We didn’t go to Fallujah, Iraq this week. We were supposed to. This would have been Kirk’s fifth trip, my (Kim’s) fourth, and our team’s fourth to do cardiac caths there. Our team this time was made up of Kirk, me, pediatric cardiac interventionalist Allison Cabalka, and pediatric intensive care nurse Katie Tankersley. This would have been Allison and Katie’s first trip there. We had planned this date a year ago.
I’ve written before of my coming to terms with the fact that it was possible that I was putting my life at risk by traveling to this particular place on the globe and that making me truly question whether I believe what I say I believe: that Jesus died for my sins and that because of my faith and trust in Him that if I die I will go to heaven. Coming to terms with this, I had been willing (but admittedly scared) to go to Fallujah the first time. Once I did that, saw the need, and made the friends we had there, it was easy to go back the next two times. I confess that, for me, this time was different. If you’ve been following the news, it has gotten increasingly volatile in Iraq. I understand anyone who wants to do me harm can do so at any place, any time, but I did feel safe in the hospital complex in Fallujah. It was the transit there and back by road from the Bagdad airport that I dreaded. Kirk and Allison were fearless and willing. Katie asked me at one point a few months ago if it was ok if she was nervous. I replied, “I hope so, because I am!” We termed ourselves the obedient members of the group. If the door opened, we would go. We simply prayed for the Lord’s will to be done.
About a week before we left, our visa to enter Iraq had not come through. In consultation with our partner ministry Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC), we decided to change our itinerary to go to Kurdish Iraq since that did not require a visa. We have ministered there numerous times since 2009 and always appreciate the opportunity to return. We knew there was plenty to do there while we waited to see if our visas to go into southern Iraq would come through. We arrived in Sulaimani on Saturday, November 9 in the wee hours of the morning. We slept a few hours and then went to the hospital for a day of screening cardiac kids with our dear friend pediatric cardiologist Dr Aso. (Saturday is the traditional first day of their workweek, as they take Fridays off and work a six-day week.) On Sunday morning, the four of us were able to do a comprehensive lecture on intensive care of cardiac patients with a room full of eager physicians, nurses, and clinicians. They anticipate opening a pediatric cardiac center within the next year in Sulaimani and these were the initial named staff. It was so motivating to us to see their eagerness, hear their thoughtful questions, and witness their desire to learn and take care of patients well. We might have found our reason for detouring into Kurdistan in that room that morning as Katie felt inspired to return and help them with training their pediatric ICU nurses as they open their center!! I confess we stoked this inspiration for the rest of the week and, Lord willing, feel very confident it will come to pass.
After the lecture, we did an additional day of screening on Sunday and awaited word on our visas. We were told they were likely to come through on Monday, so Jeremy Courtney, the director of PLC, spent lots of time on the phone with our friends in Fallujah trying to figure out how we were going to get there (by car or by air) and when. Dr Aso had a planned day in the cath lab on Monday, so we had a wonderful day spent supporting him as he did he four pediatric cases. We loved being able to reunite with the cath lab staff, with whom we had done several previous cath weeks. The director of the cardiac center came to visit us that day and asked us if we could return the next day and do another series of nursing lectures. We explained we were willing if our visas did not come through. We got word that afternoon that they had not. We arrived in Iraq to a torrent of rain. Evidently the rain had affected the hours that the visa office was open. The visas did finally come through on Wednesday, but by then we had elected to stay in Sulaimani. We would have had to travel on Thursday, Friday would have been a non-work day, and we had to leave the country on Saturday.
We spent some time teaching in the ICU on Tuesday morning and then screened more patients in the afternoon. Katie did a wonderful nursing lecture on Wednesday morning and we were once again inspired by the eagerness and desire of these nurses to learn. We actually had to complete the lecture in three different lecture halls because we had planned the event at the last minute and kept getting moved on from one lecture hall to another due to advanced scheduling. The nurses kept making the move with us, even when it required a move to another building. We realized they could have bowed out at any time, but kept with us until lunchtime, asking many good questions. We screened again that afternoon.
