Fr Tony O’Riodan SJ, a Jesuit of the Irish province, was impacted by
many things about his experience working with the Jesuit Refugee Service
(JRS) in Iraqi Kurdistan. As he came to know people whose communities
and lives had been broken by violence, one of these impacts was the
lasting and continual effect of war on the human life and spirit.
After finishing his Tertianship this past August, Fr Tony traveled
and worked with JRS in Erbil and Dohuk, two cities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In this area of the country, the people JRS accompanies are largely
displaced Yazidis, Christians, and Muslims from Mosul, Sinjar, and the
neighboring Ninevah valley. The plight of internally displaced persons
(IDPs) in Dohuk and Erbil has especially toughened in the last 12 months
since the violence in Mosul has intensified.
In Dohuk, where Tony spent most of his time, IDPs live in a series of
spread out villages, or in and around Sharya. When assaults by ISIS and
the Yazidi genocide began in 2014, some Yazidis were settled in a
specially constructed camp; others found accommodation in unfinished
buildings and abandoned villages. These villages and housing complexes
remain dispersed, remote and very isolated, which is why among other
programs, JRS’s community centres and family visit program are
On his first day out with Salwa, a member of the JRS family visits
team in Dohuk, a young man approached them and requested a visit to his
father who was struggling with health issues. At the young man’s home
later that day, and after a few cups of tea with the family, the JRS
family visit team established the needs of the older man, other issues
to address also emerged at the meeting.
The discovery of other concerns besides the initial request is an
important part of the work of the family visit teams. Often, these
visits by JRS staff will reveal needs for lifeskills training, and many
IDPs are from there referred to JRS community centres where they can
learn to sew and take hairdressing classes – many have gone on to begin
their own enterprises. The community centres not only offer technical
skills training but also provide people the ability to connect with each
other and build communities. In many ways, participating in the courses
offered at the centres is a healing experience in which displaced
persons can begin to come to terms with the trauma and isolation of
having had to flee.
Salwa and Hogir, two members of the Sharya family visits team who are
both in their twenties, were born and raised in Sharya. Their ability
to connect with their immediate community members through visiting their
homes is exceptional explains Fr Tony, adding that, “JRS is lucky to
have found them and they are lucky to have found JRS as a way of giving
expression to this desire to respond to the needs of their own country
The fact that so many of the people working for JRS Iraq are Iraqi
and displaced themselves is what makes JRS Iraq’s programmes so
powerful. It is communities rebuilding themselves, families supporting
their own families, and it is JRS that tends to this growth.
“It starts with nursing individuals through family visits, through
the courses, through contact; then families are nursed back to health
and communities are nursed back to health,” says Tony about the process
of rebuilding; and so, as impactful as the horror of war in Iraqi
Kurdistan, is the presence of hope in the face of such destruction.
This realisation of hope rang especially true one night for Fr Tony
as he shared in mass and a picnic with 40 young displaced people from
Qaraqosh, a town just north of Mosul whose entire Christian population
was forcibly displaced within 24 hours. After the sun set and everyone
loaded in a bus bound for Erbil, he watched the young people dance and
Their infectious sense of joy, and love of life and togetherness was
undeniable. The clouds of war and violence had dissipated into hope for
the future. This, he thought to himself, is the human spirit in action.