Along For The Adventure: Soran, Iraq

Dae Eriksson took a recent trip to Soran, Iraq to check up on our school. While she was there she met several impactful Syrian Refugee Families. Here are her notes from that day:

Today we got to visit and interview three Syrian refugee families. Once again I was given tea by new friends who had nothing, and yet shared everything they had. We sat with them and they told us the stories of how they fled from Syria and settled, to some extent, here in Soran. We heard about their daily lives, their needs, and what they are hoping for in the future. 

First I met Farrah, a sweet little girl, about 8 years old, and her family. There are seven of them total and they are living in a small structure covered with blue tarps and carpets. They left Syria three years ago and crossed the border into Iraq. Farrah’s father sells juice on the street and on a good day he can make about $7 or $8 total. But their rent is $100/month and they still have to buy food and clothing and kerosene for their stove. So things are not easy for them. It’s hard to take in this information. I wish I could help immediately, but the problem is more vast than I can handle. There are almost 100 families living in similar situations, and they don’t just need help this month - they need support in a much bigger way, a way that will allow them to become empowered to take care of themselves. So I just tell them I’m sorry and that we’ll try to help however we can. But wow, it’s a heavy feeling to think of what life must be like for them. Forced to flee their country and now living in a shelter that won’t keep them warm in the winter or protected from the harsh heat of the summer. And yet Farrah finds a reason to smile. It seems she’s just happy to have some new friends.
 

After we said goodbye to Farrah’s sisters, brother and mother, she became our little tour guide and introduced us to a couple more Syrian families living a few blocks away. She led us through the streets, looking back now and then and smiling shyly and laughing when I asked her “Farah WHERE are you taking us??”

Then we arrived at her friend’s house and they welcomed us inside. Unlike Farah’s house which was on the side of the road and a single structure, this family lived in a room within a larger building. It was a small room, and this is where they all lived, had meals, and slept at night. They told us that there were 12 of them living here. Our friend Hersh continued to interpret for us and explained that they also had to pay rent, about $100/month. The father in this family was injured and couldn’t work, so the sons who were almost grown did construction jobs when they could find work. But it was also very difficult for them to afford rent. The more I learn about these families the more I want to do something to help, and I think we can. I was just trying to imagine if my friends or family were in a similar situation. Once you know about it, it’s hard to forget. 

Photo by Zac Jones
#alongfortheadventures #soraniraq

Love Is Why

Why is always a good question to ask either before, during, or after we embark on a project or journey. It brings clarity and understanding. It helps to keep asking this to make sure we're putting our energy into the right things. Why are we doing this? What is the purpose? Try it sometime - ask yourself WHY before launching into a new venture. 

When asked why we go to Somalia, or really anywhere in the world, the answer is simple. Love. That may seem too elementary, but love is actually the truest explanation for why we spend our time flying to some of the most dangerous places in the world to try to change even just one life. Love is the reason I met Hannah, and her story has left an unremovable stamp on my heart. 

Last September, we landed in Mogadishu, Somalia with our bullet proof vests packed in our luggage, ready to put on as soon as we picked them up from baggage claim. We headed out of the airport in our dark, window tinted SUV surrounded by guards with guns and made our way, jet lagged and excited, to our safe house in the middle of the war torn, bomb riddled city. We passed a sink hole in the pavement from a car bomb earlier that morning and it  reminded us that for so many this is place of constant fear and sleepless nights. The terrorist group Al-Shabab had attacked the presidential palace, killing 20 people. It felt like we were going in slow motion as we passed the wreckage and rubble, surrounded by soldiers, tanks, and so many guns.  

When we arrived at our safe house, our friends Fartuun and Ilwad greeted us with hugs and so much joy. They live in Mogadishu and run our safe house, among many other incredible projects. Together, we have the only safe house for women and children in Somalia who have been victims of gender based violence. All of the girls had been through heartbreaking experiences. Many of them were forced to marry old men or experienced traumatic rape or abuse living in IDP (internally displaced people) camps.

