A Maryknoll Sister shares her recent experience volunteering with a peace team among people displaced by violence.
I was walking through a refugee camp in Kurdistan, Iraq, when the screams of a little girl gripped me. “I saw the blood of my friends,” she cried in terror. Seeing the red fence around the dispensary that one of the non-governmental organizations is building to serve the refugees in the camp had evoked for the child memories of her playmates killed in the violent civil war raging in Syria. I tried my best to calm and console her, but I wonder if the color red will always mean the blood of friends killed before her eyes.
Later in the camp I met a teenager who had Down syndrome. He told me he was looking for his bike and had to go home to get it. His father explained that when the Islamic State extremists known as ISIS or ISIL broke into their village in Sinjar District, his family had to run for their lives. They fled to the Sinjar Mountains and spent weeks hiding there. Now this boy is counting the weeks in the refugee camp. It’s been over a year. This special needs child doesn’t understand that his village is still under the militants’ control and no one can safely return. All he wants to do is go home to get his bike.
These are just two of the heartbreaking realities of children I witnessed last summer when I made my fifth trip as a member of a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) to Kurdistan in northeastern Iraq. Our mission as representatives of a variety of countries and faiths, including non-Christians, is to promote peace in troubled areas of the world. Last summer, with people fleeing the Islamic extremists and dissidents threatened by their own government, my team worked mainly with refugees and internally displaced people. We tried to help heal their emotional wounds and get their stories out to the world.
I encountered one family that lost 36 members when Islamic State extremists took over their village in Sinjar. Those members who were not killed by militants’ bullets and grenades attempted to flee to the Sinjar Mountains. Some died on the journey. Others died in the mountains, where the sun beat on them and there was limited water and food. Now the survivors sit in the camp mourning their loved ones and wondering where life will take them. I visited them after a dust storm had blown down their tents and all their possessions were scattered on the ground. I sat with them in the rubble and contrasted their life to mine here in the United States. What would it be like to remain indefinitely in a camp, crowded, lacking enough food and water, for over a year, waiting and hoping for the possibility of returning home?
What is it like to be a refugee in a camp? The children run around, while parents try to keep busy with some of the ordinary duties of parenting. I watched young adults sitting, waiting. So many of the young men in the camp have no work and no opportunity for school. They just sit and wait.
One Yazidi man told me a tragic story. “When ISIS broke into my village,” he said, “they slaughtered many men and captured many more young girls and women.” The man went on to say that whenever the extremists have a contest, the winner of the game gets a Yazidi girl for a prize. I had met many of these young girls when I visited their village a few years ago. They had been so full of promise and hope. Now what will become of them?
One uplifting part of my time in Kurdistan was working with Syrian refugee children in an art and peace project that was started by a non-governmental organization there. The children’s cheerful faces belied any suffering they had endured. Several were wearing school uniforms, no doubt those they wore when they were students in Syria. They eagerly participated in the program. To demonstrate that working together is enriching, we members of the CPT told them that we came from different countries, but had the same dream. One of us was from Poland, another from Canada and I was from the United States. We are a peace team, we explained, involved in working for peace to replace violence. People around the world are joining hands, we told the children, seeking peace, dreaming of what a world of peace would look like.
Then, inviting them to share their dreams, we asked them, “What does peace look like for you?”
Here are some of the responses we received: “Peace is what it was like before the war,” one child said. Another added, “Peace looks like me sitting with my family.” For another, “Peace looks like safety with no police knocks,” while another said, “Peace looks like kind words” and another responded, “Peace looks like riding a bike free and unafraid.”
I hope and pray that the children will soon ride bikes free and unafraid and that they will see “what it was like before the war.” They are already holding hands as they continue to be together in this new home.
Featured Image: Syrian refugees fleeing war in their country struggle to cross border into Turkey. (CNS/Sedat/Suna, EPA/Syria)
Maryknoll Sister Rosemarie
Milazzo, from Brooklyn, N.Y., has served as a missioner in Kenya and Tanzania and now spends several months each year volunteering with Christian Peacemaker Teams.