May God bless your hand

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. (Isaiah 40:31)

In northern Iraq, 300 miles from Baghdad and 60 miles from Mosul, the informal headquarters for what's left of Al Qaeda, the city of Erbil feels safe.

Christians are a small minority here, many displaced by the overwhelming violence from Baghdad or other parts of the country. The Mennonite Central Committee Iraq office also moved here from Baghdad.

Much of MCC's work here is about accompanying the church. One of its largest partners is the Chaldean Catholic Church. Archbishop Bashar says one of his priorities is creating a climate where Iraqi Christians know they can stay, where they can find jobs and make a better life for their children. Building institutions that are are effective in transferring mission and values can make a difference in this community.

One MCC partner is the Kids House pre-school, a Global Family project. Five years ago, MCC helped by purchasing temporary tents which are still in operation. The sisters who run this school were effusive with their gratitude for MCC's ongoing help - children greeted us with singing and gave us flowers as we arrived. Here, children, many of them displaced, are loved and well cared for. The sisters invited us for a sumptuous lunch and it was clear the sisters and MCC staff regularly pray for each other.

Another partner is the Mar Qardakh School which provides an International Baccalaureate program for 48 students grades one to four. Deb Fine (she and her husband Jim are the MCC Iraq staff) works here several days each week. The school models teamwork, dialogue and peace making in the classroom. The headmaster said this school will help develop critical thinking for a new generation of Iraqi leaders.

I talked to Father Fadi at St. Peters Seminary of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Father Fadi said people are still leaving Erbil and Christians are becoming a smaller and smaller minority. He said he has nine brothers and sisters, all of whom but one have left the country. His despair was tinged with hope: "We are doing something for today, no one knows what will happen tomorrow, but with hope for the next 100 years," he told me.

Abdul Sipar Yundis, leader of an association of 140 NGOs in the Kurdistan region said work before 2000 was focused on crisis but now the focus is more on human rights and advocacy. His goal is to help bring real change in Iraq by developing a stronger civil society. He is one of four persons who will be in Washington D.C. this week, through MCC funding, to share an alternative voice with U.S policy makers. "The best support the U.S. can provide is to support civil society, not the Iraqi government," he said.

Another MCC partner is the Al Alamal Association which works on health and development projects, conflict transformation skills and enhances dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups. "We work to help people participate in developing their communities," said Ala Ali, one of the Al Alamal board members.

Daryl Byler, MCC representative, told me that almost everyone in this region has had a family member killed in the last number of years. The best thing he thinks MCC can do is walk alongside people and let them know they are not alone.

Ysallim idak (May God bless your hand). In this war-torn country, I pray that MCC and its staff will continue to enable God's blessing to people in this region.


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