Letter from ACF Canada’s Executive Director Susanne Courtney after a visit to Kurdistan Iraq
After a few days in northern Iraq with the hardworking people of Action Against Hunger, I can’t let go of the face of the little boy – smiling at me, looking for a friendly face to smile back at him. He could have been any adorable little boy in my own neighbourhood of Toronto except that his father had ‘self-immolated’ the day before I met him. The burden carried by so many of the terror they have felt and the horrors they have seen are sometimes too much for one person. It would seem to have been too much for this boy’s father. Nothing prepares you for the innocent gaze of a young boy who has seen so much and yet has hope that someone, maybe you, will help him survive and grow up to a better life.
I wasn’t thinking about mental health when I travelled to Iraq. Mostly my thoughts were directed to shelter – is it warm enough for the famillies; to food – is there enough, is it nutritious? are women able to breastfeed their babies?; to water, sanitation and hygiene – is there clean water for drinking and cooking, are the latrines close to tents and hygienic, can people shower without fear of sexual violence?
What struck me from the moment I met this little boy is that having just enough food, a canvas tent over your head and clean water, does not shelter people from the psychological ravages of war – fleeing your home, your toys and your pets, watching in shock and horror as your mother, brothers, father, friends are slaughtered and fearing what the future may bring.
In northern Iraq, ACF is based in both Dohuk and Erbil. Our teams include many of the refugees and internally displaced – Syrians, Turkomen, Kurds, Iraqis. The work does not stop – it is 24 hours a day. When we get a call that a new family has arrived, new refugees, we take action – at a run. Religion and ethnicity don’t matter. What matters is the humanity and dignity of people forced to flee – helping them protect their humanity and their dignify. And perhaps helping them have hope that there is a future beyond war, giving them shelter from the storms of war.
Canadians must not turn away from the stories of suffering or become immune to the humanity affected. The only difference between refugees and ourselves is that they had the misfortune to be born there. We have the good fortune to be living here.