My Middle East Springsteen Pilgrimage
I’m a big Bruce Springsteen fan. There’s something about his working class ethos that I love. Over the years, I’ve made about seven road trips, or “pilgrimages” as I like to call them, to see Bruce in concert.
During October I made a different kind of pilgrimage: I spent two weeks living with families in Northern Iraq who lost their homes when I.S.I.S. (pronounced Da3sh in Arabic) took over Mosul in 2014. About half of that time was spent at a Presbyterian church in Kirkuk which houses about 15 displaced families. I slept in the pastor’s office, showered with a hose in the utility room, and since it was dangerous for me to be in public unattended, spent a lot of my time with the families that now call the church campus home.
The families living at the church took turns providing my meals, each time escorting me to a different “home.” Families of four to six members live/eat/sleep in a converted Sunday school classroom (most still adorned with Minnie Mouse drapes). I would typically be offered a seat on one of four beds pushed against the wall, and a plastic fold-up table would be brought in to make the dining room transformation.
The father of one of these families, Feiss, is about my age with two kids. His wife works with the preschool run by the Presbyterian Church, even though they are—like most of the families at the Church—Assyrian Orthodox. This is a gift, given that unemployment in Kirkuk is sky-high
My first meal with Feiss was a breakfast, after his wife and kids had left for school. He directed me to a seat on the nicest bed with a particular gleam of pride. This was a feast, even by Middle East standards. Breads, meats, egg dishes, bowls of olives and cucumbers and yogurts and jams. Turns out that Feiss, in his former life, was a restaurant owner (I made a mental note: “Jackpot!”).
Feiss had his own restaurant in Mosul; now, nothing. While some people evacuated the moment that I.S.I.S./Da3sh attacked, most families remained. They were convinced that the U.S. could and would crush I.S.I.S. in a matter of days. That didn’t happen, so they and hundreds of thousands were forced to surrender their property to the Islamic State and leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
And they came to Kirkuk—where the Presbyterian Church gave them a home. Before August 2014 they were strangers; now they are family.
Feiss showed me pictures of his dream house—which was almost complete at the time that I.S.I.S./Da3sh took it; and his restaurant–which still operates in Mosul, but as somebody else’s property: ““When I was younger, I spent all of my time working so that my wife and daughter would have a home and a future. I would come home when she was already asleep. A year ago, Da3sh took my home away. But now I have time with my family.”
“Now, the best thing is to hold the hand of my daughter and hold the hand of Jesus,” Feiss says.
We talk about when they fled Mosul. There were Christians who figured out a way to stay and keep their homes and incomes—“traitors” who pointed out the wealthy homes to Da3sh/I.S.I.S. “We could have stayed by giving up our faith in Jesus Christ, or by having Da3sh take away our dignity by killing or rape. We left with our faith and our dignity.”
Feiss shares with me his fears for his daughter and son: “Is there any future for them here in Iraq? Would it be best to leave for another country?”
I share my and Elmarie’s interest in helping to start small businesses in Kirkuk. He likes this idea. Later, he also mentions the fear & hesitation he feels. What if one day he is able to return to his home village but now has roots and a business somewhere else?. While some families are hoping for emigration to another country, Feiss still holds out hope of someday returning to the home of his birth.
As we talk, I can’t help but think about Bruce Springsteen—the dignity of hard work; the love of one’s home; the hope of passing on a good life to one’s children; the pain of being held back from the basic human things of working a job and providing for one’s family
Funny how I had to go all the way to the Middle East to find the heart of those ideals.