As the black smoke of the fire in Shariya Camp settled over our village, my week began pondering these words sent to me by a Christian friend, "Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is in you." - L. R. Knost.
As the week draws to its end, you find me reading, at the timely prompting of a Jewish friend, about oxen in Deuteronomy 22. "You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide yourself from them: you shall certainly bring them back to your brother. You shall do the same with his donkey, his garment and with any lost thing of your brothers, which he has lost and you have found, you shall do likewise, you must not hide yourself." If you pause to look carefully and to feel the weightiness of these verses, you will see that they go beyond that which is tangible, physical, embracing core values and beliefs of the community, challenging our response in times of crisis.
These two quotes, summarise our week. A week of walking in the heat of the ashes that have gradually lost their sting, and looking for that which was lost. A bike, a piggy bank, a sewing machine, a special toy, documents, school books. As Vagar and Nurse Bassima helped the victims of the fire search, they came across an old lady who had managed to save a change of clothes. "May I put my clothes in your centre until my tent is rebuilt, I don’t want to lose them too?" We had to become the answer to loss. To the loss of possessions, the tent, the money hidden under the mattress, the dove, the kitty cat, the phone, and to the loss of hope, the loss of future, the loss of trust in man, and maybe even in God. We became a restoration service, air conditioning units, food, clothes, stuffed animals, integrity, dignity, belief. We could not hide ourselves from our brother’s loss. We could not be indifferent to any aspect of his loss. All forms of loss had to be restored.
Precious items lost that we will replace
And so we went out with great intentionality, great deliberation to love and then more, and then again, to bring hope through every meal, every gesture, every act of kindness. And to mend that which the fire had broken.
Our week saw us feeding hundreds per day, food which we had cooked in a hastily erected field kitchen inside The Hope Centre, feeding those who walked in, and taking food to the three temporary shelter areas inside the camp and the village. We gave food, and we gave clothes, blankets, along with toys and games. We went out and we brought the needy inside our blue gates for days of fun and play, for confirmation of the continuance and goodness of life. To exchange their trauma for our calm, their chaos for our certainty
You will see here more photos than words, photos of acts of tikkun olam, of filling in the holes in the universe. Thanks to your overwhelming generosity we have been able to respond to loss with extravagance. We have been able to love lavishly. Thank you for not hiding, thank you for not looking away in this age of information overload.
Daily food preparation by our team
We have cooked 600 meals this week. With intentionality. We have given away 250 bags of our cucumbers, peppers and courgettes. With joy. We have given 400 blankets and 225 bags of new clothes to those who lost all. As an act of triumph. Wherever we have gone we have taken water, juice, cake, biscuits so that our hands would not be empty. Extravagant love. Our storerooms are full of crated household appliances ready to go to new homes. Filling in the holes. Each day we have brought homeless children to our center. Love does not tire of doing good. Each day we have taken therapeutic activities to those in temporary accommodation. Love goes to the dark places. We have done this because loss is now, loss is as consuming as flames. Hope pulls the future into being. Hope realigns. Loss steals sight, hope restores vision.
The stories that are on my heart to share today are simple stories of hope. One photo taken by Sahla as she walked home after the fire, was of a young boy called Bassam bent over his trike in the ashes of his tent. It is a graphic photo of the end of the world. Of his first encounter with devastation and loss.
Bassam, aged 3 and his brother Hamad, 4 were born in Shariya camp. They know nothing other than a tent. Two of the generation of tent kids. Their parents are very poor. When the boys asked for bikes, their father went to the shop in the camp but there was no way he could afford even one bike. He found a friend with a pick up who could take him to the Friday market in Duhok. I have been to the Friday market (a story best left for relationship sake in the archives of history, though the word 'bike' did enter my story). It was a nightmare that began at 6 am and concluded when we managed to exit at 11 am. It's a market for every bit of junk that exists in the province and stretches for kilometers. It’s ugly. With patience and sheer determination, you can buy anything for nothing. Majid bought his boys two ancient bikes. Cheap and imperfect, but the boys’ world was contained in those bikes, they were treasured possessions, cherished and guarded day and night.
When I saw the photo my heart ached. It was then that I knew that whilst aiding the tent community with their collective loss, we could not lose sight of the Bassams, of the individual loss, of both property and hope. Vagar went into the camp where he searched high and low for Bassam, eventually bringing him and his burned bike to The Hope Centre. We promised him and his brother restoration. New bikes of their choice complete with helmets. Hope upgrades.
