This is part four of a six part series written by Melissa Shaefer who interned with OMS Hungary doing refugee ministry in Europe this summer.
Πέτρας Ολύμπου – Petra Olympou – Stone of Olympus
Walking into the Yazidi (learn about the Yazidis here) refugee camp at Petra Olympus, volunteers and visitors would be bombarded by the sheer number of children. They would see a six-year-old pushing his two-year-old sibling in a stroller up a steep hill. They’d see fathers with a child on their shoulders and two straggling behind. They’d see mothers at the water line, washing and carrying five-gallon buckets back to their tents—followed by helpful toddlers and teenagers. Pick-up games of soccer would pop up out of nowhere on the common pavement. Young children would be standing in line to gather food for the family. At Petra, there was approximately 1,400 Yazidi. Over 600 of those people were under the age of 18. About 400 were school aged (6-18).
Petra was under the control of the Greek Army. All people entering the camp were required to have badges including their name, passport number, and affiliated organization. On our first day at Petra, we were still uncertain as to our jobs. Jasmine, my roommate, and I were grabbed by three children: Adam (2), Noorhun (4), and this wonderful girl named Rana (9). The tent of Adam’s mother was bare, with only a cot, and little else. Yet, we were still urged to take their tea and eat their snacks. This was a common occurrence. Every time a child brought me to their tent, the mother would light up. She, and any of the siblings there, would me bring food and drink. Once we reached my limited knowledge of Kurdish, we’d begin to use hand gestures. The children would always want to draw in my notebook, and would ask dozens of questions about my family picture taped in the back.
As we sat and talked with Adam’s mother, I noticed that on every Yazidi wrist, there was a simple bracelet. It was two colors, twisted together. Whether young, old, male, or female, every single person in the camp had a bracelet. When I asked about it, I was told, quite solemnly, that it was a sign of the Yazidi. It was a way to band together and remember those who were lost. Immediately, Rana went to her own tent, and came back with string. Her grandmother quickly gestured for Jasmine’s wrist, then my own, tying our new bracelets securely with calloused fingers. I still have that red and white bracelet. Noorhun’s mother also gave me a green, blue, and yellow bracelet that had to be sewn on. I did not remove either my whole time in Europe.
The drive to learn in these children was amazing to see. They would spend two hours with us, learning English phrases, geography, and math, and then spend another hour or two doing the homework we assigned. Whenever our group pulled into Petra, at least six of our students would run up yelling, “My teacher, my teacher!” One day, we sent out a verb sheet with pictures, and asked them to memorize the first 10 over the weekend. When I came back on Monday, one of the girls, Azdehar, grabbed my hand and said, “Come!” She sat me on the curb and motioned for me to read off the verbs. As I said each one, she performed it for me. When we finished the first 10, she waved her hand, motioning for me to continue. Azdehar had memorized the whole page, simply because she wanted to impress!
Alan was one of my favorite students, but he was also the one I frequently wanted to throw out of the classroom. He seemed to be the most popular, with the boys moving out of his way and everyone wanting him to sit with them. He didn’t know a single word or letter of English. When we would write something on the white board, Alan would show amazing concentration. He would write with slow, careful motions, trying to copy us exactly. When I’d point out a mistake, his reactions varied. Sometimes he would erase and try again. Other times he would stand up, throw something, and yell “NO!” But with one hard glare or pointed finger, he would sit down and try again.
In the classroom, I worked one-on-one with Alan for the first two weeks. One day, I arrived a little later than normal because it was storming. He was waiting outside the school in the rain. Since camp Petra is primarily gravel and dirt, to stand in the rain is to become muddy and dirty, something all of the children hated. Alan stood anyways. He was the only student. That day he asked if he could help us set up, then sat quietly and studied his homework. He and the other boys were very close. In fact, most of the children were close. They’d help each other with homework and chores.
When not in school, kids in the camp were left to roam, yet they rarely caused trouble. These children could name at least five people they knew who were killed by ISIS. They had to flee their homes because of hatred for their religion. Some were not sure if their older brother, or their mother, made it out of Sinjar (a town in Iraq where many Yazidis live). Some were filled with constant rage. Others wouldn’t leave their tent because they were too afraid. Some of the parents were trapped in depression, unable to move.
There’s a lot of pain and anger in the Yazidi people. But not towards me, nor Christians as a whole. They love Christians, because in Iraq Christians and Yazidi help each other when extremist groups come to persecute. On the other hand, they hate ISIS with everything they are.
Please pray for them. Pray that this hate would not hurt who they were made to be. Pray that they find rest and peace. Pray that the love God would wash out the bitterness of hate.
By Melissa Shaefer, OMS Refugee Ministry Intern
Continue following our blog to read the rest of Melissa’s story.