HASF NORTHERN IRAQ AND KURDISTAN HUMANITARIAN AID MISSION IV

Dental, Medical, and PSD Mission  
MISSION TEAM LEADER: James Price
FEBRUARY 2017

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Mission AAR as told by James Price:

Before the DVM Mission Team left for Northern Iraq, I posted a video on the HASF Facebook page of Father John Tarachee of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Bartella, Iraq returning to his church that had been partly destroyed by ISIS. 

I said “These are the people the DVM Mission Team will seek out and help with food, water, medical care, and security. Please support our mission, because without you, we cannot help these people”.

Watching that video of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Bartella, Iraq, half destroyed with its gate and entrance blocked by the rubble, seeing the bullet holes and then seeing the reaction of Father John Tarachee and his wife at the destruction of his church. Bullet holes in the cross saddened me beyond what I can put into words.

I swore to myself somehow our team would do whatever we could to help people like them. 

A few days after the DVM Mission Team arrived in Northern Iraq, I was able to keep that promise to myself and to everyone who donated to this, our fourth mission there. 

NOTE: Please watch the video at the beginning of this dispatch before reading more if you have not already

DAY 3 – MISSION 1

The Mission Team met with my friend Grady Pickett (a Christian Missionary who has been in Iraq for many years) early in the morning. Grady had arranged this clinic for us and all we knew was we were going to a town where members of a church outside of Mosul were now living. But I didn't know from where or what church, only that people there needed our help. 

When we arrived in the town we were met by a priest and his wife, I remember thinking “I recognize this man and his wife”. 

It was Father John Tarachee and his wife.

For some reason, I could not remember where I had seen them from, probably because I was simultaneously helping our Dental Surgeon set up his clinic and directing our M-PSD Security Team. Every time I saw Father John Tarachee I know that I somehow knew him. 

He was kind to our team and kept asking if we needed anything and thanking us for coming there. He has a funny sense of humor, despite the tragedies he and his flock had been through, and joked around with me a couple of times. I am sure he did this to make us feel comfortable despite the sadness he surely had from all that had happened to him and his congregation. 

Our mission Dental Surgeon, Dr. Bryan Ferreira, worked out of Father John Tarachee’s temporary home that doubled as a church. He saw patient after patient, using just a headlamp, his portable dental kit, and medical supplies we had brought and purchased with your donations in Kurdistan. An old plastic chair doubled as a dental chair. 

While Bryan was treating patients under the watchful eye of our DVM PSD security team, Grady delivered three SUV loads of food to the families there. 

After Bryan had treated all of the congregation members who needed dental care, Father John Tarachee was kind enough to invite us to dinner. Despite the fact they had been driven from their home and church in Bartella and had nothing, they insisted we eat with them as thanks to our team. We were uncomfortable accepting this but were humbled they would cook such a beautiful meal for us. 

As we were packing up our gear, I still had it stuck in my head “I know this man and his wife”, but in the frenzy of trying to get our gear packed so we would not have to drive in Northern Iraq at night, I was unable to remember. 

We drove out of the town with many waves from the congregation members, and a few smiles that were minus a tooth or two. The team was honored our first dental clinic day went so well and we were able to help so many men, women, and children. 

FAST FORWARD A WEEK

At this point, the HASF Mission team and M-PSD Team were pretty exhausted. We had spent the last week conducting four more Dental Clinics and were now conducting medical mentoring with the NPU Christian Militia (Nineveh Plain Protection Units). We had been sleeping in the kitchen of a bullet-riddled building with no running water or heat that the NPU was using as a temporary forward headquarters in Northern Iraq, working 18 hour days, plus everyone pulling night security.  

We knew we were living in luxury compared to all of the Christian people who had fled their homes to escape ISIS*. Not a single team member complained. Quite the contrary. Every day I would hear them say how happy they were to be there, how much of an honor it was to work with these brave men and help so many people with our dental clinic between shivering under their blankets at night.

The only complaints I heard was we were getting so stinky from not being able to shower that we didn’t want to upset our hosts. Every day I would ask the cook that would come in the morning to make chow for the NPU Soldiers “How bad do we stink”? He always said, “Not at all, thank you for helping us”. 

We stank, I knew we stank, he knew we stank – but he was too kind to say anything. This was typical of the kindness the team was treated with by everyone with the NPU. 

