Only once have I ever had to worry about getting through the winter. I was dead broke, out of work, and had no place to live. My shelter was a rusty old Chevy. To avoid getting busted as a vagrant at night in Detroit, I drove that car twenty miles on I-96, to a rest area outside the city and slept there in the car overnight. It was February. It was Michigan. And it was freezing.
On the thirty-minute drive I blasted the car’s heater to get the inside of the big four-door sedan as hot as possible when I turned the engine off to fall asleep in the back seat under a couple of thin, musty blankets that I had scrounged up from somewhere. A few hours later I’d wake up shivering and I lay there until I couldn’t stand it. I then forced myself up, reached my long arms over the front seat, fumbled in the dark for the ignition switch, twisted the key, and hoped the car would start. There was no point, I knew, in scraping the snow off until morning.
With the car running and the heater now blasting cold air, I lay back down, unbothered by a thought at the back of my mind: Best not fall back asleep just now even though you have cracked one of the windows. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to escape reality. I was too beat down to care much about tomorrow. Life wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I made that drive every night for nearly a month. Two or three times each night I would awake shivering, start the car, fall back asleep with the heater blowing cold air, and then awake and turn off the car when it got too hot or the fumes became too strong. What little money I had was disappearing in the gas tank and at fast food outlets. I don’t know what would have happened to me without the direct intervention one day of a good Samaritan in the city, who heard about my situation and helped.
I haven’t thought about that struggle to get through the winter for a long time. But those difficult and unexpected weeks have been on my mind lately, while thinking about the plight of the displaced and refugee families who had to flee ISIS and who are currently struggling through the winter in canvas tents, abandoned buildings with glass-less widows, and other makeshift shelters. I know what it was like for me. I don’t know what it is like for them – only that their experience is so much worse than mine as to be incomparable.
The Cradle of Christianity Fund, launched in October of last year, is intervening to help tens of thousands of these families – the most marginalized ones – those who are not in the UN camps. And this exodus may not be over. Just yesterday news broke of yet another ISIS attack on Christian villages. Many fled, but dozens did not make it and were abducted. And yet the urgent work of rescuing and restoring damaged and broken lives has begun.
Chris Seiple, a friend, and the Chief of Mission of the Cradle Fund, just returned from his third trip in four months to the Middle East. He said that the situation for these families remains complexly dire, but that the rescue efforts are making a difference. Working closely with their Christian partners in the region, they have now reached over 50,000 people – providing them with such things as food, blankets, clothing, kerosene, heaters, and winter-proofing materials for abandoned buildings.
Here are just several vignettes from Chris that stood out to me about the recent trip, as he and his team distributed aid and talked at length with many families and with the Fund’s partners in the regions in order to learn more about their specific needs.
A small, mainly Christian village, north of Dohuk, has taken in fifty Christian families, thirteen Yazidi families, and a Sunni Muslim family. There are not enough bathrooms for everyone and water can be scarce. When Chris huddled in a cold room to talk to several of the men, one said, “We are from various denominations, but we are all just Christians now. We are one community in the name of Jesus, our Hope. And our faith is growing.”
They visited a wife and husband who live with their four children in a homemade hut built against a wall in a parking lot. Parked next door to this family’s makeshift shelter is a bus crammed with other displaced families. And near Erbil, in Ozal City, 850 Christian families, 250 Muslim families, and 150 Yazidi families live in the large building complex.
Chris spent time with the Dominican Sisters, one of the Fund’s partners, to learn more about their needs and to share a meal with them. “What a privilege and inspiration” he said. “If you ever wondered what it means to live in community serving the most marginalized – as a fragrance of Christ – you need to spend some time with these sisters.”
Chris also spent time with a Yazidi family whose home is an unfinished, concrete, three-room structure. The mother had seen her brother gunned down by ISIS and had recently given birth to a premature baby. The grandmother, overwrought with emotion, Chris said, left the room crying, “There is no rest, no food, no hope, no life.”
Elsewhere, a Sunni Muslim said, “ISIS doesn’t represent Islam. They have no humanity. They destroy everything. But I was received in [a Christian] village with dignity and honor. We came with just the clothes on our backs, and they gave us food, shelter, and everything for a proper life.”
But betrayals have left deep scars that are poignant reminders of the complexity. Chris spoke to a Yazidi man who had been holed up on Mt. Sinjar for nine days after escaping ISIS with his family. His Sunni Arab neighbors, he said, with whom he had shared meals in his home, joined ISIS and would call him on his cell phone to “tease” him. How can we ever trust the Muslims, he now wonders. We don’t want to go back.
At the heart of this unimaginable life and times, the Cradle Fund works alongside regional churches and religious organizations in the region to bring huge amounts of aid and support to these wounded and grieving families.
The Fund, which I have previously written about on this blog, enables churches and people of faith here in the United States to join with the indigenous efforts already underway by local churches and organizations in the countries of conflict and the countries that have received the overwhelming numbers of refugees. I can’t say enough good things about this initiative.
Here is a link to dozens of inspiring photos from Chris, who included a short text with each one (click on a photo to read the text). The Cradle Fund is being administered by the Institute for Global Engagement. Here is a link to IGE’s Facebook page, where you will find detailed info about the Cradle Fund. It’s an impressive vision.
Please think about helping. Support the Cradle Fund. Become part of this grace-filled intervention. Many thanks to all who are already supporting this with your prayers and gifts.
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Photos courtesy of the Institute for Global Engagement. Use of these photos does not suggest endorsement.
For more information. Like a growing number of people who are now following and supporting the Cradle Fund, here you can find many more moving stories and pictures about how the people are living in these stopgap conditions (from Chris’s blogs among the displaced families). Also check out IGE’s Facebook page and the above links as well.
Here are some FAQs about the Cradle Fund. Also Chris is providing personal updates from the region, including photos, on the IGE website and Twitter. Coverage of the Fund is also found at Christianity Today, CBN, and MPAC and Fox News.
Other posts and updates on this blog about the Cradle Fund: The Cradle Fund: Helpless No More /// Snapshots: A Day-in-the-Life of Iraq’s Religious Refugees /// This Bad Weather Is No Joke /// A Bridge for Shalom in the Middle East.