This article originally appeared in the World Orphans Spring Insight Magazine 2018.
We pull up in a white SUV, and the young Yazidi ladies of the Akoyan Village approach our car with joy. Bursts of genuine laughter erupt as they hug Ingrid, Jessie, and Dawn, women whom they’ve come to love during their time spent together. They do not recognize me, but they each approach, extend a hand, and say, “Hello. How are you doing?” They do not realize that we have met before, nor do they know how surprised I am to hear them speaking in English.
Two years prior, in the summer of 2015, I went on my first visit to the beautiful land of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. Amid the beauty of the landscape and the genuine hospitality and love shown to us, there was an undeniable heaviness as the brutal trauma from ISIS was still producing fresh mental and emotional wounds. What had happened to these families—both Yazidi and Kurdish—was horrifying, leaving imprints on their minds that will never be forgotten.
I remember the first time I hopped out of that same SUV in that same village on my initial visit to Iraq. As I approached the homes built for these families, tears filled my eyes. I was humbled and grateful to meet and spend time with these women. They approached us slowly, exercising caution. Their faces were solemn, and they quietly led us into a room where they would serve traditional hot tea. The smell of tea and silence filled the room, until one woman, who was clearly the leader in the room, suddenly said, “Andrew, where is your mother?” We all looked startled, and a smile grew on her face, as she was clearly proud to have communicated in English. Those words were the only English words I heard from the women on that first visit.
Clearly, I had reason to be taken aback as I arrived in Akoyan Village two years later and heard each of these same young ladies speaking English with clarity. I was even more encouraged by their joy and the depth of relationship that had been built with both Dawn and other women who had volunteered in their community for long periods of time.
We all walked out into an open field and set up blankets to sit under a tree. Ingrid pulled out her guitar, and all of the ladies began to practice the songs they had learned in English, filled with delight that overflowed into laughter. They were to host a concert that evening, as they would be singing for their families to showcase all they had learned.
Later that afternoon, we returned for their concert. Everyone was dressed in their best and brightest colors. We found shade under the same tree, shared in delicious snacks, and listened as the young ladies sang their songs. My favorites were, “Let it Go,” and “My Heart Will Go On.” The men and boys played soccer in the field, while the women visited, and the small children played. In that moment, these weren’t mere refugees escaping war and persecution nor were they aliens in a foreign land, but they were mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers enjoying an afternoon in the shade together.
Laughter and play has not been overlooked by our team in Iraq. The Refuge Initiative, a division of World Orphans, has been intentional about building communities that not only provide shelter, but also provide pathways back to independence—communities of hope. Iraq Country Director Billy Ray points out, “Providing a place to play has a profound impact on the general mental and social health of the refugees.” When you watch families—families previously gripped by terror—enjoying the wide open landscapes of the Kurdistan mountains, singing Disney songs, and laughing until tears of joy stream down their faces, it is easy to see just how right Billy is. In just two years, hope replaced the thick heaviness in the air, and while darkness may have lingering effects, delight is surely winning the day.