Iraq Appeal Update - March 2018

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Some parts of this passage are easier to live into than others. If you periodically bring canned goods to a food pantry, you have fed him. If you ever donated money in the wake of a natural disaster to provide potable water to victims, you gave him something to drink. Made a Goodwill drop off with old clothes? You kinda clothed him, I guess. And who hasn’t visited someone who was sick or injured in the hospital. But HAVE we ever invited in the stranger? The Presbyterian Church in Kirkuk opened its doors to 70 unfamiliar people fleeing ISIS in the summer of 2014 – and half of them are still there. And then there is that prison thing….

In 2008 Mayada Sarsam, wife of the Kirkuk Church’s pastor Rev. Haitham Jazrawi, began a ministry to women in prison. Often, these women are not incarcerated for major crimes but for something as petty as begging. If there is no family nearby, their children go to prison with them. In the aftermath of the invasion of ISIS, some of the women are there because they are suspected as wives of terrorists, whether or not they were complicit. Most of them are now stigmatized by society and ostracized by family and friends. None of them had ever heard of a God who loves them – until Mayada and her team began to show up. The impact of this radical hospitality? Rev. Haitham recently shared this:

The Lord has used our women to reach out even in the most basic ways to share the Good News of the Gospel, and the jailed women are left stunned by our church's outreach and dedication…

Mayada summarized a late November visit to the prison. They are given amazing access to the women but are not allowed to take pictures. So, the photos you see here are “stock photos” but ones which, I hope, will lend even more power to an already Powerful story!

Our most recent visit was on November 8…. There were 35 women in total, along with four children. There was a new jail warden this time, one who is an Arab as opposed to the previous one, who was Kurdish. My husband stayed with him in his office as we visited the women. The new warden told us that we had left a strong impression on all of the jail leadership as he welcomed us inside.

…many of these women are wives of former ISIS men. Some of them have been sentenced and will be transferred to the Central Prison in Baghdad, and several others are still awaiting trial. We began by introducing ourselves, as usual. We spoke to them about God’s mercy, and how he plants within us the gift of friendship, even towards one another in jail, despite the tight space and difficult circumstances. One of the women told me that their number had reached 62 at one point – and all of them in a room 32 feet long by 13 feet wide. They don’t have enough mattresses for that many people, and yet they had found a way to arrange their mattresses (which we bought) so that everyone slept on a part of a mattress…. After taking down their prayer requests someone said, “I was supposed to be released at the end of May, but my release was delayed due to the current political instability.” She then began to cry. One of the other women reached out to her and comforted her; she told her, “we need your support here with us!” At that moment I began to comprehend the goodness within these women and how society had failed them in many ways.

Among them was a 12-year Kurdish girl. She didn’t speak much Arabic, so I asked one of the women to translate for me. I learned that she had been arrested due to public begging for money (which is illegal). There are several men who take advantage of children by employing them as beggars. In fact, many beggars aren’t always in need, but they practice this kind of work because it can be lucrative. Nevertheless, we in Kirkuk don’t have a separate jail for minor girls, which is quite unfortunate. This girl had never been to school before, and seeing her there broke my heart. What kind of future will she face after release?

The women asked that we provide them with some supplies, including 30 thick winter blankets, a carpet for their cell, a drying rack for laundry, 30 pillowcases, diapers for the two infants, toys for all six kids and a few baby clothes. We have, since then, gathered all these things and will soon be sending them to the jail. [I want to note something specific: When we shop for these needs, especially when we’re buying in large quantities, some of the shop owners start asking questions about why we’re buying so many of the same items. They start asking if we’re a charity organization. We explain that we’re from one of Kirkuk’s churches and we’re buying these things for jailed women. When the Muslim shop owners hear this, they will often start dealing with us at wholesale. Their faith teaches about good karma, and so they start selling us goods at cheap prices with the hope that God will reward them for their generosity soon. This often leads to more questions from shop owners about the nature of offenses that lead women to be jailed. They’re usually fascinated by our ministry and often feel impressed by the work we do, as well as great pity for the women themselves. They almost always ask if the women are only Christian – and when they learn that they’re almost exclusively Muslim, they remain silent, often in awe because they can’t comprehend why Iraqi Christians would want to help Iraqi Muslims after many of us have been treated so badly ….]

As we were leaving the prison that day I spoke with the male supervisor whom we’ve known for eight years, asking him if he’s noticed any changes with the women during the eight years we’ve been visiting them. His response was a strong: “Yes!” He noted that inner-cell feuds have dwindled and that the women who stay longer always speak kindly about us to newcomers. His reply encouraged me deeply. It served as a reminder of God’s faithfulness in his promises – we plant the seeds and he will grow the fruit. I often ask myself, what if one of these women knocked on my home door one day after she is released – what will I do? How will I continue to serve her and honor God?

This gentleman’s reply reminded me that God’s ways and thinking are always deeper, wider, and bigger than my own. Indeed, this visit reminded me that the Lord works through us  even when we don't realize he is doing so – even in our interactions with the warden and the guards, he is working through us! And as always, I want to thank you all for your continued love, support, and prayers – please continue to pray with us as we spread Christ’s word to the least of these.

As I read Mayada’s stories, I am humbled and inspired anew by the faith and perseverance of our Presbyterian family of faith in Iraq. And we at The Outreach Foundation are indebted, yet again, by your generous support of the Church in this difficult place – where “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Marilyn Borst, Associate Director for Partnership Development

Gifts marked for the Iraq Appeal, which supports the mission and ministry of the three Presbyterian churches in Iraq, along with relief efforts for Iraqis displaced by war, may be sent to our office at the address below or you may make a gift HERE