Saturday, May 6, 2017

On peacemaking and being safe

A couple of months ago we received word that a friend of ours, Michael (MJ) Sharp had been killed in the DR Congo. Our family had met him back in 2005 when we had all been working in Europe/England as mission workers. Since then he went on to work with Mennonite Central Committee in Congo and then with the UN. While he was out with a colleague investigating some mass graves, they both were killed.

This news rocked the peacemaker and Mennonite and non-Mennonite world. One day when I talked to a friend about MJ, the friend asked if he had guards with him when he was taken. This question made me think about some of my feelings when I was working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraqi Kurdistan. I wrote this poetic piece.

Are You Safe There?

The question from the bank teller, as she passes over my US dollars
I had said, (as she asked about my travels), “I am going to Iraqi Kurdistan”.
“Well, usually I feel safe”, I replied

 (except the time there was live gunfire in the city square, or when I get into a taxi).

As I left she called,” Have a good trip- I don’t want to see your name in the newspaper.”

Oh--- she did not want to see that I was dead.

SAFE- no severe mutilation or death in the line of being a peacemaker and going into “dangerous” places without body gear that protects all vulnerable parts or an armoured vehicle or guards with guns or gated communities to hide in.

No- Ms bank teller- I guess I am not safe there.

My life is almost as vulnerable in my peacemaking in far away lands as the peoples I walk alongside.
But mine is a choice. I get to sign the waiver saying I am aware that my organisation will not pay ransom or send in armed troops to save me.
I am the one who can get onto a plane to go and then again to leave if the situation gets dicey.
My Kurdish, Syrian, Palestine friends can not.
Most must stay in their homes, cities, regions—hoping and praying to be safe.

But also- ma’am, I am not safe here.

My life may end early even in my homeland in my peacemaking work - walking across a road or riding in a car or meeting a wrong person during my day.

No ma’am, I am not safe and you may read my name in the Winnipeg Free Press.

But those of us who go or those of us who stay have decided that this is our life: our choice; to be one of the peacemakers.
Whether we follow Jesus or Allah or Creator or none

We have decided that nonsafety is not something that frightens us enough to stay home.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Missing Sulaimani: Watching the bazaar awaken

(Click on the first photo to see them all in larger format)

I have been back in Canada for many months after I left Sulaimani and the Iraqi Kurdistan team for the last time  at the end of March. For some reason I was not able to take the time to look at photos and to think about my time there. I guess the New Year coming and a time of holiday gave me the push to take a look and to post photos on this blog.

While I was in Sulaimani I had thought many times about going to the bazaar as it woke up. I had passed this activity in a car many times, but I wanted to walk from the CPT house through the streets  to see the sellers come out slowly to their stands. When I mentioned this, my friend Rezhiar said that he would gladly go on this adventure with me. We woke very early, around 6 am, I think, and began the 30 minute walk to Sulaimani's bazaar. It was everything that I hoped it would be. After walking around and greeting some people and taking some photos, we headed to Rezhiar's favourite breakfast spot. I guess early morning is similar to later night with regards to women being present at these establishments. But they served us well with the typical Kurdish breakfast.

Mosgowti Hazrati Ibrahim is right across the street from the CPT house. 
The dawn was just beginning so it was still lit up as we left the house.

The street cleaners must get up even earlier than we had. They work to make
 the streets  neat and ready for the influx of shoppers.


Then gradually, the people began to come out to begin their day


Father and son bringing bottles of water...

into the alley that has small eating establishments and tea houses.

Another street cleaner in the main square, Maidan Sara

The newly renovated market square.


The bakers had been out much earlier as well.


This man served free food from his street food cart.

And these young people enjoyed the food before their day of work in the bazaar.


Brushing off the dust from his merchandise

Poor bunnies don't know what is ahead of them this day.

Getting ready to polish many shoes

The egg, yogurt and cottage cheese salesman

Our lovely Kurdish breakfast- fresh bread, eggs, yogurt and honey.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Humanity in the Residency Office

-2.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the region of Iraqi Kurdistan; some have basic needs cared for, others do not.
-CPTers from foreign lands receive a 15 day visa on entry to the region, then they must visit the residency office to request a year visa.
-our team mate Mohammed is our sponsor. He must go with us to this office.

