BY YAEL MIZRAHI
Second Year MA student Yael Mizrahi spent her summer volunteering with displaced Syrians and Iraqis in Iraqi Kurdistan. A trip to an ancient synagogue provides clues to the future of the Christian population in the wake of ISIS.
It’s late June, and I have been in Iraq for almost a month. I am heading to the purported tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum, housed in a synagogue that lies on the outskirts of the Assyrian village Alqosh. “Nahum,” in Hebrew, means comfort, and while reading his prophesy on my ride, I searched for consolation in his words. For my own sanity, for the belief that one-day the Iraqi people will find comfort themselves. It is impossible to find an Iraqi family that hasn’t been affected by the violence. The international media barely reports on the continued loss of Iraqi life; attacks which are weekly occurrences, and have been for the past 10 years.
“Spilled blood and superstition are the basis of the world,” posits the esteemed Iraqi writer Hasin Blassim. Maybe he is right. It is what drew me here originally, to gain a firsthand insight into the suffering and resilience of these people who have born the brunt of decades of war. When you encounter it face-to-face—the depravity and cruel, inhuman ignominy—it is easy to be repulsed. My gut reaction is one of caution: I am exposed to a place, a world, that on so many levels I was not meant to see—as an Israeli, a Jew, an American. But, unexpectedly, without realizing, the fear and doubt dissipate. The selfless generosity and hospitality I have encountered throughout my visit reminds me that everyone just wants to have their voice heard—to share their story. That I can do. I can listen.
The lives of Iraq’s Christian minority were fraught long before ISIS entered the scene. Nestled between Iraqi and Kurdish claims, they were persecuted under Saddam’s Arabization policy. Since the recent de-facto disintegration of Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga have laid claims to many of these villages as part of the larger conflict over disputed territories. Yet, for many Iraqi’s, the Northern Kurdistan region has been a refuge. Out of Iraq’s three million displaced people, over one and a half million have taken up residence in Kurdistan, either in internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps or housed and welcomed by the urban populations. For all its brutality, ISIS has also granted the Kurds legitimacy, as they are one of the few groups who been able to effectively fight the group. The spotlight will soon turn to how the Kurds treat their own minorities and the displaced peoples under their control. The IDP’s I met while volunteering in these camps—whether Christians, Yazidi, Sunnia or Shia—voiced a shared sentiment. That good will prevail, redemption will come, and their children will live to see peace.
Faced with such triumph of spirit, I ask myself what right do I have to be disconsolate about the situation here? Those for whom this is day-to-day reality don’t have the time or space to indulge in despondency—they have to carry on living, to take care of the their children.
From Iraq, to Syria, to Yemen—it is easy to feel despondent in response to all the destruction —yet all Abrahamic religions carry a legacy of conflict. It is our job now to focus on the principles that unite us: the sanctity of life, the ability to ask and grant forgiveness, the dignity of the individual, and resolve for nonviolent methods of conflict resolution. Our job is not to give into such despair—but rather to help man fight against what is oppressing him with compassion and faith.