They were all strangers, these Baghdadis.
I’d met one man and one woman two years ago, when I was in the Kurdistan region, which was then the safe area in Northern Iraq, just a couple of months before Daesh (aka ISIS) started its violent takeover.
But this year, in Baghdad, the rest of the people were all strangers and I needed to sort folks out. They all had black hair and dark eyes, so that was no help. So I did what we all tend to do – create identifiers for folks. Barring hair and eyes, I went with other things: there was the guy with the squashed nose, the guy with the too-high forehead, the woman who dressed like a former nun. There was checkered-shirt guy and The Smoker.
The LOUD kid was hanging around outside. I remember sitting in the fellowship hall of the church, thinking all these things as I soaked in the reality that I was in Baghdad, Iraq, with these odd people.
A week later, I was sitting in that same room… with friends. No longer the guy with the squashed nose, this was Obadiah (all the names are pseudonyms, for their safety) who is 23, but at 14 was critically injured by an al-Qaida bomb in a computer store. He lost an eye and most of the skin of his upper body is scar tissue. Obadiah is generous and extroverted, a gifted musician, poet and film maker who, while recovering from his injuries, came to understand that he needed to do something meaningful with his life.
I was not with checkered-shirt guy, but with Luke, a brilliant interpreter who can translate not only words, but emotion and nuance. The Smoker was Matthew, who is behind the scenes, making things work, including getting me into the country with an expired visa (long story) through his connections in government. Sister Sensible Shoes? She is Miriam, the tech-savvy woman flitting from her super-camera to the computer to the sound system to the video camera, when she wasn’t singing enthusiastically to the praise music.
The guy with the too-high forehead, that was Frank, our driver (among other things.) Frank and Hanna, his wife, fled from Daesh with their two young sons and another family, all crammed in one small car. Expecting to be home in a couple of weeks at most, they took nothing. That was a year and-a-half ago, and they have yet to see their home. They know that the center of their town has been destroyed, but they don’t know about their house.
They are lucky to live with Hanna’s parents, and to have found work. Frank has a great laugh, and it became my mission to hear that laugh as often as possible.
And the LOUD kid? That’s Michael. He’s 5. He has PTSD and autism. He and his family fled Daesh a year ago, and were living with three other families in a two-bedroom apartment. They feel blessed to have been hired by the church as caretakers, where they now have an apartment to themselves. There are no services available for Michael, or support for his parents, but they are grateful that living at the church means that Michael is safe.
I’m so glad that I was there for eight days, as these strangers became friends. But I wonder if, too often, we move on without getting to know folks. We see a person of color and identify them as The Other. We see a Sikh man in a turban (apparently these days many mistakenly identify men in turbans as Muslim…) or a woman in hijab and see them as just that – The Other in a turban or hijab.
To move from Other to Known takes time and intentionality. Sometimes it happens organically, through PTA or sports parenting. But often we must make a choice.
Some women from Holy Islamville came to our church last month and shared a soup supper, then joined us as we cut out denim for Sole Hope (look them up) to provide income for adults as they make closed toed shoes for children in Uganda. Everybody won – children got shoes to prevent jiggers, adults got income, and some Christian and Muslim folks in Fort Mill took steps to go from Other to Known, from strangers to friends.
Our faiths demand actions like these, and our future may depend on it.
The Rev. Dr. Joanne Sizoo is pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill: email@example.com.