Everything for the sake of people that we help
People often ask us why we help in Iraq. We answer that someone has to and we can.
Obvioulsy, it’s a simplistic way of putting it since we have our personal motivations which we have expressed many times. We are also helping on a smaller scale in other countries where frequent acts of terror occur, but I will write about it more in a few days. But there is a deeper meaning to what I’ve just said. In Poland, as in other countries, there are many foundations and organizations that help the needy in different ways. Some are specialized in assisting the sick, others focus on the welfare of animals. They act following what their conscience tells them to do. That also applies to their supporters. Not everyone needs to support us and our activities. The most important is to be willing to help in some way at all.
In our case, it all started with an impulse that with time turned into regular help. It was like a snowball that starts rolling down a snow-covered mountain leading to an avalanche.
We emphasize all the time that we have no monopoly on how to help and it is our beneficiaries that are the source of ideas for us. We simply ask people how we could change their lives for the better. They are the center of our activities and our mission is to make their needs known. It is worth adding that we are simply unable to help everyone in need. Our very small organization consists of only three people. In addition, we have volunteers who support us. Overall, in comparison with the largest foundations in Poland, our capacity is very limited. That’s why our aim is to focus on specific families and communities. Sometimes we say that we are complementary to large organizations with vast means for large projects at their disposal.
In this article, I would like to say a few words about the places we visited during our last trip to Iraq. I will divide it into two parts. One will focus on the Assyrians, namely the Christians living in Iraq. They are, apart from the Yazidis whom I will talk about in the second part, the community that we are helping. Both of them are ethnic minorities living in Iraq that became the targets of ISIS attacks. This article will make references to our other materials so it will be a good source of knowledge for those of you who already know us as well as those who have just got familiar with our activities. This article will go hand-in-hand with the previous one that focuses exclusively on the Yazidis.
Let’s start chronologically with our visits to Karnjook and Teleskoff, namely places inhabited by the Assyrians*.
*The Assyrians are one of the indigenous people not only of Iraq but the entire Middle East. They see themselves as descendants of the Assyrian Empire and Chaldea. They are one of the oldest people that accepted Christianity (in the 2nd century AD). In Alqush near Teleskoff, there is a place regarded as a symbolic beginning of the Nineveh Plain (in can be found on a hill where the Rabban Hormizd monastery is located), namely the land that used to be part of the Assyrian Empire. Even though the Empire was spread over a large territory, stretching from Persia through Turkey and Mesopotamia to Egypt, the Nineveh Plain has a special meaning for contemporary Assyrians. That is where Nineveh, one of the Empire’s capitals, was located. Today the largest Assyrian community in Iraq lives in the Nineveh Plain (it includes such towns as Alqush, Teleskoff, Bashika, Bartella and Qaraqosh). You can read more about Christianity in Iraq and the Assyrians in this article: Will Christianity disappear from the Middle East?
A town rising from the rubble
In one of our videos, I told you the story of Teleskoff – a town that is slowly rising from the rubble. I will remind you in a few words what has happened there over the last years.
In the spring of 2014, Teleskoff was taken over by ISIS. It was occupied by terrorists for only two weeks as they didn’t intend to keep it, focusing instead on destroying it. They demolished the local church and looted shops and houses. They reduced the town to rubble in the span of several days. It was later recaptured and became a frontline between the territories held by ISIS and those under control of the anti-terrorist coalition (which at the time included the Kurdish Peshmerga and Christian self-defense units). During that time, Teleskoff was a target of artillery and mortar attacks carried out by ISIS.
In May 2016, the terrorists attacked again, but they were pushed back. Until October 2016, that is the beginning of an offensive aimed at recapturing Mosul (located several kilometers away), among others, back, Teleskoff had served as the coalition’s headquarter. Therefore, the locals were forced to wait for two years to be able to go back home. The first courageous ones returned in December of the same year.
Before the ISIS’ attack, around 12,000 people lived in Teleskoff. Currently, it’s around 4,000.
What is the situation today?