CAN YOU GUYS HELP US DIG OUT A BODY?

At the end of the first Dental Clinic, our friend Grady mentioned that there was a church in Bartella, Iraq that was near where the HASF Team would be operating that probably has a dead ISIS sniper buried under the rubble. He wanted to dig it out, and try and clear out some of the rubble. 

So after a few texts back and forth, I drove with the DVM PSD Team to the church for a reconnaissance. When we arrived, I knew immediately it was a bad location. Very few vehicle escape points and generally an unsafe place especially for being ambushed. We were also told there were IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) still all over the city, and ISIS members who had changed to civilian clothing and were still in the city hiding. 

Besides some local Iraqi college students that had recently returned, Bartella was abandoned. It was an unsettling place. The church’s tower had been completely blown up and had collapsed, blocking the Church main entrance and courtyard. Entering the church from the side and clearing it of IEDs we discovered that ISIS had used it as a shooting range and had tried to burn it down.

The walls were stained with soot the way only diesel fuel can blacken concrete. The walls pockmarked with bullet holes. Every place where there was a cross or picture of Jesus or Mary was destroyed, shot until they were unrecognizable. 

While clearing the church we came upon a room full of ash, our NPU minder told us they were handwritten bibles, hundreds of years old and other Christian texts that ISIS had burned. At first glance, they looked like books with dust on them, but the second you touched them they disintegrated in your hand. Several days later, I reflected on how sad and furious it made me. I still see the ash in front of me like I am still in that room sometimes. 

The next day Grady drove over and met us at the NPU checkpoint, where we were training medics. He had brought a friend and some young American university graduates from an NGO called Illumine Nations who were filming a documentary on refugees and Christians in the Middle East. 

They looked a little shocked when they saw our rough looking armed M-PSD Team with their green uniforms and body armor with ammunition pouches all over them. I sometimes forget that it has been centuries since most people had seen Men at Arms protecting Christians. Later after we got to know each other, I was happy we had an opportunity to meet as they were very nice people who were dedicated to letting others know and see the plight of the Christians in the Middle East, while at the same time, delivering aid themselves.

I was thinking I wish I saw Men who still held the sword to protect the weak when I was their age. I am sure my life would have taken a different path if I did. I look forward to seeing the team from Illumine Nations again. 

THE CHURCH

We arrived at the church with Grady and company. When we pulled up, I thought “I know this place”, but immediately pushed that thought to the back of my head as we had a job to do, protecting and helping Grady’s team. When Grady told me the name of the church was “Church of the Virgin Mary” I was so into game-mode it still didn’t register to me exactly where we were.  

After the DVM PSD Team spread out and took defensive positions, everyone started clearing the rubble. It was grueling work, Dental Surgeon Dr. Bryan Ferreira was one of the first to start clearing rubble. He's an unnaturally huge guy so he was picking up boulders like they were pebbles. Bryan worked the entire time without taking a break. 

The HASF Team and I took turns helping Bryan, but being careful not to thin out the PSD security team. They were maintaining overwatch and escorting the Illumine Nations team so they could witness and document the destruction. 

After taking a quick lunch, made by our NPU hosts, everyone returned to the church and worked non-stop until a path into the church had been cleared. Honestly, when I first looked at the destruction I doubted it could be cleared without serious machinery. 

I was wrong. All it took was good men and strong backs and the doorway to the church was clear. Before we left, the steel door was ceremoniously leaned over the doorway. It was an amazing moment, a sight I will never forget. 

As we all packed back into our vehicles for the drive out, I looked at the church. Somehow it looked brand new to me. It looked perfect, even despite the remaining destruction that was painfully apparent. It was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life. 


TODAY

While chatting with the DVM Team today one of the team members showed me a video. It was the video I mentioned at the beginning of this story that I had posted on Facebook with the promise we would help people just like this.

As the video started playing, I saw Father John Tarachee and his wife. I saw him return to his church, the Church of the Virgin Mary. I heard him say “we will make it well” after being asked if he will rebuild it. 

I was speechless – This man was the priest, the woman his wife, the people at our dental clinic his congregation and the church was the one we helped clear. 


THANK YOU

Today, because of your donations, I was able to keep my word and help the people I promised I would. I am the richest man in the world today, I have God’s love. 

Thank you all, but there is more work to be done. 

DVM Will return to Northern iraq and Kurdstan...