Last Friday morning I left my children with my husband and jumped in the car with a friend to drive to a larger city nearby for a girls’ day. We were excited to seek out all the best super markets in hopes of finding chocolate chips, brown sugar, nice cuts of meat, and boxed macaroni and cheese. We even took our own thermal bags to keep things cool for the long drive home.
Since we live in Iraq, these little quarterly getaways provide a chance to stock up on the things our families enjoy most. We are the hunter-gatherers for our families, going out on long expeditions into the unknown, hoping to bring back something exciting.
As we passed through the military checkpoint on the outer edges of our city, there was a different feel to the road. The further we got away from our city, the stranger things appeared. We began to see entire families walking along the road with huge rice sacks filled with clothes and rolled up foam mattresses. Children walked in their pajamas, hand-in-hand with their parents. We speculated as to what could be going on, but sadly, in Iraq these days, it’s not uncommon to see people displaced by ISIS or sectarian militias. But these families were not in camps and they were not just out in the city trying to find work before returning to their make-shift shelters. There were overwhelming amounts of families lining the roads—newly displaced.
After driving through a few small villages, we passed through another large checkpoint. The road ahead was blocked on both sides with cars piling up in both directions. Huge barriers had been placed across the road to prevent the cars from moving forward. I rolled down my window and asked the soldier patrolling the check point what was going on. There was fighting ahead, he told us. We would have to turn around and journey back home.
I was shocked by the news and immediately called my husband and other friends with contacts in that city. Preemptive Love Coalition, the organization I helped found years ago with my husband and the friend beside me, had planned to distribute wheelchairs, heaters, blankets, and coats to those persecuted, orphaned, and displaced by violence in that city.
Once the news began trickling in, I heard there had been a three-pronged attack by the terror group ISIS and the city was rumored to be completely under the control of the terrorists. A suicide bomb had apparently gone off and ISIS snipers were attacking from the top of The Palace, a hotel that served as the highest point in the city. I realized the families on the side of the road beside us had fled their homes with whatever they could carry in hopes of just surviving the day.
I was a ball of emotions—angry, sad, scared, and trying to figure out how to help. As we passed by families on the side of the road, I was struck by how the mothers were caring for their families, despite the terrible circumstances. Already they were buying fish from roadside stands and sitting down to campfires on the shoulder for a lunch picnic. Moms were opening packages of chips and wiping faces and tying shoes. Despite the trauma of the morning, they were doing their best for their families. I felt so proud of them, these resilient women among whom I live. They were vulnerable, but totally inspiring to me. In a way, they didn’t even need my help; they just needed the fighting to stop so they could go back home.
For forty-five minutes we drove beside families who had been displaced by violence, as we retraced the road back home, praying for the city and the families. We also prayed for the soldiers, ISIS, Iraqi, Kurdish, and coalition.
We went back and forth in the car trying to decide if we should continue our plan for the day or go home. In the end, we decided on a different route and continued to the provincial capital for a day of foraging.
As I consider what it means to be ‘made to mother,’ I’m reminded of our displaced friend, Madeeha. An unrelenting woman, Madeeha moved to Baghdad to provide for her five nieces and nephews after losing her mother and brother to ISIS-related violence. She lost an arm during the fighting, but she doesn’t even let that hold her back . Driven from their village home, Madeeha now lives in a bustling big city working at the vegetable stand she opened with a $70.00 loan. This month, we are partnering with her on a $750.00 women’s empowerment grant to help expand her store so she can increase her profits and care for her family and her community. We have no doubt that she will succeed!
There are countless stories like that here in Iraq. They remind me every day how women are holding this country together. Because, like women everywhere and throughout history, no matter our circumstances, we can shoulder any burden for the sake of protecting, providing and caring for our families.
Jessica Courtney is the founder of Preemptive Love Coalition, an international development organization working to remake the world by pursuing peace among communities in conflict. She lives in Iraq with her husband, Jeremy, and their children.