Children in Sweetwater,Texas decorate "Boxes of Hope" to send messages of encouragement, peace and love to Iraq's displaced. Photo: Dr. Michael Harbour
By A.C. Robinson
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – After hearing UN Goodwill Ambassador Nadia Murad speak at an event hosted by Global Samaritan Resources (GSR) in Abilene, Texas in April, a minister encouraged his small community in rural US to come together and send “Boxes of Hope” to Iraq’s ISIS survivors and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Texas minister Dr. Michael Harbour from the Fourth and Elm Church of Christ in Sweetwater, Texas, was present at the event and had the opportunity to meet with Murad afterwards. The meeting inspired him to help the Yezidi community within the Kurdistan Region as well as other survivors of ISIS in Iraq.
Teaming up with local pastor Matt McGowen from Trinity Baptist Church in Sweetwater, they set out on their mission to bring their community together to help Iraq’s displaced as well as travel to the Kurdistan Region in order to meet with the affected communities.
Harbour said the small community of Sweetwater, Texas, with a population of approximately 10,000, was able to raise $25,000 which was enough money to provide 1,200 boxes of non-perishable food items to be sent to Iraq’s IDPs living in camps near Erbil and Duhok.
With the help of Stephanie Baker, the head of Cornerstone Christian School in Sweetwater, the community brought together over 700 children to decorate the 1,200 “boxes of food and hope” that were to be sent to the camps.
The children were asked to decorate each box with messages of encouragement, peace and love. There was no religious or “American” agenda behind the campaign. Only to love and accept your neighbor, and help those in need, wherever they lived in the world.
Harbour and McGowen were able to make arrangements with the US Air Force to transfer the donations to the Kurdistan Region. They are merely here to “learn” about the people of northern Iraq.
In April of this year, Murad, 24-year-old ISIS survivor from the Yezidi community of Shingal, gave a speech in the west Texas city of Abilene about her captivity under ISIS. Murad recounted her experiences of daily torture and rape as well as other atrocities by the militant group and the importance of standing against ISIS for justice.
ISIS marched on Yezidi towns and villages shortly after it took control of large areas of Iraq, including Mosul in 2014. The extremist group has killed thousands of Yezidis, mostly men, and enslaved thousands more Yezidi girls and women.
“The greatest power in the world is to love, knowing the truth,” Harbour stated.
Harbour and McGowen connected with the Executive Director of GSR at the time, Danny Sims, who had previously been to Sinjar and had friends in the Kurdistan Region. Sims introduced Harbour and McGowen to members of the Barzani Charity Foundation to help with the logistics in sending “Boxes of Hope” to Iraq’s displaced.
Barzani Charity Foundation is a non-profit organization established in 2005 that provides humanitarian assistance to those in need in the Kurdistan region.
Harbour and McGowen arrived in the capital of Kurdistan, Erbil on Monday, June 12th not knowing what to expect. Harbour states that he came to the Kurdistan region as a photographer and storyteller to bring awareness back to his community in the US.
“We have a goal to open channels of communication and understanding,” Harbour stated. He stresses that it is important to “love thy neighbor”, meaning people in need. It doesn’t matter if your neighbor comes from a different ethnic or religious background.
Both men, accompanied by members from the Barzani Charity Foundation, spent their first few days in Erbil visiting different IDP camps including the Baharka camp which was opened in 2014 as a temporary camp for those who started fleeing from ISIS in 2014. Baharka is now a permanent IDP camp.
They also traveled to the Hassansham U2 and U3 camps located just outside of Mosul which were opened by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The IDP camps host thousands of civilians who have fled Mosul in the most recent fighting as the Iraqi Army and US-led coalition forces battle to retake the city from ISIS.
Harbour and McGowen had a chance to meet Yezidi, Christian and Muslim IDPs and sit and listen to their stories of life under ISIS, escaping war and how ISIS had uprooted their lives as well as the obstacles faced while living in the IDP camps.
They have further plans to visit IDP camps located near Duhok before returning to the US on June 21.
“What if Christians, Muslims, Jews, Yezidis and others were working together to make the world a better place?” Harbour said.