Despite their stories, they have these deep wells full of joy and a sense of resilience. They have been through the worst, and they know they can survive. Even though I can see the pain in their eyes it's the joy that I can't miss. It’s the combination of the two that makes this place and these girls so unforgettable. 

One of the girls in particular stands out in my mind. Hannah's story changed everything for me.  The first time she caught my eyes she was with her son, Matthew. He was just learning to walk and she protectively held his hands as he tilted back and forth on his little legs, laughing the whole time. I realized suddenly that she was speaking English, and had a British accent. My curiosity got the best of me so I asked her to come sit with us and she began sharing her story. 

It started two years ago. She was a typical girl, living in London. Like many kids, she didn’t always get along with her parents. Her mom thought she was too westernized, too wild. One day, her mom said she had a surprise for Hannah - they were going to go to Dubai on holiday! Naturally, Hannah was thrilled. She had to get a new passport, and her mom held on to it for safe-keeping. 

They got on the plane and headed out for their adventure. Hannah slept on the red-eye flight and when she woke up, groggy with jet lag, her mom said they’d arrived. The airport seemed smaller than she expected, and suddenly, she realized something was wrong. They hadn’t flown to Dubai after all, but to Mogadishu, Somalia. "What in the world are we doing here?" Hannah asked her mom. She got no answer. Instead, they got in a taxi outside the airport and headed into the city. Hannah was greeted by the same sights as me on my first time to Mogadishu; rubble, guns, masks and tanks. But unlike me, Hannah didn’t have guards or a bullet proof vest or even an understanding of why she was there. She was disoriented and terrified. Her mother refused to answer her questions. The only thing she said to her was “It’s time for you to grow up.” Finally, they pulled up to a small, crumbling house and got out. An old man came out of the house and motioned them in with an impatient wave and they walked into the living room where an older lady sat. 

Her mother turned to her and spoke the words that would completely shatter Hannah's life; "Hannah, meet your new husband."

From that point on, Hannah's life was torture. What seems unreal and baffling and impossible to me was just her daily reality. The day before her 14th birthday, she was forced to marry a 50 year old man who raped her and beat her regularly. She tried to call her mom to save her, but her mom changed her cell phone number and flew back to London with her passport. Before long, Hannah realized she was pregnant. She was also slowly starving. Given no food by her new husband and her mother in law, who made her work around the house and beg in the streets, Hannah was a shadow of the girl she used to be. She gave birth to her baby, a son, who she named Matthew, and suddenly life was even more terrifying. How could she love and take care of her baby in this environment?

Desperate, Hannah began finding ways to reach out to anyone who might help. It was difficult in the age when you don’t memorize people’s numbers anymore, don’t have access to internet or wifi or a phone, and have been living in a traumatic state for a year. But finally, she was able to connect with a friend back home, who then called the embassy in Mogadishu. They found Hannah and called us to help. We jumped in and brought Hannah into the safe house as quickly as possible, along with Matthew, now a year old. While Hannah’s husband does not know where she is because the safe house is in a concealed location, he somehow tracked down the phone number of Fartuun, who runs the safe house. Daily, he would call and threaten her, but she stood her ground. She doesn’t care when people threaten her - not when she has the more important job of protecting these girls.

Eventually, with a lot of care, rest, counseling, and regular food, Hannah has regained her girlish laugh and tentative but growing sense of joy and resilience. She’s been at the home for 9 months now, and Matthew just turned two. She tells her story with a lot of hand motions and a sparkle in her eyes. Pain flashes across her face periodically when relaying the details or her story, but then she brightens again and the joy comes back, along with a very evident sense of gratitude. She is thankful for her life, and her son’s life.

At the end of her story, I sit there for a few minutes, not knowing what to say.  I think about all the people who give, even if it’s a little bit, to make this all possible. Suddenly, every effort is made so worthwhile. I feel energized to keep on with this work, knowing it’s actually having an impact - a huge one. 

