9 September 2014
IRAQI KURDISTAN REFLECTION: Playing football
with Yazidi kids
by John Bergen
|Bergen and friends he met at the Arbat school.|
Since I’ve been in Suleimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, working
with Christian Peacemaker Teams, we have accompanied workers delivering
aid to some of the nearly a
million internally-displaced people fleeing the violence of ISIS
(or the Islamic State, or Daash, whatever the largest and most highly-funded jihadist
organization in the world wants to call itself).
Last week, we visited the small town of Arbat, where the Unite Nations has
built two refugee camps, one for Syrian refugees and one for internally-displaced
people, mostly Yazidis. However, when we visited, most of the Yazidis and other
minorities fleeing ISIS’s ethnic cleansing were living in a crowded school
while the camp was cleaned.
When we entered the school, dozens of people crowded around
us. They needed medical care, they needed help finding relatives kidnapped by
ISIS, they needed new IDs (some had torn up their IDs in the fear that if ISIS
soldiers caught them and found out they were Yazidi, they would kill them).
Long-time CPTer Peggy Gish and
our translator talked with many people, trying not to promise to do things we
I didn’t feel very useful listening, but I didn’t get much
of a chance because several younger guys took me by the arm and asked me, in
their limited English, to take their picture.We chatted, and additional young people lined up to have
their picture taken. One asked for my email so he could ask for pictures to be
sent. As older people continued to
crowd around the others, I played football (the universal language) with a bunch of the younger guys.
Three years of college taught me to be critical of the
white-people-go-abroad-to-take-smiling-pictures-with-brown-people trope. Too
often, white North Americans will travel abroad for “service,” to “help people
in need” and burn off some of their guilt for being so wealthy. These pictures
normalize a structure problem: years of colonial violence, economic
restructuring, and deliberate underdevelopment and theft don’t matter because
“we’re all really the same.” Centuries of
ethnic oppression over a decade
of U.S.-led sanctions, and over a decade of U.S.-manufactured
violence disappear in a story about playing soccer with Yazidi boys.
The young people I hung out with didn’t ask me to do
anything for them besides take their picture and play soccer. While there was no doubt who had the situational
and structural privilege, we still connected in a way that will stay with me.
I have no doubt that those guys knew that there was the
possibility that being friendly to me would help their situation. They knew the
setup. And never in that
morning did I forget the fact that I’d be heading home in our air-conditioned
car to our safe and secure house with its refrigerator, or that if ISIS gained
ground I could quickly be on a plane for Turkey. But the simple dichotomies I
had internalized about white and Westerner privilege did more to separate me
than help us be humans together. I guess the conclusion of this is just that
And that everyone loves football and looking good in front
of the camera.