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Iraq trip provides sophomore with cultural understanding

Crowds of Kurdish protestors marched the streets as they shouted about the conflict they were experiencing with their government. Our Korean-American group walked along with them, handing out flyers to gain visitors to our ministry at Iraqi schools and other local buildings. Thousands of bewildered eyes gawked at us: foreigners involved in a civil protest. It must have seemed so random and unlikely to the natives, but, nonetheless, we marched for a purpose.

In the three weeks I spent in Iraq, I experienced more than I would in a typical month in school. Expectations arise when traveling in a new environment, which is especially true when you’re halfway across the world.

Chon encounters unexpected tranquility

When I signed up for the trip, emotions of fear and nervousness overwhelmed me, since the media and others portrayed Iraq as being one of the most dangerous places in the world. However, the group I went with, InterCP, had a vision to serve the Middle-Eastern area without fear due to God’s protection.

Once I landed in Istanbul, Turkey, I took another plane to Diyarbakır, which is a city close to the Northern border of Iraq. Due to the ‘no-fly’ zone the country mandates, we had to travel from Turkey into Iraq on an eight-hour bus ride. On the bus we got to know the people from InterCP better, since most came from varying regions of North America. Additionally, everyone on the bus consisted of Korean Americans, and we shared the same dream to spread the gospel, so getting familiar took no time at all.

Our group arrived at a city called Arbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the middle of the night. Upon our arrival, I was very surprised. The image of Iraq that I pictured did not live up to what I saw with my eyes. Cars drove and honked on paved streets, while other civilians walked on the sidewalk. Tall buildings and busy stores filled the streets, which lit up the sky at night. Clearly, modern civilization thrived instead of violence and chaos.

At the hotel we went to an orientation where we learned about the background, language and ethnic groups of Iraq. Out of these various groups we concentrated on served the Kurds, who suffered greatly because their culture had been suppressed by the government.

Their history stretches back four thousand years, yet the Kurds have no homeland. Because of this, their group spread all over Middle-Eastern countries such as Iraq and Turkey. Recently, they set up a Kurdish-Iraqian government in the northern area of the country in order to obtain a home.

The northern location of Iraq was prominently safe, whereas danger and violence filled the south due to the war with terrorist groups. Based upon my observation and the new knowledge obtained, I felt foolish and guilty about my ignorance.

Because of my lack of knowledge, I assumed false things such as believing that danger and chaos constantly fill Iraq. However, if I had taken the time to research, I would have found out otherwise, and learned about a group of refugees setting up an institution for freedom.

Religious, racial differences provide challenge for missionaries

Later on, our group visited many schools and orphanages to share the Gospel. We taught kids and students English and, in return, we learnedSorani, their language. We became relatable because our Korean-American culture closely resembled theirs, since in both of our countries’ history we fought for our own land and freedom. Also, in the past, Korean soldiers came to assist Middle-Eastern areas.

As we stayed at each building for three days, we built relationships through playing games, sports and socializing. In the end, all our efforts built up to the most important and final day.

Our identity and reason was revealed through our Christian worships, skits and message. A member from our group spoke in front of the entire crowd of Muslim-Kurds, while a Christian native translated.

During this time, I became extremely fearful about their reaction. I thought they would hand us to the police or even something worse.

Upon the last sentence spoken from the translator, I braced for their response. After a moment of silence, the crowd broke into thunderous applause, and some people even stood up.

I was very shocked at the initial response. The audience declined the good news by showing us their praise to Allah, but at the same time showed respect towards our proposal. Even though they rejected the offer, I felt we completed our job because we planted a seed to grow overtime.

Later on our group prayed for the entire crowd and individually for the friends we had acquired during the past three days. The farewell became hard because this would be the last chance to see them and ultimately to represent God’s love. After leaving, our group traveled to other schools and orphanages, going through the same routine.

Over time, newly-discovered friends became part of our prayers and hearts. I came to serve these people, yet they were the ones serving us with all their heart. When first greeting them, joy and happiness clearly showed up in their eyes.

Our goal consisted of putting them first before us, yet, ironically, they completed our priority. At mealtimes, we would always eat first, and they ate afterwards. Also, in sports such as soccer, they would purposely let us win. Their entire feelings and priorities became us, and served us with all they possessed.

Of course, we occasionally came across disrespectful crowd members during our ministry. For example, during prayer, loud laughter and conversations broke the silence. In addition, there would also be racial name-calling and some peoples’ actions displayed rudeness. Our group’s sense of pride and fairness took over, and many in our group became infuriated. They argued that the Kurds should be glad and appreciative for us traveling and sacrificing time for them.

Misson’s purpose becomes apparent through personal experience

If all of our hard work in the three weeks received hate, we must not be discouraged or become angry, but rather give everything we have because, even if one person out of the hundreds accept Christ, it will be worth it.

This applied to me because, at one of the schools I met a kid name Abdula. We quickly became friends through soccer and, despite our differences and language barrier, I invested my time into our relationship.

During one of these times, I became very thirsty after playing soccer with Abdula in 130-degree weather. However, where we were at the time ran out of water, and I began to become dehydrated. Abdula brought outside his bike and left in a flash, peddling with his legs as fast as he could. I panicked because he broke the rules by ditching. However, he returned after some time, with sweat dripping and a water bottle in his hand. I felt so much gratitude in his generosity.

With experiences like this, the three weeks flew by, and I realized my transformation. Rather than the feeling of wasting my summer, I felt the want and the need to stay and serve.

Spiritually, my relationship with God took on a whole new level, a side that I never sensed by only completing typical Christian activities such as church or Bible study. Also, confronting such a new and different culture opened my eyes to new experiences and knowledge, something impossible to find in America.

The trip went fantastically, and the entire excursion opened my eyes to a whole new world with compassionate people. I promised to venture out, and serve the people and area once again.

For more opinions about spiritual trips, read the Aug. 29 article, Philippines mission trip revered.

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