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You Know You Don’t Have Much When the Most Precious Thing You Do Have is a Piece of Gum


I’m going to part from my usual blogging subject of safety and The High Reliability Mindset to talk about my trip last month on a medical charity mission to northern Iraq. The trip was organized by a Washington based NGO called, “The Global Surgical and Medical Support Group” and you can find their site at   They have numerous contacts within Northern Iraq and with the Free Kurdish Army (Peshmerga). I did some elective cardiac surgery at the government cardiac hospital but mostly spent my time with the military docs and soldiers. I was mainly in what hasone.jpg traditionally been called Kurdistan. This land spanning much of northern Iraq is made up of the Kurds, Christians (15% or so), Yazidis and Muslims (Sunni and Shia).   Kurds are wonderful people who generally will not say, “I’m Sunni” or “I’m Shia” or even “I’m Muslim” but will proudly greet you with “I’m a Kurd”. The Kurds are mostly accepting of other cultures and beliefs and easygoing regarding Muslim traditional dress and behavior.   These are the people who Saddam Hussein used poison gas and WMDs on and prompted our air missions (Operation Northern Watch the successor to Operation Provide Comfort) to protect them and to enforce a northern no-fly zone in the late 1990s into 2003. These operations ended with Operation Iraqi Freedom deposing and finally capturing Saddam.

These poor folks endured unspeakable horrors from Saddam’s regime and were delighted when we threw him out of power. They enjoyed a period ofiraq1 peace and prosperity until our current administration withdrew the stabilizing influence of our Armed Forces allowing the invasion of the ISIS murderers from the western regions of Syria. So their view of Americans is kind of bipolar. The Yazidis are a small population who are not really Muslims but have a unique and ancient religion based on Muslim teachings and who have been subjected to special horrors.   They are the ones who were caught on Mount Sinjar in northwest Iraq near Mosul and subjected to mass murder, gang rape and enslavement by ISIS. Many of their women were kidnapped and transported to the Raqqa area in Syria as slaves to ISIS terrorists.

The Kurds in this region need much aid and much more help than I could provide but I was honored to try and offer them some medical help and also trainitwong to their protective forces, the Free Kurdish Army – the Peshmerga. I spent some time with the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons – technically refugees within their own country) who have been fleeing ISIS terror. They live in IDP and refugee camps (above) on land out in the middle of the desert provided by the Erbil Governance in tents and hardened mobile structures provided by the UN and NGO charities (below). It reaches a balmy 135oF on a nice sunny summer afternoon. Government aid from other countries is obvious with a presence from Taiwan, Sweden and the Red Crescent from the Gulf States.

These people are not poor or uneducated but ISIS has displaced them from their homes in northern Iraq – mostly Sinjar province, Kirkuk and Mosul. Nobody I spoke with there had much more than an hour to flee from these marauders so they have only the clothes on their backs and whatever they could carry. Many have skills and left good home lives and they are all hugely frustrated and despondent with their current plight. They are so threedestitute that the only toys I saw the children play with are boxes of garbage and refuse (above left). I gave one little girl a piece of gum from a package I had in my pocket – that was all I had on me – and she thought that was the most precious thing she had (right). You know you don’t have much when this is the most precious thing you gotten in months. The conditions here are horrible but I’m told in meetings with multiple aid workers in the UNHCR (UN High Commission on Refugees) that it is better then refugees have it in Yemen and equatorial Africa. It’s hard to contemplate how bad that must be. UNICEF and the International Children’s Relief Fund have put tarps and tent structures and some sanitary facilities in for these people. The UN workers on the ground here are angels of mercy and do a yeoman’s job trying to help. These people were thrown out of their homes and have no jobs, no income, and no way to take care of their families. Nobody I spoke with had much hope that things would get better any time soon. It’s just cataclysmic in its breadth.

