May 13, 2016
We had been traveling for days and were finally ready to board our last flight into Erbil, Iraq. As you’d expect, its not really a popular destination so the flights into the region aren’t typically that full. But even by war zone standards, the line to board was oddly short. I squeezed onto the plane, threw my photography gear into the overhead bin, and settled into my seat.
In recent years, flights like these have been packed by aid workers flooding into the country to provide help for the people. In the non-profit/NGO world, we hear all the time about swarms of aid workers rushing into regions like this. But this flight proved that to be untrue. We had entire rows to ourselves while dozens more went empty. And when we landed four hours later, workers like ourselves were still hard to find.
We claimed our bags and began the heavy and enduring security process. This is when I normally get nervous. My passport is full of stamps from “high alert” countries that make border patrol agents wonder whether I’m sinister or just plain crazy. These include areas where the Islamic state remains active. While I was sure I would have my access into Iraq denied, God gave me favor with the interviewer.
“Welcome to Iraq, Mr. DK,” he said with a smile.
Several checkpoints later, we crashed for the night before leaving for the war zone that would be our home for the next several weeks. As the van pulled into the refugee camp, you could feel the oppressive evil looming overhead. It was clearly a demonic place. There were no greetings from the residents like we’ve come to expect. The adults looked dead inside. The children rushed me, just wanting to have their pictures taken. They pushed and shoved their way towards my camera. Every thirty seconds or so, another wave of them would come crashing in.
In a place so dismal that a picture of yourself is worth pushing others over to see, the people remained rather callous towards our efforts, almost numb to our compassion. As the sea of children finally subsided, a large man with a mood as fierce as his beard stormed towards us. He was clearly upset that we were there despite our official UNICEF authorization. As he screamed at us, our translator had difficulty understanding him. I later learned he was speaking a mix between Arabic and his own tribal tongue. But through of all his anger and frustration, the point was still clear.
“I am sick and tired of people like you coming in, taking video, photographs, and interviews, and claiming to help but never returning!”
The heartbreaking reality is that his anger is justified. The empty planes. The rush of kids wanting their pictures taken. The callous response from the adults. All of it paints a vivid picture of what’s truly happening in places like Iraq. People come, talk sympathetically, and leave without demonstrating any true compassion or action. The organization who stays, serves, and invests is a rare commodity.
In this place, perhaps more than any other, words are empty. The only language people understand anymore is action. There is simply no viable substitute. We, the Church, must speak this language or blend into the white noise of these people’s lives. We must be invested in every sense of the word. Christ didn’t call us to arm-chair activism. He called us to mission.