Saturday, December 27, 2014

Still a tiny bit of room at the inn/monastery in Sulaimani

One would think that there was not even a tiny bit of floor space to spare. In August over 200 persons found refuge in the Virgin Mary Monastery in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan. Many of the families had fled by foot from the Christian city of Qaraquosh when militant forces invaded the area. Father Jens says that when the monks and sisters  heard the news that morning they knew that preparations had to begin very quickly. Sure enough, within hours 600 people had come into Sulaimani desperately looking for a place to lay their heads and for something to fill their bellies.

On December 25 the environment in the little monastery has settled down. Each family has a tiny cubicle separated by blue and green striped canvas. Father Jens says that he has enough funding right now to feed everyone for four months. Long plastic sheeting creates a windbreak and a place for the older children to have school on days when it is not Christmas. This may be  the situation for a long time. The Christians are not going back to Qaraquosh anytime soon, if ever.

On Christmas Day the monastery offered an English mass. People from many different countries came to sit on the straight benches in the portion of the sanctuary that is still held to be the worship space, a place for the sacred that is different yet similar to the holy space that gives rest to  the wandering ones.

 Throughout the service women slipped silently in and out of the little living spaces: gathering food for their family or removing dirty dishes. The room was suprisingly quiet considering how many were housed there, broken only by the occasional small person's voice. And we sat  listening to the ancient stories of the prophets predicting that someday nations would not learn war anymore.

It brought to my mind the story of the full inn or house in Bethlehem. People, people everywhere, trying to get along, trying to survive conditions that are so less than ideal. But as Father Jens pointed out, this is not an unusual situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the Middle East, or in the whole wide world.

When the mass was over we were all invited  to join  the families for a cup of tea. I had made two large German stollen as a gift for Jens so they were cut into little pieces and served to everyone who wanted one. It felt a little like the loaves and fishes only there were not even crumbs left at the end.

Before I left the courtyard with my friend Ann, Father Jens asked how it was for me to be alone at Christmas. "You know, if you need company or a community we do have a guest room open. You could come to stay here with us all." I thanked him gratefully. 

A few months ago my team interviewed Father Jens. The short video, Father Jens on Christianity,
Islam and ISIS violence in Iraqi Kurdistan, can be found here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Wow, the money flowed!! Thank you Winnipeg.

[Click on the first photo to see them all in larger format]
Photos taken by Brandi Friesen Thorpe and Kathy Moorhead Thiessen

After I had  months of planning, fretting, stressing and some moments of  enjoying the process, the evening of 9 November finally arrived. Ted and Company, a comedy theatre group, arrived at the venue. The chili was ready to feed hungry volunteers. My CPT colleague, Chuck Wright, laid out CPT information on a red table cloth. The pies started to gather on the pie tables. The people began to stream in and man, they did come. By the time the play began we had close to 200 people, including 60 youth  Everyone was ready to laugh and presumably to buy pies at crazy prices.
The price for pies went as high as $380

The event was a fundraiser for Christian Peacemaker Teams- Peace, Pies and Prophets. Over the last 3 years Ted and Company has provided the entertainment for gatherings where people can laugh, think and dig deep into their pockets in support of CPT.  Sunday night was the time for Winnipeg. As the doors closed and everyone was seated we had 55 pies-including many styles and shapes and flavours, although apple was very predominant. Many of the pies had a short story attached to the pie; some factual and some fiction.  People did spend some time at the tables looking at the choices and planning how they were going to bid when the pie auction began.

It seems that I am directing here and my volunteers are
preparing the pies as they come in the door

A CPT logo pie

A Batman blueberry pie

An apple/blueberry Turtle Island pie
(reminding us that the land we are on is the territory
 of the Anishnabe First Nations.)

A beautifully decorated pie box containing an equally beautiful pie.
Taking a look at the pies to see what they would like to bid on

After Janelle Thiessen van Esch capably introduced the evening, Ted and Tim began the play- I'd Like  to Buy an Enemy. In between the loud laughter, we also were led to think. Has our culture programmed us to believe that people who are "the other", ones who we don't know, are our enemy?

The time for the first segment of auction came quickly. A horn blew, Ted and Tim took off their costumes and became THE AUCTIONEERS! Pie runners grabbed a pie, ran up to the front of the church and the auction began. When the pie had a story attached, the men read the story and this created even more excitement about the pie.
Ted gets really excited about an especially high bid

It seemed to be obvious that some of the attendees would not have much money to donate, especially the young people and students. So I suggested to Ted that they have an "under 18 years" auction, to keep the price lower. But, who would have known, even that pie went for $110! The young ones pooled their money and a large group of them were able to buy the only cheesecake for over $350. I imagine that made it taste even better when they all joined together to eat it after the event.