A few months after our visit to Mogadishu, we were finally able to get Hannah and her son new passports, and they returned to London. Now, Hannah lives in a home with other young moms, continuing the process of returning to a normal life. "A normal life," she says, laughing, "would be to just been a single mom, work, and take care of my baby. That’s all I want." I asked her if she would see her mom again, and she said she didn’t know. "Maybe someday, but not yet. Not yet." 

Love is the reason any of this is possible. Love can get so confused and derailed - the love of a mother, so twisted and heartbreaking, created this nightmare of a story for Hannah. But her courage, and the love for her own son made her fight for their lives. The love of Fartuun and Ilwad, who have fearlessly dedicated their lives to help girls like Hannah, is making such a difference in the world. The love of her sisters in the home who welcomed her and cared for her like their own. The love of you, who have supported what we do, trusting us to these incredibly valuable things, so far away.

It’s your love of people you’ve never met which creates a beautiful picture of hope and courage. That's a good enough why for me. 

The Brave Ones

 

The Brave Ones: Fighting Isis On The Front Lines

One of the most impactful moments of our last trip to Iraq was the opportunity to have lunch with the brave Peshmerga Army on the front lines where they are fighting against ISIS.

We’d been staying in Soran, a city in Northern Iraq surrounded on all sides by breathtaking mountains. Some incredible friends, Billy Ray and Tim Buxton, have been working in the area for years, helping with the local community and the refugee crisis.

Soran has served as a haven for refugees during the war, and many of the local residents serve in the Peshmerga Army. The Peshmerga are a fierce, brave, and loyal force against ISIS. They’re fighting not only for their people, but for the world.

One morning we got up early and headed out of town towards Mosul to visit some of the soldiers on the front line. During the drive I kept looking at the map on my phone. Our location was a blinking blue dot that slowly and steadily got closer and closer to Mosul. It was a surreal experience to be headed towards a place I’d been hearing about in the news for so long. Mosul is only a couple hours away from Soran, and has been under ISIS territory for over two years. ISIS (also known by the locals as “Daesh”) declared themselves to be the religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. They waged brutal warfare and within six months it had control over vast areas of land in Iraq and Syria and had displaced over 2 million refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons). I don’t think I felt fear that any harm would come to us, but it was a strange feeling to be going towards something so menacing instead of running away from it.

More than a bunch of facts and numbers, I couldn’t help but think about all the individual people whose lives have been tragically disrupted – people who lost everything, or were killed by this group. Along the way, our friends told us stories about the bravery of the Peshmerga, and the intense cruelty and unpredictability of ISIS. Stories of loss and cruelty, stories that stick with you, that are impossible to erase from your mind. Such extremism has filled the region with fear and sent people running for their lives.

And yet, there are many who haven’t run. They have banded together, purchased their own uniforms, and hitchhiked or drove their family cars to the front lines to fight back against this extremism. When we arrived at one of the outposts, just a couple kilometers from ISIS territory, we looked over the sandbag barriers into the Mosul plain. One of the soldiers pointed out a ditch, or trench, running through the plain, and explained that on the left side, where we were, was Peshmerga territory. On the right was ISIS, and here he waived his hand and said with vehemence: “Daesh.”

I looked out at all the land on the right of the ditch. I could see dark smudges in the desert and asked about those. Our friends explained that after ISIS takes over a town and is finished with it, they tip over all the oil barrels and light it on fire. Thus, the black smudges were towns and villages ISIS had taken over and then abandoned. It was a heavy sight to see. Such literal and figurative darkness for so many.

It was lunchtime by now, and ever the most hospitable of guests, our new friends invited us into their tent for a meal. There at the front line, next to a map in the ground pointing out outposts and ISIS territories, we feasted on rice and salad and chicken and piping hot tea with piles of sugar in the bottom. We learned about why these men cared so much about this fight. One of them explained that it wasn’t just for him, or his family, or his town, but that his fight was for the world. He told us he wanted to help stop the spread of hatred and control and fight for peace and freedom. He pointed to his gun and said “I hope my gun can protect your families – even in America.”

