Refugee camps around the city of Suleimani in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq have become pressure cookers of cultural and religious tension. Thousands of people displaced by Syria’s civil war and the violence of Islamic State (IS) are living shoulder to shoulder, unable to return to their homes.
“Many of them, their homes are trashed or there’s landmines and unexploded ordinances all over the place,” says Kathy Moorhead Thiessen, a Winnipeg woman who works with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in northern Iraq. “They’re stuck here, so how do you live together?”
Recently, she co-facilitated a series of workshops in Suleimani. Eighteen people from different ethnic backgrounds listened to each other’s stories and developed a sense of understanding and trust for each other. Among them were a Yazidi man, a Shia Muslim woman from Baghdad, some refugees from Syria, several Iraqi Kurds, a couple of Iraqi Christians and a few Europeans. The participants were trained to lead similar workshops in their own communities.
Right now, Thiessen, who attends Hope Mennonite Church, is home in Winnipeg, taking a six-week break from her work and spending time with her spouse and her two married daughters. She’ll return to Iraqi Kurdistan in early May. Typically, she completes a three-month stint in Iraq followed by three months at home in Winnipeg.
The life she’s chosen isn’t an easy one. Spending half the year apart from her spouse is hard on both of them, and the regular transitions between cultures is often mentally and emotionally taxing. Coming back to Canada is the most difficult part, Thiessen says: “This is supposed to be a place that I know, and I come back and I don’t know it as well anymore, and I don’t like some things about it.”
Last summer, when Thiessen was in Winnipeg, she witnessed women camping out in front of the Manitoba Legislature. They were grieving the senseless death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine and asking the government to launch an investigation into missing and murdered indigenous women. Meanwhile, a group of Kurdish women in Iraq took to the streets to publicize the plight of women from the Yazidi ethnic group who had been captured and enslaved by IS in the city of Mosul. “Women from minority cultures in both places were being treated like worthless trash,” Thiessen says. “I keep seeing correlations between the two communities.”
Many of the Kurdish people in northern Iraq are currently facing another kind of oppression unrelated to IS, according to Jennifer A. Yoder, communications di-rector for CPT. The local government has authorized U.S.-based oil company Exxon Mobil to drill for oil in the area. Many Kurdish families have seen their orchards, vineyards and grazing lands confiscated by Exxon Mobil without compensation, she says, adding that in some cases their land has been fenced off and villagers are forced to pass through military checkpoints just to reach their homes.
CPT members are looking for ways to support village organizations affected by the oil drilling. Some people want compensation, others want Exxon Mobil to leave, still others simply want someone to witness the injustice.
Last fall, Thiessen and some other team members accompanied a Kurdish man who showed them his vineyards, now fenced off and guarded by security personnel. Seven hectares of 50-year-old vine trees that the man’s village had cultivated for generations had been bulldozed.
Thiessen decided she wanted to get involved with CPT eight years ago, after she met Norman Kember, one of the four CPT members who were kidnapped by insurgents during the Iraq war and held hostage in Baghdad for 119 days. Kember spoke at the Greenbelt Festival in the U.K. about how he had grown tired of doing “cheap peace”—signing petitions and joining marches. Afterwards, Thiessen approached Kember and asked him, “What do you say to someone who’s too afraid to go beyond cheap peace?”
She remembers his response: “He said that was between me and God, and he could not answer that.”
Two days later, Thiessen was among 20,000 people who shared communion on a hillside. “We were commemorating the end of slavery in the U.K. and we were singing a song from South Africa that translates as ‘What is our sin? What have we done to deserve this oppression?’ It just struck me that I don’t experience oppression like that,” Thiessen says. “It was like this ‘God moment’ in my life. I tested my brain and my fear wasn’t there anymore.”