The evening just kept having surprise after surprise.The audience was energised and enthralled. The money just kept on flowing even when the event went over the time allotted.  The people kept buying pies for huge prices. And they continued to give when the CPT hats were passed around for a free-will offering. By the end of the evening, my trusty money-handling volunteers told me we had made over $11,500. Wow!!

PS. As a way of creating beauty out of something that can be used for violence, Brandi Friesen Thorpe created these earrings out of beads and used bullets. She brought  them to the event and donated the proceeds to CPT. Thorpian Philosphy is the name of her small company. (I think that if you have Facebook you can see that link, I am not sure what happens if you don't). The funds from any that she sells in November will still go to CPT). 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Yazidi Community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

On Monday I finally had a chance to visit a family who lives in the same city that I do. I had met Koulan four years ago, in January 2011, when I made an attempt to find someone to help me learn Kurdish before I went to Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time. I met a group of 7 women, all with different ways of speaking the language. That day I discovered that for such a small region, there were many dialects!

A few months later as I planned a Kurdish supper fundraiser, I remembered that K. had told me she made Kurdish bread in her Canadian oven. So she taught me and we spent an day making 40 large rounds of bread that added a lot to my meal.

Now this summer the news began to come from Iraq of the people being displaced by the violent, militant forces.When  I heard, via Facebook, of the Yazidi people fleeing Shingal and being trapped on the mountain I looked into the international section of our Winnipeg Free Press paper and saw nothing about it. So I sent in a news tip email and within two hours had a reply. I told the journalist that I knew of a community here in Winnipeg, So she contacted my acquaintances and the next day there was an article. This was published in early August in the Winnipeg paper.

(Sarah Taylor/ Winnipeg Free Press)
Nafiya Naso (middle) with her son Lavan, mother Koulan Fandi (right), father, Ahaz Jallo
 and her older son Maher

Now, at the end of September, my activities finally slowed down enough for me to meet with the family again. Nafiya and her family were at her parent's house so I was able to see Koulan, as well as Nafiya's young boys. The TV was on a satellite Kurdish station telling of the attempts to push back the militant IS forces. They translated some of the top headlines for me while shaking their heads at the horror of the situation.

Nafiya told me that their families are scattered and some have lost their lives. She is helping to lead the community here in Winnipeg (40-50 families) to plan a memorial service for the many people of their faith who have died in the last two months. She would like to raise funds at that event to aid the displaced people in Iraq. 

The family expressed gratitude that they were able to come to  Canada about a decade ago, but also helplessness at only being able to watch what is happening in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nafiya said, "It is not only our people. There are people suffering from all different faiths. We can't just think about the Yazidi people. It is not a religious issue. It is a human rights issue."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Living (and visiting).in Parkdale (Toronto, Ontario)-a good place to live?

A sign in Parkdale, Toronto

This summer I have spent some time  in Toronto on three occasions. One of the times  happened just this weekend. I had the chance to accompany my husband on a trip during which Toronto Tourism wooed church groups to schedule their large assemblies in Toronto (specifically the area near the airport). For these three days I experienced a lifestyle that is quite foreign to me, that of the more wealthy sector of society.

Breakfast Entre.

On Saturday morning I was eating breakfast with the group when one man asked if I visited Toronto very frequently. I said that I had just been here two weeks earlier, in a very different capacity. I told him that I had been staying in Parkdale. He proceeded to tell me that Parkdale was changing from a "bad" place to a very nice place to live. Young couples and students were buying houses and condominiums and making it a "good" place to be.

I sat there listening and feeling sad for the Parkdale that I had experienced just two weeks earlier. Now, maybe my perspective is a little skewed. I walked the streets during daylight hours and I did not see any evidence of some of the less pleasant aspects. But the Parkdale that I saw appealed to me- the life and activity and society of a place to live that is a huge mixture of all kinds of people.

On the other two visits  I stayed in the Christian Peacemaker Teams Aboriginal Justice Team's home in the area of Parkdale, west of downtown Toronto, and  that is quite close to Lake Ontario. The large house that my three colleagues plus two housemates live in is an old lovely duplex that was formerly the Catholic Worker house of hospitality. I have heard stories from my colleagues of visitors:  a homeless couple who lived on the porch for a period of time last summer, of racoons and little kittens or  the lonely CPT guests who drop in for a time to be with fellows of like mind . Some of these visitors have been rehoused quite quickly, others were invited to stay for a while until they were able to find suitable housing. Others made their way back to lives in other parts of Canada or the world.

This is a tiny taste of the Parkdale I experienced.. On my walks I saw a mixture of all kinds of ethnicities and cultures and ages and genders. I saw children spending out-of-school hours playing footfall/soccer together on the schoolyard, women in traditional Tibetan dresses carrying groceries home, and community gardens thriving beside a weekly vegetable market.