This was one of the most memorable moments for me. I had to look around and take stock of where I was. How did I get a seat at this table, full of such brave people who were literally risking their lives to save so many lives? It was an honor I’ll never forget, and it inspired me to continue working in Iraq to do whatever we could to support these people.

Why It's Worth The Danger

We recently visited Mogadishu, Somalia to check on our current projects and dream of new ways to make a difference. 

Here’s a travel log update from one of our team as she experienced the joy and heartbreak of the this beautiful country.

by Carly Hren and Deborah Eriksson

My eyes were glued to the window of the plane as I tried to comprehend the devastating contrast of picturesque, beautiful coastline and war-torn, dusty landscapes overlapping one another. How such an incredible place could be cluttered with the aftermath of destruction was both heartbreaking and confusing.

We stepped off the plane and were greeted by heat levels rivaling those of the interior of black car baking in the mid-summer sun. To top it off,  I immediately had to wrap my head in a scarf and put on my thick bullet proof vest. Both accessories are unnecessary back home in San Diego but have become my lifeline in Somalia.

Quickly, we hopped in a bulletproof SUV flanked by a security team of six Somalians who carted us to our hotel. After passing through five tightly protected security gates, we were finally able to get to the lobby. The hotel staff explained they had to sign contracts making themselves responsible for our lives. If that isn’t a tough pill to swallow, I don’t know what is. Throughout our trip in Somalia, we were only able to stay in one location for no more than an hour and a half for fear of attacks from people from the terrorist group Al Shabab or other individuals.

So why, you ask, would we continue to pursue work in such a risky place?

Despite the difficulty in this land, there are incredible people staring fear down in pursuit of a greater hope. We visited our safe house where six courageous women live with their children. All of these women have stories of abuse and heartbreak and loss of their freedoms before they arrived here. And yet, hope is not lost on them. Despite having experienced some of the worst things my ears have ever heard, they have big and bright plans for their futures. I’m beyond proud of the way they are fighting for not only themselves, but for their sweet kids.

So we will stand beside them because they matter. Our plans for what’s next in Somalia include a bee farm to provide new revenue and sustainable jobs. We also are hopeful to start a school soon for children whose only choice has been to become soldiers. They were dragged into a life of darkness and we believe they should have the opportunity to walk into the light. We believe education can change the entire course of their futures.

As our trip comes to an end I will leave Somalia with my heart a little more broken, but because of the examples of hope I’ve witnessed, I leave a little more brave. If you spend enough time around people who are courageous like our friends it rubs off on you.

We’d love for you to be part of the story in Somalia.

This Is Helen

Did you know that Love Does has two safe houses in Kampala Uganda, with a total of 30 girls living between them?

At our safe homes, we aim to focus on reconciliation of girls with their home communities. Upon entering the homes, Molly, our resettlement coordinator, will begin to identify the girls’ home communities and begin the forgiveness and reconciliation process. Since the first safe house opened, we have seen more than 40 girls who were living lives entrenched with sexual exploitation transform into visions of hope and joy. The girls have participated in Bible studies, character development and discipleship, community work, arts and crafts and many other activities. We have seen a great improvement in the character and behavior of the girls. They are freely opening up to the mentors and have started appreciating the new life they are experiencing amidst their past.

One of our girls, Helen* has an incredible story of transformation! When we first met Helen, she was living in the slums of Kampala living a life filled with prostitution and drugs. Now, just 3 years later, Helen has graduated from a cosmetology program & has been reconciled with her family. Helen is just one of the many girls living in our safe homes, that has worked hard to make changes in her life, and with the help of the amazing staff & mentors she is able to do so!

Helen’s story is made possible because of friends who support our Safe Houses in Kampala.

*For safety and privacy reasons, Helen’s name and photo have been changed.