On Thursday, we got to fulfill a long held desire on our part to screen in Halabja. Halabja underwent a chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein in March 1988 where thousands died and many more were injured. Our friend Sarko, who serves with Samaritan’s Purse (SP) in this town, lost his parents and his legs on that day. Ever since our first visit to Kurdistan, we had wanted to visit but had been unable to. Sarko was able to pull together a screening of some forty patients on short notice. We were provided a wonderful greeting and amazing hospitality. With that and the number of news cameras on hand, it was evident that our visit was very meaningful to those we visited.
On the morning that we were to go to Halabja, Kirk read an email sent by our dear friend Nawzad, who also works for SP, in Sulaimani, the night before:
Hi Dr Kirk. I hope you all had a good day today. I just saw news saying the mayor of Fallujah has been killed today while he was visiting one of the projects in Fallujah! It is sad to hear all this bad news about southern Iraq but I am glad you didn’t go there at this time.
Dr Aso also told us he was glad we did not go to the “scary movie” part of Iraq. We hear this a lot. Not even Iraqis are willing to travel to the parts of Iraq that we are. The fact that we are willing to inspires a lot of conversation. 1 Peter 3:15 says “if someone asks you about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.” We pray these conversations allow us to do just that.
Interestingly, I just read an article on the plane about America’s greatest generation. There was an excerpt from a speech that Ronald Reagan gave in Normandy (a place Kirk and I were blessed to visit earlier this year) on June 6, 1984 to veterans of D-day and their families forty years after that day:
You risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer: It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.
Now please understand that we don’t even come close to be comparable to these heroes! But the quote resonated with me. When Jeremy first asked Kirk to go to Fallujah, he said he knew he would do it out of love. That is a high honor. As the song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love.” We do have hope. And we do have faith that our God is good and in control. We are willing to submit our lives to His will to share His love.
Allison and Kirk were disappointed that we did not go to Fallujah. Jeremy and Matt, also from PLC, were profoundly disappointed. Katie is brave enough to admit with me that we were relieved! These are the emotions for which I feel guilty. Kirk prayed that the reason we did not go to Fallujah would become apparent. I don’t know if there was any one thing. Katie’s inspiration to return to Kurdistan would be worth it. All the divine appointments and reunions with friends we minister with in Kurdistan were worth it.
Getting to see a Syrian refugee baby and to hear from those who are ministering to that suffering community and to be sobered by that reality was worth it. The opportunity to go to Halabja was worth it. We love the verse James 1:27 which says that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We pray that we did have that opportunity to visit orphans and widows in their distress…and somehow share with them the love of Christ.
When I heard about the mayor of Fallujah, I wondered if the Lord had protected us from something. The ways of God are so far above me. Sometimes His will is accomplished by the sparing of His people and sometimes it is accomplished by the death of His people. I am grateful for His mercy to me and our team.
Prior to leaving Sulaimani this morning, we got this message from our friend Dr Firas in Fallujah: “Hello my friends .. i hope u r doing well.. i am so sorry for this mission .. i had more than 50 patients waiting for u since 6 months & i did all the preparations .. i hope to see u in near future … God bless u .. thanks.” That brings tears to my eyes. I think as long as I am on this earth, I will not be free from this wrestling. It is amazing to me how the Lord designed us with such an instinct for self-preservation. It is the wacky paradox of the Christian: we believe in and long for heaven…but God sure made us to want to remain on this earth. Every trip is so good for me though. I live such a good life. I am so blessed. I need, on a very regular basis, to see how the majority of people on this earth live. And I need to be willing to sacrifice my resources, my comfort, and my very life to serve God’s people. As the apostle Paul said, “the love of Christ compels [me]” (2 Cor 5:14).