I don't know who lives in these apartments. But I did see of lot of Canadian flags- people making a new life in this country.

However, I witnessed one interaction that exemplified the village that Parkdale is, in the midst of a huge city. As I waited to cross Queen Street I spied an elderfy man walking slowly along the sidewalk. Another man met him and asked if he was going home. The first man mumbled, "yes, yes, going home".

"Then you have to turn around. Your home is that way". And the second man pointed in the opposite direction. "And (woman's name) is hunting for you. You need to go find her." He then turned the man around and sent him back up the sidewalk.

The second man then came to wait for the walk signal alongside me. I smiled at him. He said, "It sucks to have Alzheimers."

This is a place to live where every day you walk alongside new and old immigrants to Canada, old and young people, broken and not-so-broken people. I pray that this part of Toronto will not change too quickly to be a "good" place to live. Because, in my opinion, it is already a GOOD place to live.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Photos taken from "Protest Camp for Stolen Women and Children Face Book page and CPT Iraqi Kurdistan)

Today as I sit in Quito, Ecudor as a participant in the  Christian Peacemaker Teams bi- annual gathering, messages are coming from both of my communities on two sides of the world. The calls have similar themes: sisters are being stolen; violence against women must be investigated; violence against women must stop.
From Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, where my CPT team has been working with our partners in the situation of thousands of displaced minority groups came  a call from the Kurdish women’s group, Jian (life). . They proclaimed Sunday Agust 24 as a day for a civil demonstration on behalf of the Yazidi women who have been captured and enslaved in the city of Mosul by members of the militant group known as  IS (Islamic State). Clandestine phone calls from a few of these women spoke of desperate conditions and  horrific abusive treatment. They told of  women and girls being forced to become wives of fighters and others sold into slavery. 

Sixty activists from several women’s organisations and other civil society groups gathered in front of the United Nations office in the capital city of Hawler/Erbil. They demanded that the U.N. do more to help the Yazidi women and girls who are enslaved by the militant group. At the end of the march several activists were able to take their message into the U.N. building to ask the representatives and the Kurdish Regional Government to act on this emergency and to take urgent measures to help the vulnerable women.

Stop ISIS Brutalizing Against Yazidi Girls

U.N., Take Action, Our Women and Girls are Enslaved,”
Speaking to the media 

At the same time, in  Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada  a group of Anishnabe women have created a protest camp on a strip of land outside the Manitoba government legislature. They are saying to the Canadian government  that they have waited long enough for an investigation regarding the 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.
 The impetus for this protest is the murder of 15 year old Tina Fontaine, whose body was found wrapped in a plastic bag in the Red River two weeks ago. The Canadian federal government still refuses to acknowledge that the numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women are important enough to declare a national inquiry. As Justice Minister Peter MacKay rejected calls for an inquiry, he said "the government is addressing the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women in other ways." Yet, the indigenous women of Canada are still disappearing and are sometimes found as bodies without life.

These are messages from the women of two minority cultures. They echo each other across the world-women are being treated as rubbish, something to be used and thrown away. This must stop. The world must take seriously the cries and work to create safety for the women: the Yazidi women in Northern Iraq and the Aboriginal women of Canada.

Speaking with the media

The Protest tent camp (photo credit- Chris Swan)

* **“Is now the time to make that change? Is now the time we say no sisters more stolen? We say that violence against women must stop. And if we go home and do nothing about this it’s a missed opportunity,” -----Wab Kinew. (Canadian Indigenous musician)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On the bus to Sagkeeng I looked up and saw a Kurdish man's hat...

A few weeks ago I and my CPT colleague, Peter Haresnape, were invited to join a day away to the First Nation community of Sagkeeng. The main participants of the trip were some of the members of a Genocide scholars conference being held in Winnipeg.

Peter and I made the 730 am deadline to meet the bus and sat and waited for it to fill up. I looked up from my early morning daze  and saw a very familiar head covering, a black and white cap with  a black and white scarf coiled around it. I wracked my brain- did I know of any other culture that might wear such a distinctive cap? As another man joined him with a Kurdish flag wrapped around his shoulders my thoughts were confirmed. By the time the bus headed out for the highway there were 6 Kurdish men on my bus. (along with scholars from many other  countries).

I knew that I had to make contact (and let them know that I was understanding a bit of what they were saying). After a short conversation in Sorani Kurdish I was given three books in English about the Anfal as well as the Darsim Massacre in Turkey (1937-38). The men belonged to a coalition from the capital city, Hawler/Erbil, including the organisation, Kurdistan Without Genocide.

Peter took a photo as I went to speak to one of the men. The man with the flag
 around his neck is up ahead of us.

