Britton Buckner has plenty of opportunities to cry. But with all the tragedy she’s seen in the past year as Head of Programs in Iraq for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the 35-year-old native of Alabama says the last time she cried was because of a story of hope.
A group of Iraqi Dominican sisters were providing education and caring for orphans and the disabled in the town of Karaquosh, but the Islamic State was getting closer. The sisters decided they would stay until the last minute. Then, in the middle of the night, the mother superior rallied her sisters together and said they all had to flee—now.
It was summertime, and because of the heat the car’s air conditioning was on and the gas began to run out since there was such a long line of people trying to escape. What should have been a 90-minute drive took the sisters nine hours. When they finally arrived in the northern capital of Irbil, despite their own trials, they immediately found the Christian community and began giving milk to babies, diapers to mothers, and began a school for displaced families, which is now recognized by Iraq’s Department of Education as the best school in Northern Iraq.
“I see this all the time,” says Buckner. “In spite of the trauma so many have endured, in their very difficult conditions, they’re still opening their doors to each other, offering to give what they have to someone else. That’s the dignity and faith they have, the solidarity they have, that someone else could be worse off than they are.”
Another example that exemplifies the kind of perseverance and solidarity Buckner sees is directly related to her own staff, most of whom come from the displaced population. “We’ve got engineers, for example, who’ve come from Mosul, who spent nights up on Sinjar mountain escaping ISIS with their families,” she says. “But when they came to Dohuk, where we are based in the north, they immediately started working around the clock.”
CRS was initially building shelters and homes in the winter because people were freezing to death — most people don’t realize Iraq has very cold, snowy winters — and the workers would not go home. “We said, ‘It’s Christmas, it’s December 25, it’s time to stop,’ and they said, ‘How can we stop? There are people out there freezing.'”
Buckner is amazed by the people she serves. “Families and individuals who have endured so much, who are not living comfortable lives, who are getting worrisome updates from family members in ISIS territory — they still want to help, they want to give back. That level of solidarity is inspiring.”
CRS’s work in Iraq focuses on responding to the crisis of internally displaced people, those who have been forced to flee their homes because of ISIS—over 3 million people. Because they have to flee their towns and villages at a moment’s notice, many initially live with friends or relatives. “Most are middle-class people — doctors, lawyers, teachers — and over time, their savings run out and they have to go into makeshift shelters and have no cash to cover basics,” explains Buckner.
In addition to shelter and sanitation, CRS provides emergency food and water — using a cash-based response wherever possible, so families can buy what they need. Half of the displaced people in Iraq are children, so in addition to assisting with their immediate physical and emotional needs, CRS is working with the Iraqi Department of Education to create more classrooms and mobilize the teacher force.