The Sacred and the Surreal

Lisa Jernigan – Global Peace Advocate

Now that I have seen, I am responsible.

For the first time in my travels I had to take out a War Risk Insurance Policy.

This was because I was traveling to Iraq and Israel/Palestine this past November. It was a protection policy in case of kidnapping and/or death. Unrest, uncertainty and fear abound in that region. Iraq is tormented by ISIS; Israel/Palestine are tormented by each other. New stories of death and destruction are broadcast daily. At the time, Iraq was listed as the 2nd most dangerous destination for U.S. travelers.

My journey began at the invitation of two friends: one who lives in the region, and one who’d visited Iraq earlier in the year and was compelled to go back. So, we added an extra week to our already scheduled trip to Israel to include Iraq.

Aware (as much as we could be) of the challenges and risks of such a trip, Cal and I prayed about it and were at peace with my decision to go.

I have now been home almost two months, but the experience has not lessened; rather, it has intensified with memories of the people, the places, and the circumstances. As a result, I will never be the same. This is a good thing. My soul has been disrupted, my heart pierced; I witnessed firsthand the injustices inflicted on the innocent, and I can no longer be content standing on the sidelines, turning my face away, failing to see “others” as those also created in the image of God. I can’t look back in complacency, only forward to where God is pulling me towards a pathway of peace and hope and love.

Many stories from that trip bring me to my knees in tears, but one in particular torments my heart. In northern Iraq, in the small town of Dohuk, I sat at a table with a Yezidi woman named “Amena” and her 10-year-old daughter. Amena was only days into her freedom from captivity as a sex slave/wife of a leader in ISIS, and she wanted to tell us her story through an interpreter. In a moment that eluded time and space, the sacred and the surreal collided around me. I still really don’t know how to process it all.

In August of 2014, ISIS troops invaded and captured Amena’s city. The story made global news, but for most it was just another dark news story in a series of dark news stories from “over there.” For Amena and her husband and their four children, it was real and horrific, an unimaginable nightmare. She had no idea that morning what atrocities would befall them. By the end of that day, all the men of the city, including many boys, were lying dead in fresh shallow graves. To determine if a boy was old enough to be considered a man, the boys were lined up and commanded to raise their arms. Those with hair under their arms were considered men and ushered outside the city and executed alongside their fathers and grandfathers.

The women fared no better. Women 50 years of age and older, who would serve no purpose as sex slaves, were corralled and taken away and have not been seen since. Little girls as young as 9 years old were considered worthy to be traded, bought, and sold as sex slaves. The women were taken to a building and lined up according to marital status and then according to rank of beauty. The most beautiful were given first to the upper officials within ISIS. This was the group where Amena, who was 2 months pregnant, found herself standing, along with her 3 youngest children. She was separated from her 12-year-old daughter and has not heard anything about her since.

The women were taken to Syria. Amena became “wife” to one of the leading fighters who eventually sold and traded her to another fighter. Shortly thereafter, Amena gave birth to her son. Only a couple of weeks after giving birth, she saw an opportunity to escape with her newborn baby and her children, ages 1, 4, and 10. Unfortunately, she was recaptured, and her punishment was severe. She was raped with her hands tied and her 3 youngest children were poisoned. They were brought to her, wrapped in white blankets, lifeless. She showed us a photo that she carries with her, a photo of her three precious babies in white blankets. I will never forget that; I carry Amena’s face, the faces of her children, and the face of the young woman who translated for us and was the first to hear of Amena’s horrific journey. This intake counselor carried the burden of Amena’s story on her face and in her body. I will never forget, but I now carry a new responsibility.

When I look into the eyes of another, am I not seeing the image and fingerprints of God? To not see this is to deny our oneness and value to God. I want to see more than what is visible, to listen longer than is comfortable, and to be willing to step into the messiness of injustice. That is where I believe I will find the heart of Jesus.

As Amena’s time with us concluded, we all stood to leave, unsure what to say. The four of us women asked if we could hug her; it felt inadequate but it was all we had to offer in that moment. She heartily embraced each of us and kissed our cheeks multiple times. She honored us. How could we honor her? As she turned to leave the room, she pleaded, “Please help get those other women out and set them free, help them.” I think that is how we can honor her.

This is a responsibility I now carry, but it will take a collaboration of committed people who believe we can make a difference and that Jesus is calling us along this pathway to healing and transformation. You may not have seen, but now that you have heard, maybe God is calling you, too, to be responsible.

The Sacred and the Surreal

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