Last Thursday morning I made my last trip to the residency office. I needed a 25 day extension to my year visa to allow me to stay until 17 March when my last plane flies out of Iraqi Kurdistan.

I really don't like the residency office. The rules change every few months and there is the feeling that anyone can, at any minute, question the legitimacy of our query. This time there was a new office to enter and a new signature to obtain. Mohamed and I sat on the black plastic couches awaiting our turn to speak to the official.

As we waited for his answer an older woman with a head-covering entered and sat down. She did not have papers or a passport. The official gestured to her to speak. I could tell that her language was Arabic, so the only words I could recognize was Ranya (a small city two hours away) and Kirkuk (the oil-rich disputed city, also two hours away). She told her story with the beginning of tears in her eyes. He listened patiently, said a few words,  reached for his wallet and pulled out 15,000 Iraqi Dinars ($13). I really could not believe what I was seeing, but I did have a very warm feeling toward this man.

After we received his signature I asked Mohamed to clarify my observations. The woman had fled the violence in Kirkuk with her family and now lives in Ranya. She asked him if he could organise the ones working at the office to give her some donations because the family had nothing. He told her he could not because his employees rely on government salary which has not been paid in 3 months. However, he had money that he could personally give to her. Thus he handed over the 15,000 ID.

This incident is rich on so many levels. It speaks to  the abject poverty of the millions of refugees and IDPs.  It tells of the government workers (approximately 75% of the population) who have not been paid in 3-5 months.  And it shows that even an official  can show compassion. He had the power to  call the security guards to throw her out but he did not and gave her so much more than a usual donation to the poor.

Two weeks ago our  CPT trainees posted a video. It tells the story of the government workers of Iraqi Kurdistan who have not received their salaries. Some are on strike, waiting for the day that the government finds the funds to pay them. Others are still working, serving the public and also waiting.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Changing the small things-Iraqi Kurdistan CPT training

Thursday, January 28, 2016 at 6 pm was the long awaited minute. The CPT Iraqi Kurdistan team had scurried all over the city of Sulaimani buying flip-chart paper here and toilet paper there. We needed extra supplies of kerosene and two rechargeable lanterns for the inevitable electricity cuts. We found all the handouts on our computer, had them printed and bought red binders to hold them.

The moment arrived and supper was hot. They began to enter the CPT house-the eager, excited, laughing new CPT trainees.

I stood in the doorway to our team's kitchen looking on the scene. The new lantern was put to immediate use, so the florescent glow lit the faces and the steam from the food. I felt joy and anticipation fill my chest. We were beginning the journey.

About half of the trainees are also working or studying full time so our schedule is  different than a usual training in Chicago. Instead of spending 30 days together, they all come on Thursday evening for supper and then spend over 3 hours, late into the night, intent on learning the material. Then bright and early on Friday morning- the usual day off- they are ready to begin again. By 930 pm many of them go home and the week begins again.

In mid March the region has the Spring holidays for Nawroz. The trainees will then come every day -early until late- so that all the material can be covered before early April

This  training is unique to any I have attended or facilitated in the six years since I joined CPT. There are ten trainees: one from Poland, one from Colombia and eight from Kurdistan-Iraq and Syria. It is a multi-faith group: Christian, Muslim, seeking and those that have a deep spirituality but who do not identify with a specific organised faith.

We facilitate the sessions in English with space for those more fluent  to explain a concept in Kurdish. Then while we are on break time, Kurdish is the dominate language, with explanations in English for those of us not as proficient as we should be.

Most of the trainee's lives have been directly impacted by the violence in the region. We heard several times on the first day indications of this. One person asked permission to keep his phone on with the tone turned off. His father was heading to the front line and he needed to aware of when that would happen. Others spoke of people they have lost due to separation or death due to the war that is happening throughout their countries.

Our first role play where they simulated walking alongside  farmers 
in Hebron who were harvesting olives.

One of our first spontaneous activities was to attend a vigil to remember and grieve for the 58 people including 25 Iraqi Kurds who drowned in the Aegean Sea last week. These are the things we had to process on our second day of training.

I sit in the room with these amazing people as someone who has had six years of experience with CPT. I facilitate my sessions with some knowledge of what we want them to learn or think about. Yet, I know that when I leave Iraqi Kurdistan on 17 March, I will have learned so much more from them.

