There is no way that I can describe in a handful of words what I experienced during my nine-day trip to northern Iraq. But here is the first post in a series…a few words, which will be a feeble attempt to relay some of what God did, what He showed me and what I got to experience. This series of posts will be a “highlight reel” not a complete story.
First, I’ll say that I full expected going in to the trip to have a moment where it kind of “hit me” that I was finally in Iraq. But it never came. I never had that “Holy crap, I’m here” moment. What I had instead was an amazing peace and restfulness and joy of being home. I’ve never felt more “right where I was supposed to be” than I felt when I was with those sweet kids. That made coming back harder than I expected. And it made my time there much more emotional than I expected. And that emotion still comes at me in waves more than two weeks later.
My first trans-Atlantic flight was easier than I expected. I rested well, and we got to see a little bit of Amman, Jordan, on our eight-hour layover there. We left Amman at 1:30am Friday and arrived in Erbil, Iraq, at 3:30am. After a few hours of sleep, we were ready to get busy.
Our first stop was at a makeshift Yazidi camp that surrounded a building that had been under construction. The 100 or so people lived in tents and other temporary housing scattered around the half-finished building. As we pulled in to the camp area, kids came running to see who the visitors were. When we got out of the car, they all surrounded us and begged us to play with them. I wore myself out lifting the kids up in the air, spinning them around in circles. They just begged for more…more hugs, more tickles, more holding them…they craved physical affection.
After a while of playing with them, one of the kids was always by my side. The moment below was captured by my friend Calvin…I know this will be a defining moment in my life a piece of my heart was left in Iraq right then.
At this camp, we distributed a few weeks worth of food and talked to the elders of the camp to see what their biggest needs were. They desperately needed a bread oven and air conditioning units for a few of their tents used by the children and the elderly. We would return to this camp a few days later with those items. So I would get to spend more time with the kids.
At one of the camps, one of the girls always stayed right on the edge of the commotion. She was a little bit older, she had recently turned 11. During both of our visits to this camp, she never got directly involved in the play or the affection, but I kept thinking to myself, ‘She wants to so bad.’ I asked her name and she just turned away and didn’t reply. “Her name is Dilan (name changed to protect her identity),” said another girl. I offered her one of the bracelets we were giving out (made by American kids) and again she just turned away without answering. It was obvious there was more going on with her.
On our second visit to this camp, it was the same thing…Dilan was always right on the edge of the activity…wanting to join in, but not letting herself. I asked one of the men who spoke Arabic (most of them only spoke the Yazidi dialect of Kurdish, which I don’t speak) about her. He just said, “Da’esh (ISIS) took her away for months. She got free a few months ago.” My heart just sank. It’s one thing to hear the story of the Yazidi girls being taken away…sold as sex slaves…raped, beaten, abused…sold to another ISIS terrorist and have the whole process repeat. But then suddenly, I’m sitting 15 feet away, looking into the eyes of a 11-year-old girl who is trying to figure out if she can trust this foreign man. If she can trust any man. Ever. As a father who has been trying to adopt and be a daddy to a little girl for over four years, that caused one of the deepest hurts I’ve ever experienced.
We spent a few hours at that camp that second night. We interviewed some of the kids and the leader of the camp, capturing their story (which are still being translated). We played. We loved on kids, with hugs, tickles, and about 7,000 hugs from the kids. But as we were leaving, I heard a girl saying “Wait.” I looked back and saw Dilan running towards me. I didn’t know what to expect as she ran towards me, but she just buried her head in my chest and cried as she hugged me. We sat that crying for a few minutes…I had no words whatsoever. The only thing she said was “Thank you.” Over and over. If I could’ve gotten it out, I would have said, “No, thank you!” But hopefully my tears said that.
After a few minutes, I pulled back and managed to get out, “Do you want this bracelet?” I had pulled a purple one out for her after one of the girls told me purple was her favorite color and was wearing it on my own wrist. She smiled and held out her wrist for me to slide it on. Knowing that we needed to go (another camp was expecting us), I told her I would always remember her and would be praying for her. She asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?” I shook my head. “The next day?” I couldn’t make myself say no out loud, so I just shook my head again. She asked, “Then when are you coming back?”
“Some day,” was all the response I could get out.
She pointed her finger at me, and in a tone that said she was taking it as a promise, she said, “OK…some day.”
That moment on a hot July afternoon in Erbil, Iraq, changed me. It broke me. It took everything I knew, and shattered it into a million pieces. It took me and shattered me into a million pieces. That night, I sat on the edge of my bed and couldn’t even form words in my mind to pray. I just sat there in the presence of God and cried. My soul cried out for God to do something. His response was clear: I AM. Not “I am doing something.” But just “I AM.” That He is enough. He’s big enough…He’s powerful enough…He’s loving enough…that He’s got this. I’ve learned it’s easier to take a step of faith than it is to sit down and rest in faith. But that night, my Daddy calmed my soul with only His Name.
I told my wife when I got home that God had broken me completely on this trip and He was putting me back together as something different. I can see a lot of the pieces, but even more than two weeks after returning to my “normal life” I still don’t know what God has in mind for all the pieces. It’s not a Humpty Dumpty story of just putting me back together. It’s something new. It’s a painful process. But there is joy in it. I’ve written before about finding joy in being “a little bit broken.” In being broken for others and finding life and joy and peace in that. But this was not a case of being a little bit broken. I was shattered…to the core. And it changes everything. And I’m so thankful for it.
If you would like to give a gift to support the work The Great Need is doing in Iraq, you can find more information at www.thegreatneed.com/shout