When I visited Iraq a couple of years ago, people looked at me like I was crazy. Nobody had ever heard of the Kurds, who carved out their own territory in northern Iraq called Iraqi Kurdistan. Nobody had ever heard about the Peshmerga, literally “those who face death.” And nobody had ever heard of the Yazidis and their obscure religion. Now, it’s hard to turn on the TV without hearing about all of these…
It’s a very surreal experience to see a place that you’ve visited in the news like this. To see a place where you feel like you’ve left a little part of yourself on the verge of destruction. Every travel experience is special to me, but the immense kindness shown to me by the Kurds is unmatched throughout the world. These are people who selflessly befriended me everywhere I turned. People who have faced so very much in this world and still lack a permanent state. People who proudly declare that they are from Kurdistan, though no such country technically exists.
Suddenly, the U.S. government is bombing ISIS militants, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who have trapped the Yazidis on a mountain, threatening to kill them off. The militants also started their advance on Erbil, the Kurdish capital and home to some incredible history. It’s a place that I got to know pretty well in my few days there, using it as a base for my time in Kurdistan. Suddenly everyone is sharing stories on Facebook, with a good idea as to who all these people are.
It’s been hard to think back on my time in Iraqi Kurdistan and all the wonderful people I met along the way who are now in danger. Like the Kurdish friend of mine who was pleading on Facebook for Obama to bomb a certain place. Or the friendly Yazidi who I met when I visited Lalish, their holy city, where I shed my shoes and wandered barefoot through the complex. My new friend hailed from Iraqi Kurdistan but these days lived in Ukraine (another great spot to be at the moment…). He showed me around, telling me about life as a Yazidi and showing me the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, considered a central figure in their religion. He was a rarity…as there are less than one million Yazidis out there in the world.
I remember arriving across the border from Turkey, when a Peshmerga soldier took it upon himself to teach me Kurdish, or when another asked to see inside my backpack and then apologized to me for the convenience. I think back to what’s happening to those soldiers now. Those soldiers who have been in the news for the wrong reasons.
You know what kills me about all this? I feel like there’s nothing I can do to help the situation. But thankfully, I found someone who can. Humans of New York, a truly phenomenal Facebook page that features a portrait of an individual and a snippet of their story, has been a real source of inspiration amidst all this news of doom and gloom. A few weeks ago, they set off on a UN-sponsored World Tour and the first stop was Erbil. Here they beautifully highlighted people’s stories, including one particularly poignant one of a Syrian refugee, who had put all his resources into escaping Damascus and coming to Erbil to continue his education. Reading through the images, and the comments that people had left, I was really touched. For the work that HONY was doing was opening up people’s eyes to the fact that no matter where you go in the world, we all want the same things out of life. And people definitely seemed to get that…
It’s heartening to see that people are starting to care about this part of the world. Let’s just hope it keeps up when the news media stops covering it. And please, hope with me that ISIS does not succeed in taking Kurdistan!
Read More About My Adventure in Iraq
- So, What’s it Like to Travel in Iraq?
- Meet Kurdistan: The Other Iraq
- Is it Safe to Travel in Iraq?
- How to Cross From Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan by Bus
- A Night at an Amusement Park in Iraq (With Video!)
- Inside Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors
- Photo Essay: Inside 7,000 Years of History at Erbil Citadel
- Amadiya: A Charming Paradise in Iraqi Kurdistan
- Road Trip Iraq: Kurdistan’s GORGEOUS Hamilton Road
- How to Drive in Iraq