. I saw a great emphasis on higher education, and I saw that religious freedom exists. I felt the roots of my heritage, and I experienced unmatched hospitality, more than anywhere I’ve ever traveled.
I also experienced what life is like with a poor economy, limited heat and electricity, fewer food options and a male-dominated culture. The fragments of war and discrimination were everywhere, and there were more political issues than I could count.
This trip improved my perspective more than I ever anticipated.
I went with 12 other volunteers, and we arrived prepared to work hard and learn as much as we could about the current situation. The Shlama volunteers were: Aessin Shikwana, Evette Kassab, James Zair, Faiz Yono, Candice Yono, Simon Matty, Ayoub Matty, Rawnek Marroki, Aida Monteith, Christopher Salem, Nasreen Abro, Peter Barno and myself.
Everyone we met in Iraq went out of their way to welcome us, educate us and help us explore the region. My favorite and most memorable meals were all the delicious homemade meals that were graciously prepared for us. People were happy to invite us into their lives, including the homeland Shlama volunteers, many incredible priests, youth organization leaders, Nineveh Plains Protection Unit (NPU) soldiers, relatives of our volunteers and complete strangers.
We visited 19 places, worked on eight volunteer projects, three research projects and had more than 12 meetings, all in two weeks. “Sourath” (modern Aramaic) was the most useful language in most of the places we went, even in the far north, where it was more challenging to understand as the dialectical differences increased.
In the village of Tesqopa, we helped rebuild a 1,500-year-old church with our own hands. Watching the stone bricks stacked and cemented down was a momentous feeling. The priest, Father Salar, said they hope they can complete the church reconstruction to celebrate Christmas mass there this year.
Everywhere we went, we were served tea. One day, we visited a village called Dehe, and the family that greeted us insisted that we stay a while. We really couldn’t. So, they brought a tray of tea, “kuleche” (date & walnut cookies) and “tekhratha” (savory hand pies) from their kitchen to our bus door. We got out of the bus and enjoyed the treats on the mountainside with the nice family.
In Ankawa, we met with the Chaldean Catholic Church Patriarch Cardinal Louis I Sako and the Assyrian Church of the East Patriarch, Mar Gewargis III. We also spent time with the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic communities in Iraq. The faith leaders shared optimistic messages about rebuilding our homeland, creating a positive future and encouraging many visitors.
In Bakhdeda and Alqosh, we met with the NPU soldiers. The NPU soldiers guard our villages where they have jurisdiction. We have 500 government-paid soldiers in the Nineveh Plains, 100 unpaid trainees and 1,300 people on a waiting list prepared to serve, but there is not a salary available for all of them.
In Dohuk, we celebrated Akitu, the Assyrian Babylonian New Year. Many people were either dressed in military clothing or traditional clothing from their villages. There were so many people there from Iraq and other parts of the world. The marching, music and dancing were empowering, to say the least.
When we visited Tel Keppe, there was a shift in mood. This was a personal moment for me, since it is my family’s town, and it is largely abandoned by Christians today. Some of the volunteers began to express hopelessness after being there. I realized that if we visited Southern Nineveh a couple years ago, when it was mostly abandoned, we would have had a totally different experience on this trip. We asked the solider with us what we should tell the people from Tel Keppe.
He said, “Tell them Tel Keppe cries for you.”
Father Shaher in Tel Keppe and the church volunteers determinedly showed us all the repairs they had made so far; gave us specific projects they’re working on and explained their plans to continue rebuilding.
The knowledge we gained on this trip will be applied to the work we continue to do through The Shlama Foundation, and we hope that it will support other individuals and organizations as well.
Opinions vary as to whether or not religious freedom in Iraq exists.