 This week we began to work on the module where they plan a public action. They  agreed to an topic that faces a small bit of the oppression that is happening in this region. The trainees had to think hard of ways to get the message across in a way that would not endanger any of them. They knew that arrest in this country can bring with it beatings and, for some of them, deportation back to a war-torn country. Yet, they also knew that it is very important to speak to the powers that are causing the oppression. The consensus came down to a simple message with a subversive undertone. This week they will continue the planning to bring about the action next Friday.

One morning,  as I ate breakfast with Jahne who is from Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) she said, " The reason I want to be a part of CPT is that CPT works to change the small things. I can not change the war, or the government in my country but I can change the small things. That is what CPT does."

This amazing group is  on the beginning of their journey.We have already grieved and danced and discussed and agreed and disagreed. They have a lot of listening, thinking, pondering and changing to do before the CPT training graduation at the beginning of April. I know that they have dreams of transforming the big things, in this region, in these countries, in this Middle East. However, along the way, they can start on the small things.

Amen and may it be so.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A poem" The boats, the sea, the lives"

Yesterday morning our team joined together for our gathering/worship time. The internet had turned on after the night and so people were taking a quick look at their Face Book and emails. My team mate Mohammed showed me a photo of a teenage boy and a woman. I looked at him with a question on my face. He said, "he was my student". I said, "he drowned?" Mohammed's face told me that I was correct. Yad had been in his class two years ago. The impact of the deaths drew near to us.

Lukasz immediately changed the topic for his gathering. We sat in silence and drew and wrote out our feelings. Last week 28 Kurds died in the Aegean Sea, yesterday 103 were on the boat, including young Yad from Sulaimani. I wrote this poem as we sat together. 

The boats, the sea, the lives

Kurdistan, oh Kurdistan
How I hate to leave you
But how I long to leave you.
Political crisis, financial crisis
No electricity, no salaries, no school
There is no life, there is no hope
There is no future for my son.
We must leave

I heard about thousands drowning in the sea
Surely they were not prepared
Surely they paid the wrong smuggler
Surely they bought the fake life preservers
We will do better
We will stay in the boat and live

Today the son is a photo on Facebook
Yad- his fourteenth year was his last
There is no life, there is no hope
His body will return to Kurdistan.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

"My tent is beautiful"

Ahmed* watched his brother disappear in the smoke. “The bomb hit and I couldn't even see him to save him. I haven't seen him since. Then we had to quickly run away”. As the Iraqi militias faced the ISIS invaders, Ahmed fled with his wife, three small children, and 8 members of his extended family. He left his farm with its fertile fields, vineyards and orchards to live in an tent camp just outside Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan. He says, “We have not slept one night in a house since we left Salahadeen 18 months ago. It is so cold here. I had never seen snow before.”

The world media has given news about ISIS and the Syrian refugees that fled to nearby countries. They have also told of Ezidis(Yazidis) and  Christians of Iraq who left everything behind to live as internally displaced persons (IDP) in another region of Iraq. However, there is another group whose story has rarely been told- the Sunni Iraqi Arabs of the province of Salahadeen.

Allied forces hit this region hard during the latest Iraq War. Then in the summer of 2014, ISIS invaded these impoverished communities.  As they are Sunni Muslim, ISIS overlooked them, as long as they obeyed the religious laws decreed by the militants. However, in central Iraq the Shia militia have the goal of pushing ISIS out of the region. They reclaimed the land, leaving the families living there in a precarious position. The militia viewed them as collaborators or even as part of ISIS. They were forced to flee for their lives using underground routes to reach the IDP camps of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ahmed knows that there is nothing to return to in his former home. “I used to be a farmer”, he says sadly.  Soon after their escape his neighbor sent photos of the house burning and of the militia chopping down all of his fruit trees.  The text on the phone read, “You're all ISIS and Saddamis, We will do the same to you that Saddam did to us for 30 years”. This message references the cruelty that Saddam Hussein laid on the Shia people.

