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Salwa and Hogir, two members of the JRS family visits team in Sharya, on their way to a beneficiary’s home. (Fr Tony O'Riordan SJ/Jesuit Refugee Service)

Dohuk, 17 November 2017 – Fr Tony O’Riodan SJ, a Jesuit of the Irish province, was impacted by many things about his experience working with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Iraqi Kurdistan. As he came to know people whose communities and lives had been broken by violence, one of these impacts was the lasting and continual effect of war on the human life and spirit.

After finishing his Tertianship this past August, Fr Tony traveled and worked with JRS in Erbil and Dohuk, two cities in Iraqi Kurdistan. In this area of the country, the people JRS accompanies are largely displaced Yazidis, Christians, and Muslims from Mosul, Sinjar, and the neighboring Ninevah valley. The plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Dohuk and Erbil has especially toughened in the last 12 months since the violence in Mosul has intensified.

In Dohuk, where Tony spent most of his time, IDPs live in a series of spread out villages, or in and around Sharya. When assaults by ISIS and the Yazidi genocide began in 2014, some Yazidis were settled in a specially constructed camp; others found accommodation in unfinished buildings and abandoned villages. These villages and housing complexes remain dispersed, remote and very isolated, which is why among other programs, JRS’s community centres and family visit program are essential.

On his first day out with Salwa, a member of the JRS family visits team in Dohuk, a young man approached them and requested a visit to his father who was struggling with health issues. At the young man’s home later that day, and after a few cups of tea with the family, the JRS family visit team established the needs of the older man, other issues to address also emerged at the meeting.

The discovery of other concerns besides the initial request is an important part of the work of the family visit teams. Often, these visits by JRS staff will reveal needs for lifeskills training, and many IDPs are from there referred to JRS community centres where they can learn to sew and take hairdressing classes – many have gone on to begin their own enterprises. The community centres not only offer technical skills training but also provide people the ability to connect with each other and build communities. In many ways, participating in the courses offered at the centres is a healing experience in which displaced persons can begin to come to terms with the trauma and isolation of having had to flee.

Salwa and Hogir, two members of the Sharya family visits team who are both in their twenties, were born and raised in Sharya. Their ability to connect with their immediate community members through visiting their homes is exceptional explains Fr Tony, adding that, “JRS is lucky to have found them and they are lucky to have found JRS as a way of giving expression to this desire to respond to the needs of their own country people.”

The fact that so many of the people working for JRS Iraq are Iraqi and displaced themselves is what makes JRS Iraq’s programmes so powerful. It is communities rebuilding themselves, families supporting their own families, and it is JRS that tends to this growth.

“It starts with nursing individuals through family visits, through the courses, through contact; then families are nursed back to health and communities are nursed back to health,” says Tony about the process of rebuilding; and so, as impactful as the horror of war in Iraqi Kurdistan, is the presence of hope in the face of such destruction.

This realisation of hope rang especially true one night for Fr Tony as he shared in mass and a picnic with 40 young displaced people from Qaraqosh, a town just north of Mosul whose entire Christian population was forcibly displaced within 24 hours. After the sun set and everyone loaded in a bus bound for Erbil, he watched the young people dance and sing.

Their infectious sense of joy, and love of life and togetherness was undeniable. The clouds of war and violence had dissipated into hope for the future. This, he thought to himself, is the human spirit in action.