Bassam and Hamad with their bikes destroyed by the fire.
The following day Musa and Vagar headed off to the village store (which is the most unlikely treasure trove) with instructions to love well, shop with intention and to buy the most flashy bikes available. No Friday market stuff, only the best for the two boys with broken hearts.
With the gift of bikes for Bassam and Hamad, came restoration for the entire family. Pappa Majid was more worried about how to find $2 for a new bike in the Friday market, if someone could take him just one more time, than rebuilding his tent. The lies that loss had already built in his mind, were toppled as his two sheep were returned in the form of shiny bikes.
Muhaned is one of our star photography students. I joked with him once saying that he was born with a camera in his hand. He admits, "My camera is my best friend, I never go anywhere without my camera." Just that on the day of this fire, he left his camera at home.
"I was in the camp shop when I heard about the fire, My Mother called me and I ran home and helped along with everyone who was throwing buckets of water to put out the fire. I tried to go inside our tent to bring all our ID documents but I didn't succeed. It was a miracle that we remained alive. I have ten siblings, I didn't know where they were. We lost everything. We stayed there all night, in total silence, there was nothing that we could say, we were in shock but thankful to be alive. Once the fire was extinguished I went into the ashes to look for my camera. It was totally burned. I began to cry. I picked up the pieces of my best friend and went to my second home, The Hope Centre. Mr Evan, my teacher was there, we sat and cried together. I knew that Mr. Evan would understand my loss.
"The next day they called me and asked me to come to visit. It was hard for me to walk because I had burned my legs, but they are my family so I could not refuse. Dr Saeed gave me a new camera that they had bought in Duhok. I couldn't believe it. I had no words, I was in shock that a camera had come back to me and a better one even. My friend, my vision, my eyes had been given back to me. My tears are tears of joy and happiness."
Muhaned took the following images with his new camera as he walked back through the camp.
Khalaf is an orphan, his parents died when he was a year old. He has spent his 13 years living with his aunt and grandmother. For the past year of the pandemic he has hardly gone out from his tent, his family was scared to lose him to Covid He is white and quiet, shy and introverted. We found him standing outside, an invisible to the human eye, claims office of an equally invisible, but very there, lost and found department. He was standing as still as a statue taking stock of the very little that they had, now burned to cinders. In the silence we could hear his claims, one pair of black shoes, one pair of jeans, a shirt, school books. His claims reached heaven "I am an orphan, who will help me, how will I help my grandmother? I don't want to lose my education too."
We have clothed his aunt and grandmother, provided food and new household items. Once they return to their new home, we will deliver their appliances, washing machine, gas stove, air conditioner, fridge and tv. As for young Khalaf, Musa took him shopping in the village. He had never been to a shop before. His pre-fire clothes were second-hand given to him by a stranger. The only thing he had that he loved was his black shoes. He did not know what to do in a shop, or how to shop. As the guys helped him navigate sizes and colors, his dignity, his confidence and belief in the continuation of his education was restored. Two pairs of jeans, two shirts, underwear, socks, a belt and the best black shoes in the province, brought this ox home.
On the way home he broke silence and asked if he could come to computer class. An ox back in the pen.
Cleaning the debris and re-building
As you read this, our week will have begun. We can't see one day ahead at the moment, buildings are going up, but it will still take a week until completion. One thing that we know, due to the "goodness of God in the land of the living," and your incredible, generous response in giving, through which you shared your light and your love with a community plunged once more into darkness, we can keep going, doing whatever it takes.
We will continue to feed the hungry, and to support the community with therapeutic activities, until they return to Shariya camp, at which point we will bring the lost household goods home. I pray that we will be able to continue to purchase with a lavishness of heart and spirit so that no one will lack, so that all that was lost will be restored.
We have been privileged to partner with other organizations this week, and are grateful to those who drove from Sinjar, and from Erbil to help fill our storehouses. It has been a joy and a blessing to work in the same spirit, truly with unity of purpose and vision.
Our team preparing clothes, toys and blankets
Our team running therapeutic activities for the children who lost homes in the fire.
We sense that a shift is taking place, maybe, just maybe good will come from this fire, and that buildings made of blocks will be allowed instead of tents, in which case we will be looking to sponsor individual buildings.
But for this week, there are oxen, sheep and clothes out there that need to be found and brought home. Thank you for caring with purpose and intentionality. Thank you for enabling us to serve with joy and confidence, from a place of abundance and hope and not from dismay. Thank you for helping us to mend the broken things of this world.