Imagine living in a dangerous part of the world. Danger draws nearer to your home with each passing day, week and month. You feel a growing sense of dread. But you stay a little longer thinking, Surely, this wouldn’t happen to us?
One night, in an emergency situation, you pack up your family and escape, taking only what you can carry. You wonder if you are making the right decision. You don’t bother to bring detailed identification or school records. After all, you will be back home as soon as this skirmish is over.
You end up in a new land, disconnected from your community, hopeful you will not meet hostility from the local people. Weeks become months. Months become years. You begin to wonder if you will ever make it back home.
You have no idea what your future holds.
For many people in Northern Iraq, this is no imagined scenario. It is their reality. Britton Buckner hears these kinds of stories daily; she works with refugees who have escaped from the violence ISIS brought to their doorsteps.
Joining the Fight
Britton’s interest in working internationally began as a student in Hoover, Alabama where she became a part of Hoover High School‘s International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Students participating in the program all around the world study the same material, and Britton felt a strong sense of connection with those other students. Her experiences in the IB program encouraged her to think outside of the borders of the United States and explore the world, both intellectually and physically.
In graduate school, Britton discovered Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and has worked with CRS for the past twelve years in Bosnia, Serbia, Moldova, Egypt and Haiti.
Then a former supervisor encouraged her to consider the Iraqi refugee crisis, saying, “There is life-saving work here. Come join us.”
She was initially scared and skeptical. For one thing, her work with CRS up to that point had been focused on long-term development rather than emergency response. Even more worrisome was the idea of working in the Middle East, very close to the front lines of ISIS. Her former boss was persistent and eventually encouraged her to come to Iraq for a little bit before making a final decision.
She decided to give it a shot.
People Are Not So Different
Britton was pleasantly surprised by the normalcy of life when she arrived in the Kurdish region of Iraq. She discovered most people were middle-class professionals—doctors, lawyers and teachers. She could go shopping in a large mall and out for ice cream.
“People look at Iraq as this very foreign, exotic, scary place,” explained Britton. “But from the moment I arrived there, I realized that these people are just like us. They just want to live in safety and raise their families in peace.”
Most importantly, though, she received a warm reception by the Iraqi people. She was welcomed into Iraqi homes and accepted into the community despite her nationality. When she asked her Iraqi friends if they had any concerns or skepticism about her as an American, they responded with grace, saying, “People are people,” and wouldn’t allow the political situation to influence their relationship with her.
Britton doesn’t fear being near ISIS anymore. Her agency is a trustworthy one that wouldn’t knowingly put her in danger. Catholic Relief Services is also a well-known and respected organization with a reputation for giving high-quality service to anyone who needs it.
Most of all, Britton has been touched by the sacrificial nature and resiliency of the Iraqi people. She recounted a story about a group of native Iraqi, Dominican sisters in the north who were living out their faith by doing everything they could to support their community, right up until the last minute—when they knew it was time to flee with everyone else.
The nuns left in the middle of the night and drove for about twelve hours in the heat, turning off the air conditioner to conserve gas. Eventually, they settled in the region where Britton now works and immediately began distributing food, water, milk and diapers to the families around them. They did not think about their needs or the loss of what they left behind.
Over time, the nuns even established the best school in the city.
Caring for Their Neighbors
Britton observed another example of the Iraqi people caring for those around them despite differences. One Yazidi family was unable to find work. They belonged to a religious minority, yet their Iraqi neighbors showed them kindness and shared with them everything they had.
Britton said those situations are examples of the resilience and kindness of the Iraqi people. “It doesn’t matter what they’ve endured, they keep giving back,” she explained.
Although many communities are able to meet their residents’ needs, Catholic Relief Services still serves a pivotal role by filling the gaps ordinary people can’t provide. Some of these services include building permanent shelters, advocating with the Department of Education to establish schools, hiring teachers, and making exceptions for students who do not have their educational records because of the crisis. They have had much success advocating for these populations with the government, getting people into safer and cleaner housing and getting children back into school.
“I’ve been really happy that the government and other social service agencies recognize the exceptional nature of this crisis and are making exceptions because of it,” explained Britton.
The work Britton does on a daily basis keeps her grounded in a key tenet of her faith—a commitment to serve the poor and oppressed. Remembering this commitment keeps her from losing sight of what is most important. The experience has also solidified one of Britton’s core beliefs—the idea that we are all part of one human family and are called to live in solidarity with each other.
What does the future hold for these refugees?
Answering the Question
“Personally, I thought for sure that people would start thinking about Plan B. What’s the long-term solution here? But when I talk to the families, their primary concern is going home,” said Britton. “When I ask them, ‘Can I help you find a job here? Do you want to stay here?’ Across the board, people say, ‘I just want to go home.’ And don’t we all? We want to be with our friends and families. We want to go to our favorite restaurants. We want to be around the things that we know and feel comfort again.”
In the meantime, Britton and her colleagues at CRS do what they can to secure the physical and emotional wellbeing of the people they work with. Will any of these people have emotional security again? For many families, this is not the first time they have had to flee. They think, When will this all end? How many times will I have to rebuild my house or re-establish my life in another city?
Emotional security can be just as important as physical safety.
Some families are looking at longer-term solutions to the crisis by seeking asylum in Europe or the United States. Even those who intensely love their home country prioritize the safety of their children.
Above all, they are hopeful that the situation in Iraq will be resolved.
What You Can Do
Britton asked that we don’t forget the situation in Iraq. Syria has received the most attention, but Iraqi families are suffering as well. The situation is getting worse, not better, although the Iraqi people certainly have not lost hope. She asked that we find out more about the situation, attempt to understand the people involved, and pray for these families.
One of the biggest needs during the winter months is protection from the cold and snow. Permanent shelters with installed doors and windows help shield refugees from the elements, as well as establish a sense of normalcy and humanity.
If you would like to help provide these needs for the Iraqi people, click here to donate.