The moment the Rev. Yousif Jamel Haddad, 31, picked me up to take me to the church he leads, I knew I was up for something special. This energetic, witty and well-rounded man greeted me wholeheartedly before we hastily drove to Zakho, a bustling small town in Kurdistan close to the majestic mountains separating this part of Iraq from Turkey and Syria.
“The further north you go in Iraq, the harsher people become,” he warned — echoing, probably, the bitterness of his own experience as a pastor in this lost land. He was raised as a city boy in the capital Baghdad. Father Haddad generously shared everything with me, from personal stories about how he has become a priest to bold theological views as well as sound geopolitical analysis regarding the future of Iraq.
On the road, we drove past a big mall, dozens of housing projects — some completed, but the majority still under construction — and an imposing neo-classical building, adorned with columns and a dome. That turned out to be the campus of an American university, not yet inaugurated. Everything I saw was evidence of the growing wealth of Kurdistan (growth now significantly put on hold since ISIS took over nearby territories) even if the signs of another reality, rural and destitute, can still be felt while passing through the bare landscape.
In Zakho, my first stop was the Virgin Mary Church, the Syriac Catholic establishment dating back to 1612, as Father Haddad proudly noted. The evening of my arrival, the pastor was celebrating a liturgy in this newly renovated church. He himself had overseen the restoration of the building and the display of some of its treasures, like a series of ancient stones with biblical inscriptions. That was one of his first missions when he arrived almost four years ago to preside over a small community of Christians here. Father Haddad confided that he was first appointed as a bishop in the United States, but said that he could not adapt to the American way of life. After a year in Boston and other parts of the country, he decided, against all odds and resistance from his superiors, to move back to his beloved Iraq.
For four days, Father Haddad, the mastermind behind the mobile clinic that I was reporting on, invited me many times for meals and tea to meet with displaced Christians from his community and discuss practical matters pertaining to refugee life as well as historical information on the Christian presence in the region. I was touched to see that he shared the rectory with displaced families. He seemed happy to see the place buzzing with the voices of children playing. He told me that when the refugees first arrived, he had to accommodate the men inside the Church and the women and children in a hall annexed to it. This situation lasted for several days before families could be relocated to rented apartments.
After a year and a half of displacement, Father Haddad understood that what his community really needs is not just assistance with food and medicine but hope for the future. He said that the church is offering computer courses to help the displaced find work. He has also helped families open a bakery and other small businesses to start generating income. Among all the problems facing refugees that I witnessed here, unemployment seemed the most pressing one. I repeatedly saw looks of discomfort and shame in the eyes of the men I interviewed when they revealed they had not been working for months.
The last thing that the two companions of Father Haddad, Wissam and Youssef, told me before dropping me at my hotel in Erbil was: “You know, we are educated people. We all have college degrees.” One had studied tourism and the other, drama. They had good jobs in the Nineveh Plain before ISIS occupied their homes. One worked with the local government and the other had a thriving business.
But now, as they bitterly said, they were doing nothing of value.