Two parts of my world collided (I live 6 months per year in Winnipeg and 6 months in Iraqi Kurdistan). I couldn't help thinking about the similarities between the histories of colonisation for the indigenous peoples in Canada and the indigenous peoples of Kurdistan.
-both had boundaries and borders imposed upon them
-both have had the languages and cultural practises and spirituality condemned and banned
-both have been forced out of their traditional lands and into collective towns/reserves.
-both have endured extermination of thousands of their people by fast and slow genocide.
-both live in resource rich lands--but many of their people ask to retain the treasure of what is beautiful and natural and pure: the water, the plants, the trees, the subsistence agriculture.
-they are both resilient people who are reclaiming what makes them First Nations and Kurds.

As we entered the grounds of Turtle Lodge at Sagkeeng First Nation, the Kurdish men posed for a photo with the flag. Diem who had invited us on this trip is on the left of the photo.

As part of the pipe ceremony we took small pouches of tobacco to tie on a tree. Here is one of the Kurdish men beside Norman Meade who wears the symbol of the Metis Nation.

Turtle Lodge and the tobacco ties on the tree.

As the drummers sang the closing song I saw the Kurdish men tapping their feet 
ready to break into dance. 

After a meal of traditional  stew, wild rice and blueberry cake we all received gifts: a braid 
of sweet grass and a small drum with a turtle painted on it.

Below is a  TV news report of the day by APTN news station.

Genocide scholars visit Sagkeeng First Nation to talk residential schools

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Through rain and snow and sleet and hail- Got Bannock will not fail!

On Sunday 29 June I preached a sermon at Hope Mennonite, Winnipeg. I struggled with this sermon. I wanted to tell stories from Iraqi Kurdistan and  I wanted to teach a lesson from Jesus. But it was not coming together. I kept feeling like something was missing. I found a scripture text that I wanted to talk about- Matthew 10: 40-42. The main words were:" This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”

I included stories of cold cups of water given to me by Kurdish people, of meeting a woman asking for bus money on the streets of Winnipeg, and a Syrian Kurdish woman at the gate to the bazaar in Sulaimani. 

Then I thought of Althea Guiboche aka The Bannock Lady here in Winnipeg. She does not have much financial resources to feed the people around her but she sure does have the energy to encourage others to give. And then she has made  it happen every week for the last 18 months. So I decided to ask my church family to bring food to help her for that Sunday- the Got Bannock Burger Day. And they came through like I knew they would. I carried two laundry baskets full as well as bags of flour to Althea's house after church.

As I entered her back door I heard the laughter and voices of quite a few people. They were her friends and neighbours who had come to help make the bannock buns, and fry the burgers and cut the vegetables. I was invited to come in to help too. As we worked we looked outside the windows to see the rain begin to fall. "It's OK, there are still two hours left. It may slow down or stop". But it continued and even came down harder with gusts of wind.

                                     The group of people in Althea's kitchen (Althea Guiboche)

                              [Click on the photo to see all the pictures in larger size]

                           Great bannock burgers (Todd Matthew Dechateauvert)

The amazing thing is that this did did not discourage anyone. When 3 pm came and it was time to load up the coolers and boxes of fruit and burgers everyone was ready to ride (or walk) the two blocks to Dufferin and Main Street. As Althea's black van pulled onto Dufferin Ave. there were already people waiting. They knew that good food was coming.

Then other people began to show up- even more volunteers. One woman brought two large cartons full of hot Tim Horton's coffee with cups and cream and sugar to go into it. Another carried two large packages of cheese to go onto the burgers. A man brought his small daughter and an umbrella. He held the umbrella over people who needed protection from the rain as they gave out food or stood in line. And we discovered a cooler full of egg salad sandwiches from a woman who is celebrating Ramadan. People from all walks of life provided and served the food.

There was really no way to avoid getting wet. The water was coming down in buckets. So we kept the coolers closed except to reach for a wrapped burger and gave access to things to put on the burgers under the cover of the end gate of Athea's van.

Later that day Althea reflected on the day. "If there is one thing I learned to have, it's a healthy respect for the weather, my mantra is "hot or cold, rain or shine, if they're out there, then so is the bannock lady" any element they're in, then that's how I serve lunch, until I have a space to shelter them, then this is how it is, sometimes it gets messy or really cold, but the food is packaged and stored and given fresh, it's made with love and contains no judgements. 
I serve in the pouring rain or the coldest cold, I even make the media suffer with us lol just so they realize the extreme elements We face, I do it to let them know I stand with them, count myself with them, and will fight for change for them .

We really did not need to give out  cups of cold water on 29 June: all we had to do was point our mouths up to the sky! But the giving went beyond that. People from different religions, cultures, ideas,and lives came together to give and receive. Althea writes, " I welcome all cultures, all faiths, all religions, to come together and feed our city's poorest, we need to become a village that sees no differences, that comes from one race, the human race!!"