by Gordon Lewis
Gordon Lewis, Iraq Desk Officer at International Headquarters, reports how Salvation Army teams became closely involved with the communities in which they worked
IN July 2003 I was asked to lead a Salvation Army team that was intended to begin a community rehabilitation programme in Iraq. Less than a month later, four people came together in the Iraqi city of Al Amarah at the start of a most surprising, educational and revealing three months.
The four of us – Captain Masha Ibragimaov and Captain Andrei Schrukin from the Eastern Europe Territory, and Matthew Frost and myself from the United Kingdom Territory – began our deployment with a brief that involved the renovation of four schools and the setting up of a ‘holiday camp’ for children who were on an extended summer holiday.
|Carrying out a needs assessment|
|A girl receives shoes during a clothing distribution|
|Gordon Lewis says an emotional farewell to an Iraqi colleague|
|Handing out clothes to children during aid distribution|
|Matthew Frost with some young Iraqi friends|
|Lloyd Cooper and friends at the opening of a new computer training centre|
My preparation for the trip to Iraq was to some extent informed by the media portrayal of unsuccessful and often violent Islamic/Western relationships. The next three months were to radically alter my understanding of the country, its politics, culture and people.
We met with community and local authority groups and found out what their greatest needs were. The communities made us feel welcome, even elevated way beyond our true positions, and they protected us when that became necessary.
A major factor in the eventual success of this period of the project was the quality of the Iraqi staff. From the most significant translator – and eventual team leader – to the valuable and courageous guards and even the cook/cleaner/guard/night-time generator operator/clothes washer and ironer (a young man who loved to serve and who appeared to love us) each person played a part in making the whole thing a success. You will note that, for their own ongoing safety, I have not specifically identified any of these people. There were also those who were not in our employ, men from the neighbourhood who on occasions risked their lives to protect ours.
The Salvation Army – popularly known in Iraq as the ‘army without guns’ – started to involve itself with a number of the Al Amarah communities, local personalities and with people who were attracted to this strange organisation. On another level we also became involved with government departments such as the Education and Health Directorates, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the reconstruction facility afforded by the British military, the latter two being the main providers of our funding outside of The Salvation Army.
It is challenging to try to record what happened to us in those first three incident-packed months. The real story is one of the creation of relationships between members of an overtly Christian organisation, a staff numbering up to 45 Iraqi Shia Muslims and a community which had suffered for many years and was friendly and open to a strange group of foreign men and women.
Other international NGOs in Al Amarah completed more than we were able to in a physical sense, yet the reality was that The Salvation Army was considered the most popular NGO in Maysan Province. We were interested in people’s needs and aspirations and in discovering how the community functioned.
We ran two major programmes in those first three months – a large-scale distribution of donated goods and a significant job-creation scheme that employed in excess of 1,000 people. These schemes worked because we were trusted by the military and the local authorities and communities – no mean feat! We were also situated within the community and not behind secure walls and barricades.
The ideal of finding out what people’s greatest needs were led to what was to become the major focus of our later programmes. ‘Returnees’, Iraqis who had fled the country over the years of Saddam’s persecutions of the Shia, were now returning in large numbers to their former lands.
When we looked into whether we should diversify our programme and try to help this group I decided that – because of the political situation – we should stay away from this area of work. However, through being open to many elements of the Maysan community I was persuaded to think again. Our early, small response was to lead to significant elements of our work in 2004 and 2005.
Eventually, as our three months in Iraq drew to a close, it appeared that we had achieved very little, such were the physical results of our efforts. However, I take it as an indication of the strong foundations that were laid that a project that was due to close at the end of 2003 continued to operate, despite huge hurdles, right up to March 2006.
Perhaps the most significant indication of the strength and intensity of the relationships between Christian and Muslim was displayed on the evening before Matthew and I left Iraq. Arabs are emotional people who are unafraid to demonstrate their feelings, but nothing could have prepared me for that evening.
The strength of emotion of people that I had barely been able to verbally communicate with was an astonishing revelation to me. There were tears and anguish but there appeared to be more than that: there was also the realisation that we would possibly never see each other again. For our new friends this appeared to be another loss that came on the back of so many others.
I cannot pretend that all through the three months of living in Iraq I did not feel fear. I also cannot pretend that, making the final crossing into the relative safety of Kuwait, I did not breath a particular sigh of relief that I was out alive.
However, I know that whatever the emotional cost of those early months in Iraq, on leaving I felt a much more complete person, one much clearer about my need for a true relationship with God. I had developed a deeper respect for a God truly worthy of worship and I had also been educated in the futility of fearing those things about the Middle East that the media had persuaded me were worth fearing.