This post has been written by Brian, a volunteer at the Haven Center earlier this summer. We are always grateful for those who volunteer their time and services to help compound the impact of the work that EDGE is doing in the Haven Center and surrounding areas.
Jonathan and I found ourselves in Iraq on the tail-end of our 27 month stint with the Peace Corps in rural Zambia. In Zambia, our job (on paper, at least), was to teach and train rural farmers in digging fish ponds for nutrition and to generate income. In reality, our job was a little bit of everything- one day we could be teaching middle schoolers about HIV prevention, the next we could be distributing bed-nets for malaria or leading a loan and savings group. The work that was most fulfilling to me was working with kids and hosting youth camps. I organized and led three week-long youth camps, with a focus on topics such as leadership development, goal-setting, HIV and health, and small business activities. More than anything, these camps served as an opportunity to create lasting relationships with these kids and for them to relax and have fun.
Throughout our service, Jonathan and I had kept up with the events in Iraq and Syria. Now that our time was up, we were eager to try to bring some of the perspective and skills we had gained in the Peace Corps to a part of the world that seemed to be in need of it. Thanks to Kylie and the support of the EDGE Institute, we were able to arrange a short three day camp in the similar spirit of the camps we put on through Peace Corps.
A week before the camp, we met with Zirak, one of the project coordinators. Zirak caught us up with the situation. We would be teaching in Shariya Camp, hosting thousands of Yezidi's that had fled from ISIS two years prior. Since arriving at the camp, many of the children had remained unschooled. With Zirak, we ran through some of the sessions we had led in camps in Zambia, and picked some we thought would be most appropriate: leadership, goal-setting and action-planning, diversity and teamwork, art, and the environment.
Before the camp, I was more nervous than I expected. We lacked the cultural context and we had in Zambia, as well as our ability to speak the local language. However, the minute we stepped into the Haven Center, all of my nervousness melted away. The kids greeted us with the same smiles and curiosity that I recognized from my kids in Zambia. If there was anything that surprised me, it was the amount of energy and enthusiasm the kids at the Haven Center had. Everybody was eager to learn and to volunteer. I watched the kids at the Haven Center play the same games that my kids in Zambia played thousands miles of away and had the realization– kids are kids. Children in Zambia are the same as children in Iraq, are the same as children in America and everywhere else. Every kid has an innate desire to learn and to play. And every kid needs a safe place in which they're able to do that. Sami, one of the staff at the Center, told me that two years ago, many of these kids had been sullen, frightened, and withdrawn. Bit by bit, because of the work being done by the EDGE Institute and the Haven Center, they have started laughing and playing again.The Haven Center allows these kids to forget everything that has happened to them for just a little bit, and lets them be kids again.
On our last night in Iraq, some of the staff at the Haven Center invited Jonathan and I to a picnic on a mountain overlooking Dohuk and the Shariya Camp we had been working in. As the sun fell, and the lights twinkled on in Shariya, I thought of the kids I had just met and their families in the valley below. Sami and Zirak shared their hopes for the future of their community and for the future of the Haven Center. I was impressed and humbled at their commitment to improve the lives of the children at the Haven Center. The stories and images coming out of this part of the world are often gloomy and frightening. And though while there it's sometimes easy to be overwhelmed by these stories (these kids have been through some of the worst of it), my trip left me feeling that there was plenty to be hopeful and enthusiastic about. Their resilience and their eagerness to play and to laugh and to learn are the stories and the images that will stick with me.
Interested in volunteering with EDGE? Click here.