A New Level of Faith
When God told me He wanted me to go to North Iraq for a short-term mission, my initial response was, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” When He didn’t say anything further than that, I said, “Okay, Lord, but You’ll have to provide all my needs for this journey.” And He did just that! On the same day I was accepted onto the team to go to North Iraq, God also provided me with the finances for my flights!
I was very excited about going to North Iraq, especially because God wanted me to be there and I really wanted to be obedient to His plan. Although I was nervous about being in a country that media often portrayed as being particularly dangerous for foreigners, I chose to trust that God would look after me. My family and friends were all nervous for me – one uncle actually forbade me to go! – but I knew without a shadow of doubt that this was where God wanted me to go at this time and that was enough for me. Looking back now, I understand that when I said yes to God, I entered into a new level of faith and trust in Him that I had not known before.
A team of eleven from New Zealand and Australia, we had the task of teaching conversational English to staff from a local university and polytechnic. Even though I am a lecturer myself, I was humbled by my students’ credentials: they were all extremely experienced and more qualified than me. I was overwhelmed and amazed at what God can do when we say yes to Him – here I was, a Tongan woman, teaching English, which is my second language, to professors and senior lecturers in North Iraq!
The course was an intensive two-week module focused on the topic of change, covering practical ways of exploring and measuring change, and simple coping strategies to manage the transition of change. The topic proved to be timely indeed; the students in our small group chose to lead many sensitive discussions and debates on the changes they were experiencing in their culture, religion and political climate. There was such an environment of trust in the group that the students felt free to voice their concerns, fears and hopes about the changes that were happening around them, and the rapid rate that these were being carried out. As facilitators we stayed true to the task of ensuring these communications were spoken in English and only offered a view when it was requested, but I was blown away by how privileged we were to have these students allow us to enter into a space normally tapu to foreigners, and, to boot, allow us to speak into their lives.
A huge advantage of working with a small group of students was that we had opportunity to develop genuine relationships with them. We were also able to introduce different teaching and learning techniques that proved to be a lot of fun for both the students and us, and we were pleased to hear that some of them were thinking of using the techniques in their own teaching sessions.
My favorite teaching method was using Bible stories for comprehension of English. The stories were about famous prophets familiar to both Muslims and Christians (Moses and David, for example), and, from the New Testament, about things Jesus did and the parables He told. The stories generated some deep and meaningful conversations and questions between students and facilitators about one another’s faith. I was so conscious of the spiritual warfare that was taking place at those particular times, especially when we shared the stories about Jesus.
My compassion and respect for the people of Kurdistan deepened when I learnt about their years of suffering through civil wars, and we visited memorial sites where the Kurdish people had been imprisoned, tortured and killed during those dark times. Etched most vividly in my memory is the trip to Halabja; in 1988, Iraqi aircraft launched a five-hour chemical bomb attack on Halabja’s residential areas, killing 5,000 people and injuring up to 10,000 more. The bombing was an experiment intended to eradicate the Kurdish people from their lands. The monument in Halabja holds the photographic evidence that exposed the mass murders left in the wake of the chemical bombings. As I stood at the gravesite of the fallen, my tears refused to be held back. For the first time in my life I was witnessing the evil that war can produce, and I struggled to understand the justification for it.
The more time I spent with the Kurdish people, the more I respected their resilient nature. Although the wounds of the 1988 chemical bombings were still strongly felt, the people were motivated by hope for a better future and for a peaceful Kurdistan for their children. I couldn’t help but count my own blessings and be thankful that I and my family have never known suffering, pain and loss in this way.
I had not expected that, as foreigners, we would be welcomed with open arms, but I was proven overwhelmingly wrong. Our students went out of their way to ensure that we were looked after, and we were invited into their homes to eat with their families. I soon learnt that hospitality is a very important part of their culture, just as it is in my Pacific Island culture.
Right through my short mission experience I constantly saw God’s hand working in my life. He used my students to teach me that the quality of time is the essence that makes a difference in building meaningful relationships. And He showed me that communication happens in many ways: I had imagined that my time in North Iraq would provide me with an opportunity to verbally share the good news, but the truth was I found myself demonstrating the nature of Christ more through what I did, praying for my students, and doing what I believed Jesus would do when I was with them.
I am now looking forward to participating in further journeys that God has planned for me, and am currently in the process of preparing for a longer mission encounter. North Iraq was truly a God-given opportunity, and as I reflect on my experience I realise that God is truly the orchestrator of life, and that, whatever our background – Polynesian or Kurdish, Christian or Muslim – we can, through God’s grace, find true purpose, peace and harmony in our lives. ♦
Nina is a Tongan-born nurse lecturer from South Auckland.