Driving down the main market street of Teleskoff, one can get an impression of total normality. There are shops, workshops, colorful signboards and people having a walk at any time of the day. There is a nicely lit playground with new swings and slides. Next to that street, you can see children dressed in neat and clean uniforms leaving their school (in Iraq uniforms are obligatory in public schools). No signs of war. But these are only appearances, a cover hiding the real face of the town. In Teleskoff, it’s relatively easy to find ruins of destroyed buildings as well as… emptiness.
I saw Teleskoff in 2016 when it was a frontline and an army base. I was going there for meetings with General Tarik who was the commander of the entire frontline dividing us from ISIS. I spent several months in Baqofa, less than one kilometer away, in the ranks of a self-defense unit. Some of you know this story. I invite others to watch the material covering it linked under this article.
For the last five years, I have been visiting that place and observing changes. In 2017, there were still many destroyed shops in Teleskoff that today are functioning normally. Life was returning to the town year after year, but that emptiness that I have just mentioned can be found right after the town center. It’s enough to walk two or three streets down to see that only every third house is occupied. Most windows remain dark, but that can also be attributed to constant power cuts. The rubbish bins indicating human presence are far away from each other. The further from the market street, the fewer people I encounter.
Teleskoff has 4,000 inhabitants – that’s around 1,000 families. As I have already mentioned, before ISIS three times more people used to live there. Some fled to the nearby towns. Many now live in Sweden, Germany, Canada or Australia. The Assyrians have created diasporas in those countries. For some, emigration was only temporary. The sense of connection with their native community was powerful enough to make them go back home.
Since 2020, we have opened sixteen workplaces in Teleskoff. Is that a lot or not? Difficult to say, but nine of them are located on the market street in the center of Teleskoff or nearby. They amount to roughly a quarter of all the businesses that are currently open there.
We are buying a generator
Before Teleskoff we had visited Karnjook. It’s one of those small villages difficult to find on satellite maps. There are many of them in Iraq. In 2019, we built several crofts in Karnjook and delivered livestock for its inhabitants. In July of this year, the village’s mayor asked Bartek to help buy an electricity generator. Iraq faces massive problems related to the production and transmission of electricity. In small villages, electricity is delivered for a few hours a day only. Therefore, every village needs a generator to prevent its people from living in darkness. Usually, it’s a large, 1-ton heavy oil generator. It provides electricity for the lighting and ensures the uninterrupted working of fridges and other domestic appliances. The one in Karnjook is very old and worn out. There is no point in fixing it. A new one would cost 7,000 euros, including transport and installation.
Here I should mention the team that I was with in Iraq. Apart from me and Darek Celinski – that is 2/3 of our foundation – it also included Krystian and Rafal. We are hoping that Krystian will join us in going to meetings and fundraisers to talk about the needs of people in Iraq. It’s not a secret that sometimes we take with us to Iraq volunteers who, in our opinion, can contribute to the foundation’s development. However, such a person should be aware of the enormous responsibility to be taken on his or her shoulders. What is expected upon return is to devote a large part of one’s life, and often significantly change it, to get fully devoted to helping people in Iraq. That is why we carefully select people that we take with us. Many are willing, but that is not enough. We need to see full commitment before and after a trip.
As far as the second person that joined us on our trip is concerned, I think that for many of you he needs no introduction. Rafal Otoka-Frackiewicz (a popular Polish journalist as well as social and political commentator – translator’s note) decided to go with us several days before the flight. He wanted to see whom and how we help and make a report from the trip. I guess many of you have come across our foundation thanks to his social media posts so it’s safe to say they have borne fruit. His contribution allowed us to raise enough funds to buy the above-mentioned generator.
Seven years in a tent
The next part of this article will focus on the Yazidis. From Teleskoff we went to Khanke which for years has served as our base in Iraq. It’s a Yazidi town with a large camp for internally displaced persons nearby. We usually stay in Khanke for several days with our friends and from there we drive to different places to meet with families that we help. I will not describe all of these meetings, focusing instead on the entirety of the Yazidi reality.
