I am a professor at the University of Saint Francis. As a clinical psychologist, I teach about crisis and trauma counseling. I have been involved in disaster mental health, working with agencies that serve survivors of human trafficking and more recently I have worked with refugees. I served two missions in the last year to Jordan with the Syrian American Medical Society where I provided psycho/social services in Camp Zaatari and in a clinic in Irbid. While with SAMS I met and became the mental health coordinator for Global Outreach Doctors. They, in turn, introduced me to my most current mission in Kurdistan.
From June 08 to June 27th I participated in a medical Mission to Kurdistan and Iraq. I represented the NGO Global Outreach Doctors. My mission was to aid another NGO, Adventist Help develop their Psych/Social programming.
The international team consisted to Seventh Day Adventists, other Protestants, a Catholic (me), a Zoroastrian, Muslims, and secular humanists. We came from Iraq and Kurdistan but also from South Africa, Australia, the Netherlands, America, Colombia, Brazil, and Latvia. We were stationed in Erbil but worked in the IDP camps west of Erbil near the Kurdistan (autonomous zone) and the Iraqi border. The camps consisted of people fleeing ISIS and occupied West Mosul.
The medical staff provided a clinic which was critical to undernourished people who had been tortured and now lived in tents with a desert temperatures soaring. The team was also completing the construction of an emergency hospital that would serve multiple camps and a population of 100,000 people.
I learned about sectarian mistrust. So many groups questioned the motivations of others, Shia, Sunni, Yazidi, Christian, Arabs and Kurds, blamed one another for the years of violence. Additionally, outside forces, American, Russian, Iranian, Saudi, and Turkish forces were blamed for escalating tensions.
However, I also witnessed what could happen when people decided to work together. Multiple NGOs came together when 850 people had food poisoning in one night. Multiple groups supported one another in providing services to camp residents. Our team participated in an Iftar with our Muslim translators. We attended the Feast of Corpus Christi in a Chaldean Church, celebrated mass with an international congregation in a Roman Catholic Church, and heard vespers in an Assyrian church in Ankawa Kurdistan. I witnessed people of multiple faiths serve the wounded as West Mosul and the Old City were being liberated.
What was clear was when we respected our differences and identified our common threads we could honor and support one another. I remember the suffering caused by intolerance and I remember the healing that occurs when compassion and interdependency is nurtured. I dream of the day when a Parliament of the World’s Religions will be held in a Middle East that has found the path to peace.
Photo Credit: Dr. Carl Jylland-Halverson