This has been an emotional week, one that has left us in awe and wonder of the journey that we are being allowed to pursue here in an off the beaten track Yezidi village in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
This is a totally new season one which finds us, breaking up fallow ground, pushing the heavy stones aside, respecting our neighbor's borders, ensuring not to remove his boundary stone, sharing our lunch and water with Majdal the neighboring shepherd boy. This is different from any other “project” that we have done. The Rainbow Zone in War City was in existence, we inherited it and consequently spent months cleaning and renovating it but we did not build it. The Hope Centre in Shariya Camp was a massive slab of asphalt and gravel inside the camp. We could not dig down, there was no soil so we learned to build up, to create raised beds, raised platforms.
This time it is different, we are now digging deep into the soil of ancient Mesopotamia. An awe falls upon me as I watch the heavy machinery going deep, turning over both layers and time, lifting the soil out, pouring in, leveling. I survey the land in silence, asking myself many questions, such as “Where was the Garden of Eden? Where was the Garden East of Eden? What happened to the Kerubim (Cherubim) placed at the east of the Garden of Eden with a revolving flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life? “What happened to the garden, was it built over? Having learned the art of brickmaking and turning to building a tower, did anyone try to return and to build over Eden? Endless questions. Our land has been soaked in blood over the generations but what was the original spiritual deposit here? What does the land need us to do, need us to be? What is the land trying to tell us here in the Hebraic month of Cheshvan in the year 5782, the very month that King Solomon completed the seven year building of the Temple. According to Genesis 10.18 God brought down the Flood on the 17th of Cheshvan, Noah and his family leaving the ark one calendar year later on 27 Cheshvan ( Genesis 8:14 ). Many of the stones we are using are well rounded having been washed by water many years ago. What has this land seen, and heard that we need to tap into in order to steward it well?
We are working in the fields of Old Shariya Village, drinking strong Iraqi chai to jump start us into action when tired, many of our meals consist of protein bars due to lack of time and energy to cook. We are building on the ruins created by Saddam Hussein, surrounded by rubble and houses pushed underground until they could no longer be rebuilt and the villagers began again a few kilometers away, where we currently live. Old Shariya carries its own scars, bears its own grief, a devastation that goes back over a century when one ruler after the other mercilessly razed the village and the surrounding Yezidi villages. And then it goes back a millennium of hatred after hatred as empires rose and fell right here where the soles of our feet stand.
We brought 300 paulownia trees from Saddam Hussein’s village of Tikrit and planted them in the soil which he tried to destroy as his bombs rained down. An act of redemption. An act of justice in this month which is traditionally associated with judgement. The policy of his regime was to destroy the trees prior to bombing so that there would be no shelter, maximum death being guaranteed.
We are building, constructing, watching and observing the Horses for Hope Equine Assisted Therapy center take on its shape and form and come to life. As we build, others are watching us. We are knee high in blocks and cement, focused upon getting it right, and getting it done before the rains come, but we are hearing one message come from the villagers and those in the similarly devastated villages around.
These are the comments that Dr Saeed, our human bulldozer, who knows the right builder, the right engineer, the right welder and persuades them that our work is more important than anything else, is hearing from his friends in the village.
“You are doing something amazing, it is more than horses, you are bringing life from the dead.“
“Finally Hope is coming. We never thought we would see this day.”
“Our families left the country because all hope was gone. You are giving us a reason to hope again “
“You are bringing life to an area that has only known death”
I watch how our Yezidi builders work, a stone for a plumbline, marking out with chalk dust, measuring with pieces of string, everything is line by line, according to the old ways. We are going step by step, hour by hour, day by day alongside our Texan friends who have flown in for two weeks to help us build. They came complete with plans made by a kind architect friend of theirs, worked and reworked to suit our terrain and building materials.
Tim, who has forty years of equine experience, works quietly. Some of our students gather around him as he levels wooden posts with no more than a kitchen carving knife. They talk and work, peace reigns, alongside acceptance, and equality. He shares his wisdom in his kind, patient way. He sees the signs all around us, and knows that heaven holds the template, knows where the horses are, knows where the finance is, has all the details taken care of. He is ok with step by step, hour by hour. He and Mrs. Cowboy are with us on this Abrahamic journey which began with a Go! You! They packed their bags and came.
Petite Tracey is our pop-up lady, holding plans and folders popping up between the blocks, behind the cement, to make sure that we are on track, building in the right direction, with the right air flow, missing no details. Once the plans are etched out with chalk dust on the ground, she turns to picking up the garbage to maintain the emerging beauty.
I look at Harbi, our groundsman, ah there is a story in itself. You’ll find him in a pit, digging a meter through rock for the roof stands to be cemented in, or tirelessly shifting blocks for Shex Daoud, our builder. Harbi moved 4000 blocks each weighing 25 kilos, in one day. He fills his wheelbarrow with freshly handmade cement and runs with all he’s got. Harbi has come alive. Harbi is radiant. Harbi looks ten years younger.
Harbi has his own story. He worked for years quarrying stones from deep inside the mountains. He worked with his brother who left for Germany, in the belief that the village was doomed, that nothing good would ever come and better to leave it alive rather than dead. We employed Harbi as our groundsman, he began with the outer fence, then the round pen and the outdoor arena. His work was great, he was dedicated and loyal but he was a “worker”. This week he found his place, life from the dead, beauty from under the ashes, Harbi found hope and future and embraced them both. Harbi became The Manager.
At sunset on Thursday night, I saw him standing by the chalked foundations where he could see the outline of both the horses’ stables, and his own room with a bathroom just for him. “See you tomorrow Harbi?” I asked. “Of course, this is my home, this is my room, of course I will be here.” His smile lit up his face, he touched his chest with pride. Harbi currently lives in the local car wash. Within two weeks, Harbi will have his home.
By way of closure, as this week we are all tired and have to be up early to water the cement foundations before we head to Erbil to see horses. A brief side note showing how horses are following us. I was suggesting to our two Cowboys that we find the time to visit the one and only General Abu Masoud, the one with the checkpoint, three wives, fifteen sons and three totally unsuitable horses. Would you believe it, we ran into him this afternoon! Our plans suddenly changed, of course they did, we found our steps directed in a totally different direction, and ended up eating at the same sidewalk place as our good General who insisted on documenting our auspicious occasion and promised to come, complete with fifteen sons and a personal equine trainer to visit us. He remains stubbornly convinced that his untrained horses are the most suitable in all of Mesopotamia.
We will never forget the day that we completed our work in the Rainbow Zone, and were driving over for the finishing touches. Our hot sunny day turned sultry and dark, in one of those "suddenly” moments. Whichever way we turned, we drove through the rainbow. Our sign was there.
As the first truckload of soil drove through the wood gates of Horses for Hope a huge cloud appeared covering our camp, and hung there for hours. It did not move, it just stopped and waited. Our sign was there.