Most of the family dwellings are tents and tarps provided by the UN (below left). The Swedish company IKEA donated and brought in hundreds of self- contained mini-housing units that are away from the main camp. Although really thankful, many of the IDPs don’t like the area where the hardened shells were placed as there are logistic issues with bathrofourom facilities being too far away that put their children and women and disabled people at risk, especially at night. They’re also smaller than the UNHCR tent facilities where sanitation facilities are closer. There are some sanitation issues here but very much to the credit of the Kurdistan government they have put money and effort into making this area as clean as possible but cholera is starting to pop up and that would devastate this closely packed population. There is also a big issue with desert snakes and scorpions but I saw some IDPs employed by the Kurdish government spraying the area and we were told it was to kill that stuff. Another problem for the IDPs and Syrian refugees are documents – they don’t have any. There are military checkpoints all over Erbil and the roads in Northern Iraq and without appropriate documents the men would be arrested as suspected of working with ISIS so they can’t leave these camps, can’t work and can’t rent an apartment outside the camps.

The children still play with each other on the dirt strips but schooling and education are mostly on hold and there are no jobs for the men to support their families. The hospital facilities I worked in are OK but the infrastructure to get patients and injured soldiers there are very pfiverimitive. There were a few local clinics but access is difficult and medical staffing is just bare bones at best. Visiting the Peshmerga soldiers and docs was very interesting and we really got to pick their brains on the struggle with ISIS and their medical needs for casualty management. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to bring their war efforts up to speed. One of the commanders I spoke with lost all three of his brothers to the fight with ISIS and was still soldiering on with his nephews and sons.

The situation I witnessed is a cultural, military and civilian conflagration that is quickly spreading out of this local region and doesn’t seem to have any easy solutions. So now, three weeks after getting back, I sit here trying to organize what I learned and put my thoughts on paper. The hot dry desert of Iraq is far away in miles but really very fresh in my mind. But back in south Florida it’s lush and green and peaceful and I’m watching a little squirrel run in and out of the garden sprinklers in bliss, freedom and playful abandonment that is certainly not shared right now in much of the world. It once again reminds me and makes me thankful and humble for how wonderful our life is here. Still, I have to digest all I have experienced in the last month and try to make some sense of it all. In the end, although I have never made any political comments in this space, I feel qualified to comment on the moral discussions about these refuges that has embroiled our country especially in light of the weeks attacks in Africa, Lebanon and Paris and having just witnessed first hand both sides of this problem. I have spoken with and seen the faces of men who were forced to watch their 8-year-old daughters gang raped to death and watch their sons crucified and beheaded by these ISIS devils. I have seen the human anguish this ISIS terror movement has wrought and on the other side of the equation, tried to understand what profound evil could motivate these horrors.

Our nation has a long and proud tradition of welcoming refugees from other horrors at other times in history. The famous poem at the feet of The Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus couldn’t say it better:

From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips.


“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Let us find a way to welcome and accept to our homeland some of these poor, tortured souls. BUT nowhere in those wonderful words does it say, “Send us your murderers, terrorists and twisted minds yearning to kill our wives and children and rob us of our freedoms”. Please politicians, help these folks but sort them out from those who want to bring us their cultural and religious war – don’t allow this evil within our gates. The Kurds are running away from evil, it serves no one’s benefit to import this evil with them.   Prosecute the battle against these monsters with resolve and military strength not politically correct platitudes and haughty, dismissive sniping that only provides laughter for these evil people and means nothing to the poor souls caught in these struggles in the Middle East and Western Asia.   Protect and help those fleeing from evil but fight this battle in their streets, not ours. And please, as you all sit down with your families for Thanksgiving, offer a prayer for the safety and protection of these tortured souls and once again give thanks for how wonderful we have it here. And if you are so inclined to make a donation to this effort there are loads of charities doing good work in the area that need any help you can provide. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!




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  1. R Berry says

    Great work Ken, thanks for your efforts and for sharing the experience and insights. From one person’s compassion to another’s’ evil, it’s hard for me to grasp the magnitude of the divide.

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