Andrea Wegener, Agape Europe staff member in Germany, just returned home after serving refugees for three weeks in Iraq. She provided emergency humanitarian aid to displaced people in the Kurdish autonomous region near the city of Erbil. The original goal was to bring relief aid to Syrian refugee camps, but as the situation among displaced Christians in Mossul worsened, plans changed. This interview originally appeared on the Swiss internet platform Livenet.ch.
Livenet: Andrea, what exactly made you leave Germany to go to Iraq?
Andrea Wegener: I am in charge of public relations for Campus für Christus, the Agape ministry in Germany. The relief organisation GAiN is our partner for humanitarian projects. I also did some training in crisis response with them, so they asked me to join them on this trip.
What motivates you to participate in these kinds of projects?
I'm actually not the type of person who is motivated by other people’s suffering. In this case, I just happened to have certain talents that could be useful in this situation. For example: I’m single, I’m pretty tough, I have experience in trauma counselling, and I’ve had my fair share of cross-cultural experiences.
What did you do in Iraq?
Our first plan was to distribute relief aid in refugee camps, but shortly before I arrived there, Christians began fleeing Mossul. The flood of refugees was overwhelming. Most came with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Some were not even allowed to take their glasses or dentures with them. Hundreds of families needed the most basic supplies. We were able to hand out clothing, matresses, blankets and food. Our team of helpers stayed in a guest accommodation owned by a local Christian church. This apartment also housed numerous refugees. We were all together in the same place. Lots of severely traumatized individuals became our neighbours overnight.
As a woman, how did you deal with the situation?
Within our team and working with local Christians there were no problems at all. However, in the local Muslim cultural context, our male teammates were expected to take the lead. On the other hand, it was also clear that I, as a woman, was not expected to carry any heavy boxes! It would not have been wise for me to try to go out alone, but I didn’t have time for that anyway.
How would you describe the current situation in Iraq?
Very confusing and very complex. The more you see, the fewer solutions seem possible. Violence seems to reign supreme. One local Christian leader told me, «It is impossible to imagine any kind of solution here. Someone is always fighting against someone else. We pray that the innocent will be spared, and we do what we can to help people find their way into the Kingdom of God, despite such dire circumstances. »
What was your most upsetting experience in Iraq?
I walked into the hallway in our apartment and saw one of our new “neighbours“ – a man of about 30 sitting on the floor watching a short video of his house on his mobile phone. When the video was over, and he realized that his home was also lost, he burst into tears.
Was there an especially positive experience?
I was deeply touched when we visited a Syrian refugee camp. A Muslim father pulled me over to see his handicapped daughter, pointing at her. I asked him if I could pray for her, and he happily accepted my offer.
The worship services with Iraqi Christians were so moving. These Believers, all from different denominations, but who all shared the fact that they had recently lost everything. I was honoured to share Communion with those people. We prayed together to the same God, who certainly understood our different languages, even if we could not understand one another.
Andrea, how has this experience affected you?
I have a new appreciation for the freedom that I enjoy in Germany as an individual and as a Christian. It is a challenge to use this freedom wisely. I also read the Bible differently now. In Iraq, I often felt like I had been transported back into Old Testament days. Suddenly, a text like Psalm 3 took on new meaning and brought out very strong emotions: «O Lord, I have so many enemies; so many are against me. …. But you, O Lord, are a shield around me! » Even Psalms focusing on revenge seemed strangely appropriate there.
Cries for help from so many Christians now appear in our headlines, but just as many people are left alone with their fear. What can we do to help them?
These refugees really need everything: food, clothing, matrasses, a roof over their heads - just to name the most basic items. I realized that just listening is very important. When I, as a European, show an interest in their stories and honour them by taking time to listen, then they know that another person really cares about them.
Still, there are many things we can do here in Europe. For example:
Author: Hauke Burgarth
Translation: T. König
Sharing God's Love, Changing Lives
Seeing the World Through God's Eyes
Travelling Light on a Humanitarian Mission
Encounters with Persecuted Christians in Iraq