The IDP camp in Sulaimani is not perfect. Ahmed still has anxiety that he might be falsely accused of being an ISIS member and that Kurdish security forces will imprison him or send him back to the danger.  Their new home in the camp is small and the neighbours are very close and noisy. When the temperature is cold in winter they cannot use kerosene heaters in the night for fear of fire. Then in the summer the unbearable heat beats down on the treeless camp. However, the canvas with the large UNHCR letters painted on the side represents security to Ahmed and his family. “We had a house with brick walls and a roof but there was violence and pain. We ran away in fear for our lives. Now I see our tent is a place of beauty. We are safe.”

*Name changed for protection.

A drawing by a boy from Salahadeen depicting life in his home on the farm and life in the camp.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Gently, slowly, change will happen

"Bend it slowly, gently, give the tree time to curve, let the fibers change shape. Slowly, gently". The women followed the instructions of Diane Maytwayashing and her partner, Girard as we guided the saplings to form the skeleton of the sweat lodge. This was to be the dwelling for the sweat ceremony on the second evening of the Grassy Narrows Women's gathering held at Slant Lake blockade site on Septemeber 25-28, 2015. 

The women were  using ancient building techniques to create a small room. Twenty tall birch saplings had been cut and tobacco offered as an offering to give thanks to Creator and  to the trees. Girard dug twelve small holes equidistant around a circle where the poles were pushed down deep. He guided us to begin bending each pole, two at a time to meet in the middle. Then the women tied strings of twine around both of the poles, creating an arch. Dianne and Girard kept reminding us," slowly, gently".

 I was pleased to be invited to join in the creating, the birthing of this lodge. It was amazing to see how a tall tree could be encouraged  with firm pressure to bend without breaking. I lifted my hand to help a woman with the last arch. I thought that I was being gentle and slow but shortly after I touched the tree there was a crack. The last pole was ruined.  I did not receive a reprimand but maybe there was a bit of a silent sigh. The women would need to go out again to find another tree of the same size, use an axe to strip off the branches and then try again to finish the whole sweat lodge before supper.

(Photo by  Torrii Cress)

We quickly found more saplings of the desired height and diameter and sawed  them down. The intersections were all tied and we could see the shape of the star formed by the arches coming together. The final step was to drape the dark brown canvas tarps over the frame. These would hold in the heat given off by red hot rocks, known as grandmothers.

The invitation for the Women's Gathering had stated,"All nations are welcome at the gathering. ". It happened that a CPT delegation had been planned for that exact weekend so we joined approximately 40 other people at Slant Lake, ten minutes from the community of Grassy Narrows. The women spent several hours of the day inside a very large wigwam that had been built with somewhat the same building techniques as the sweat lodge. The men stayed outside, chopping firewood and vegetables and minding the little ones as they wandered in and out of the meeting space.

At the first sharing circle our good friend Judy da Silva stated the guidelines of child care for the weekend. "This is a safe place for our little ones. So we will only stop them if they are in danger of hurting themselves or others. Everyone watch out for them."

It was thrilling to watch the children have control of the activities they wanted to do. The older ones had a turn at chopping wood and building fires. The little ones slept when they were tired and were laid down on a blanket within the circle, to wake up when they were ready. One little girl took the smudging medicines around and offered everyone another chance for cleansing. She imitated the drummers by taking the drum close to the fire to warm it. Her Kookum (grandmother) stood behind her and verbally helped her to be safe. "If you are feeling warm, so is the drum. It is time to move back a little so the drum does not get too hot."  There was no yelling or spanking or harsh reprimands, just guidance. It seemed the rule was "gently, slowly, give the little ones time to grow , to change, to learn". 

Before the delegation joined the gathering I had told them that the activities of the weekend were really a mystery to me. We talked about sitting and watching and listening and learning. If we had questions about what was appropriate for us we could talk to our partners who are very well acquainted with CPT delegates. We were given an equal place in the the sharing circle. Our turn to speak was listened to intently by all the women. We heard what all the women had to say: the very difficult in-depth stories of hardship and grief, and  the joyful stories of gratefulness for healing

On the last day, at the last circle, our leader gave words of wisdom to many in the circle. As she looked at the four of us who had come via CPT she told of her gratitude for us. She also gave the reminder  to  us to speak up and to act when we observe oppression. "Take your learning home with you but also learn your own faith well".  Over the three days we too were gently, slowly transformed. Gently, slowly, gradually curved, gradually changed..