From Iraq to Jordan to Missouri

Posted: June 18, 2011 in Uncategorized
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I met her this morning, a volunteer with a children’s program for refugees. But her own story was just as interesting as the stories of those she was helping – children of war.

In her former life, as a professional in Iraq, she brought her education and experience to a career in banking. And then everything changed. It was Desert Storm II that did it. Once the invasion took place her country careened into civil strife. Because she was doing banking for Americans, she was painted as a collaborator. She lost everything. And as a result she fled the country, right along with hundreds of thousands of others who had the resources and connections to get out. Her destination was Jordan. From Jordan she found her way into the United States, landing in Columbia, Missouri.

Here in Columbia her credentials from past education and experience are irrelevant. She had to start from zero and she is no longer in banking. Now she works with children who have been traumatized by war. And in our conversation I told her that she was not alone.

Christians in Iraq belong to the Chalcedonian Orthodox Church – one of the most ancient Christian groups in the world. They still conduct their services in Aramaic, the tongue of Jesus. Just before Desert Storm II took place, the Bishop of the Chalcedonian Church in Iraq was in St. Louis, and I and a number of clergy from other traditions met with him. And his message was this: There will be an unintended consequence of your actions and it is this: The Church in Iraq will be decimated.

Why? Muslims and Christians had lived harmoniously as neighbors for centuries. Christians were permitted to practice their faith freely and openly. What came after the invasion was the result of an association. Even though Christians in Iraq had little to do with Christians in the West, except on a religious level, they were painted as being affiliated with them. In other words, Iraqi Christians were seen as collaborators with the invading forces. That could not be less true, but perception shapes much.

Very quickly churches were bombed, desecrated, and vandalized. Christian shopkeepers were harassed and their stores bombed or boycotted. Christian neighbors were shunned. Their assets were seized. They became unemployable. And in the end, a huge number of Christian Iraqis were forced to flee the country. They became refugees in neighboring countries that were tolerant toward Christians.

The number of Christians in the Middle East has steadily declined – not only in places like Iraq, but in Israel as well. Palestinian Christians, also part of some of the most ancient Christian traditions, have been repressed because they are, well, Palestinian. For instance, Bethlehem has seen a thoroughgoing exodus of Christians during the past two decades.

And that brings us back to my new friend, this Iraqi woman who brought her life in a suitcase to start over again. I’ve personally had times in my life when I had to start over again, but never like that. Somehow she is transforming what was terrible into an avenue for more service, more healing and more life. Life’s unfair, that goes without saying. But hope abounds. In Iraq, Jordan and yes, in Columbia, Missouri.

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