Amidst world tumult and disorder, the students told their teachers of tragedies on a human scale.
In a makeshift classroom inside a modified shipping container, Meg Gerbrandt-Wiebe’s English students – vibrant, confident women aged 35 to 65 – spoke of fleeing the most brutal army on the planet one year prior. They talked about businesses left behind, homes abandoned, legacies frozen, and families in flux. At a nearby school, Charlotte Siemens heard about weddings halted, couples separated, and babies born while on the run.
For Gerbrandt-Wiebe, a Grade 4 teacher at Blue Jay elementary, and Siemens, the principal at W.A. Fraser Middle school, the stories were jarring, in part because of how otherwise normal everything and everyone seemed in Erbil, the Iraqi city the pair had journeyed to at the request of the Chaldean Catholic Church, a partner of the Mennonite Central Committee.
The capital of the semi-autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, Erbil sits just 80 kilometres from Mosul, a city of two million controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The group, which has been responsible for a long list of human rights atrocities, swept through the region last August. They forced millions out of their homes, and remain in control of territory just 70 kilometres or so from Erbil, which is protected by the Kurdish army.
In Erbil, Gerbrandt-Wiebe taught conversational English to some two dozen women who were living in a camp for those displaced by the fighting. Siemens, meanwhile, instructed teachers – all but one of whom, she would later learn, had also been forced out of their homes over the last several years.
While family members of the two women expressed concern about their stay in the region throughout July, the biggest danger the two said they encountered in Iraq was the sweltering temperature.
“I chose to walk to work and my biggest fear was the heat,” Gerbrandt-Wiebe said of her three-kilometre stroll to the Internally Displaced Persons camp where she conducted her classes.
Yet the human consequences of the conflict were hard to escape for the pair.
The women Gerbrandt-Wiebe was instructing had some knowledge of grammar rules, but little conversational experience. As the women practised their English, often coming in early for private tutoring sessions and frequently inviting their teacher back to their makeshift homes, Gerbrandt-Wiebe learned more about her students and what they left behind.
“What I found was women – lovely people – who were exactly like we were.
“These were mothers with gardens, and they would talk about their gardens and what would be ripe right now, and ‘Oh, Meg, I would take you out to my garden and we would have these fresh tomatoes off the vine.’ ”
The English classes were a refuge for the women, who found themselves trying to maintain their makeshift container-homes while gravely concerned about their husbands, who were without jobs and struggled for a sense of purpose after watching their life’s work snatched from them.
“There was not that sense that we can go home. There was the longing to go home, but the reality – probably not.”
While it was Gerbrandt-Wiebe’s first trip to the Middle East, Siemens had actually volunteered in Erbil five years ago. Much has changed since then.
“It was a very different Iraq that I returned to,” she said. The pair travelled during the weekends, but many of the sites Siemens had visited five years ago were now unsafe, if not in the hands of the Islamic State.
Still, Erbil remains connected to the wider world and relatively prosperous. And the schools and teachers weren’t so different from those in Abbotsford. Siemens and her students would review some of the same material to which teachers in Canada refer.
“It was a different context, but some of the same best practices.”
And yet, the specter of the conflict remained.
For Siemens, the stories from her students poured out after a video was shown to mark the year since the conflict forced them to flee: “They said, ‘Home, sweet home. All we want to do is go home.’ ”
But the Abbotsford educators were inspired by the resiliency of the students..
“They would end with ‘Today we are safe, today we are alive,’ ” said Gerbrandt-Wiebe.
The pair are now back in the Fraser Valley, a return that left both exhausted and overwhelmed by the return to a cooler, less intense part of the world.
“You’re so welcomed by them, and they love you … and then to leave them knowing you’re leaving them in such difficult circumstances, it feels shabby,” Gerbrandt-Wiebe said. “It changes you. It changes how you look at things.”
“It was a transformative experience,” Siemens added, who said her return left her “discombobulated.”
“You try to process the stories, the things you’ve seen, the things you’ve heard … You want to take some of the pain with you. These are people who are not much different than we are, who are living in a tough situation.”
With the school year approaching, the two women said they’ll take the experience forward in their day-to-day jobs.
“Any time you travel like that, it broadens who you are,” Gerbrandt-Wiebe said. “It’s who I am, and I’m different.
“You can’t help but to bring that to your students.”