It’s a difficult reality because in a wide context it’s deprived of hope. We are talking about people who seven years ago were pushed to the margins of society and to this day have not been able to get back on track. In August 2014, ISIS terrorists surrounded Sinjar – the indigenous Yazidi land located on the Iraqi-Syrian border. They started massacring civilians. Men were separated from their families, taken away and executed. Elderly women and infants were also murdered. The terrorists spared young women and children, to turn the former into sex slaves, and the latter, through beatings and torture, into suicide bombers. A child’s mind is unable to resist such indoctrination.
Altogether, the ISIS bandits murdered thousands of men, women and children. The exact number of victims is difficult to establish since many have been declared missing. Mass graves are still being uncovered near towns and villages of Sinjar. Thousands of women and children were captured. Although seven long years have passed, the fate of around 3,000 of them is still unknown.
It is estimated that up to 300,000 were forced to flee. Some set off towards Syria and after a long, exhausting trek reached the border. From there, they were evacuated to Iraqi Kurdistan, where camps were hastily built for them. They were meant to be temporary, but they still exist there.
Some refugees fled to Mount Sinjar on top of which there is a large plateau. They created an informal camp there which, similarly to the one in Kurdistan, still exists. The living conditions are catastrophic for a permanent stay. At the time when the camp was built, there was no other choice. Toilets were built one per a dozen of families. A family of up to eight members would get one tent, while the larger ones would receive two.
After years, people started raising small buildings made of bricks to add additional rooms. One would be a kitchen, another one a toilet and a shower, and yet another one would serve as an extra bedroom. Today, these camps resemble little towns since everyone tries to create some living space for themselves. But it’s illusory. One can quickly realize how temporary and depressing all that is. Try to imagine the elderly and sick living in such conditions. Or young married couples that would want to enjoy a bit of privacy. Here it doesn’t exist. Hope for a better future or going back home doesn’t exist either.
A house with no windows or doors.
Sinjar is such a house. A region that is only a several-hour drive from Khanke and other places where there are camps as well. One could pack and go back to Sinjar within a day. But the houses of the Yazidis were destroyed – ISIS was intentionally blowing them up. They haven’t been rebuilt to this day. The Iraqi government is to blame as it is not in a hurry to help the Yazidis due to economic, political and religious reasons. The Yazidis are often used for various games in internal politics as well as on the international scene. I will not talk about it here as this topic requires a separate analysis. And this article is already long enough, so I should start wrapping it up.
What can we do?
We can get the impression that there is nothing we could do in this situation. How can we help people that have found themselves between a rock and a hard place? They have nowhere to return to while their life in camps is terrible. Unfortunately, I have no smart answer to this question. I would like to have a remedy for all problems that the Yazidis are facing but unfortunately that’s not the case. But I know that human life is priceless. So there are two options: either to say that help is impossible and do nothing, or to try to help them here and now. If they survive another winter, there is a chance that spring will bring some kind of breakthrough. We can try to help so that today is better than yesterday. It sounds banal, but we are talking about people with feelings and emotions that simply want to continue living. Sometimes people ask us: what if a workplace that we will reconstruct or a house that we will build is not going to survive? What if another war will come and everything will get destroyed again? My answer to this is that it’s still worth trying. People are different and not everyone will make it, but many will get a chance to go back to a normal life. And I can see that sometimes it works. To help even one person is better than helping no one.
A girl with a Kalashnikov
I always try to share some positive stories and I will do it now as well. Some time ago you could watch a short reportage “A girl with a Kalashnikov”. If you haven’t watched it yet, I strongly recommend listening to this incredible and inspirational story. Shaha, its main character, is a girl whose picture went viral several years ago.
She was twelve years old at the time. With a machine gun on her back, she was escorting her family fleeing to the border with Syria. Luckily, they managed to safely reach their destination. Today she is twenty years old, married and with a child. She is fine, although like many others lives in a camp for internally displaced people. I hope we will manage to help her. We will for sure do whatever we can.
This piece was rather long and broad, but I hope you’ve lasted till the end. I also recommend the article: [A Close Point of View] The Yazidis: An ethnic minority or a nation, in which I said a little bit about the Yazidis and why we are trying to help them.
Author: Dawid Czyż