By Paul Jeffrey
IRBIL, Iraq — Every morning, as her son prepares to leave for preschool, the mother of 4-year old Luis Firas takes a stick of oil and makes the sign of the cross on his forehead.
Blessing is important for this Christian family, which fled from Mosul during the 2014 takeover of the area by Islamic State militants and today — like tens of thousands of other displaced — live in a small modular temporary shelter in Irbil, a town in northern Iraq controlled by Kurds.
As I photographed their morning ritual, Luis grabbed the stick and marked a cross on his mother’s forehead, also blessing her.
When the displaced families arrived in Irbil, a booming oil town fallen on hard economic times and the looming threat of Islamic State they found physical safety. But since they weren’t refugees — they had crossed no international border — they weren’t eligible for assistance from a variety of international agencies. Neither the governments of Iraq nor the autonomous Kurdistan offered much. It was the church that walked with them as they fled from ISIS, and the church that struggled to find them food and shelter in exile.
As almost 20 months have gone by, the church continues to be the de facto manager of aid. The displaced camps are managed by priests-turned-mayors, the schools run by nuns who are themselves survivors of what many consider genocide, the clinics staffed by volunteer doctors who go home at the end of the day to a tiny prefabricated house in a camp for the internally displaced.
To be blessed by those who suffer, one must walk with them. It’s the essence of accompaniment, which comes from the Latin words “ad companis” that could be translated as “breaking bread together.” Here the church has broken bread together with those suffer, and yet I heard no complaints from those who continue to work tirelessly to keep bodies alive and souls fueled with hope. Rather I witnessed joy and radiance and laughter as the faithful served their neighbors, and as they sang hymns in their makeshift chapels. It’s the same look that I glimpsed on the face of Luis’ mother as her son turned her act of love back into a blessing for her.
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Paul Jeffrey’s photos from around the world can be viewed on Instagram.