There is a highway that cuts roughly north-south through the top half of Iraq, between its two leading cities: Baghdad and Mosul. It is nicknamed "The Fastest Way." That used to be an accurate description—before ISIS. Before the highway was crisscrossed with battlefields and bombs. Before it became a border instead of a road.
The Iraqi army and local militias have inched their way north along this highway, liberating towns and villages, reclaiming territory on their way to Mosul, the ISIS capital in Iraq. Along the way, sections of this highway have become notorious for massive losses of life.
It is one of the most dangerous, most feared roads in Iraq.
If you live in one of the villages recently liberated from ISIS, after years of being ruled through fear, you have no choice but to travel south to find safety. You must walk this fearsome highway for days, stop at screening checkpoints, and hope that the men in uniform recognize your papers and believe you when you tell them you aren’t a member of ISIS and you’re simply trying to survive.
The second-to-last checkpoint—a tiny, hastily-built catchment for fleeing families—has been overwhelmed. During the last week of August alone, approximately 17,000 people came through here. It is still considered a military zone. Tension between local tribes, the army, and militias is thick here. Trust—a necessary precursor to compassion and comfort—is hard to find.
Families arrive under the hot sun after walking for up to two days—and until recently, they found no shelter from the shade, no place other than the hot ground to sit, no washrooms, no water, no food, no one to give medical treatment.
They enter the compound suffering from serious dehydration and hunger in many cases. Pregnant women have given birth in the open, without any kind of support. Those tortured by ISIS and those injured while fleeing have no one to treat their wounds.
All around, sectarian flags, banners, and signs shout various political affiliations, reminding all that even liberated spaces are carved up into small kingdoms in which the newly displaced have no part.
In this arid space, families wait hours or days for the clearance they need to move on to the next point where they can be registered with local government councils and the UN—where they can finally find support and shelter.
In this place, they are at their most vulnerable, stripped of all dignity.
In this place, they are at their most desperate—fear, anger, mistrust and tension growing during the interminable wait.
And in this very place, you are there—meeting them, restoring dignity. You are standing alongside our team—it’s your team, really. They are your hands and feet in Iraq.
You are giving families the shelter of a medical tent—with beds, medications, and supplies. You provided a doctor, a man whose own mother is still trapped in a city ruled by ISIS. He treats every patient as if they were his own mother, even as he long for the day he sees her walking into this tent.
You are giving fleeing families large shelters where they can rest and clean places where they can sit. You provided toilet facilities so they can take of their needs in private instead of open fields.
You’re providing ready-to-eat meals in a place where there is nowhere to buy or prepare food.
Your team here negotiated with the armed forces to take down their partisan flags, banner,s and posters and replace them with the flag of Iraq. You reminded fleeing families as well as sectarian militias that they are all one people, regardless of religious affiliation or hometown.
You gave people a break from the gnawing fear.
The next time someone asks you what you did today, tell them how you showed up for 27,000 people this month alone, in a remote corner of Iraq that no one pays much attention to. Tell them how you restored dignity that had been stripped away by the long battle with ISIS. Tell them how you gave frightened Iraqis a safe place to reimagine the future.