Just beyond the still-under-construction ring road on the outer edge of Erbil, a group interview turns into a mutiny.
“You already understand why we are here,” says one of the 15 displaced Christians and Muslims who have gathered at a World Vision food distribution site in the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. “Everyone in America should know about our crisis by now: ISIS.”
This group is weary of telling NGOs and journalists why they fled their homes, and how hard and fragile life is among Erbil’s abandoned buildings.
They are especially weary because this will be their second winter of displacement. Meanwhile, food aid has decreased from $25 to $16 to now $10 per month. Most refuse to give interviews, despite the fact that their stories could spur Westerners to send more aid. If their current visitors are not there to increase food vouchers, then, they say, everyone is wasting their time.
Some in the group fidget with 11 oz. bottles of water bearing blue caps and the word life spelled in red. The i is an upside-down exclamation point, a marketer’s attempt at fun in a sad setting.
But such a mark fittingly punctuates the refugee crisis. The numbers—1 million refugees entering Europe by the end of 2015—surpassed comprehension long ago. The question is whether they have now also surpassed compassion.
The world now has more displaced people than during World War II. Beyond Europe, another 2.5 million refugees are in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, while 4.5 million people remain displaced within Syria and Iraq, where ISIS is most active.
As winter approached, Christianity Today traveled to Iraq and Greece to witness how Christian leaders are working along the “refugee highway” that now stretches from the Middle East to Europe and North America. The situation is so complicated, and the risks so high, that leaders are torn between two aid strategies: should they help Christians and other minorities stay in their historic homelands, or should they help them journey to safer Western democracies?
But Kurdish and Greek evangelical leaders agree on one thing: hope remains, because they see God at work all along the highway.
‘Thank You, ISIS’
From his front steps, Hadi Ali has a great view of the winding ravine where many flock during Nowruz (a New Year celebration) to vacation and picnic alongside the river that descends from Lake Dukan, one of the largest lakes in Kurdistan. But Ali wishes he still lived 300 miles from here. He is one of hundreds of internally displaced persons now living in a jumble of unfinished homes on the slopes of the rugged red mountains that tower above the river.
In the shadow of a pale yellow mosque that sits atop the hillside community, Ali, 43, skirts pomegranate skins as he climbs the steps of an unfinished, concrete building. He has lived here with his family of 9 for the past 15 months. His wife and children, ranging from ages 5 to 18, fled from south of Baghdad after they were threatened at gunpoint.
“They took our homes and our money,” he tells CT. “Everything is gone. We don’t know when we will go back.”
Ali, once a school bus driver, sold his bus to relocate his family. Now he’s a day laborer, working on the three-story building next door that is even more unfinished than his own temporary dwelling. “I always think of going back home once peace comes. I wish it were tomorrow. But we don’t know the future. I am waiting for God.”