(This story was updated for CORDmagazine winter 2015/16 edition.)
Most westerners watch with horror or disdain at the warring countries around the globe—maybe even feeling sorry for the victims of power-hungry dictators or religious fanatics, but thankful to stay as far away from the fighting as possible.
But for Andrew ’12 and Kelila O’Brien ’13 Saunders, both Union College international rescue and relief graduates, helping the victims of these conflicts is right where they want to be.
First it was a stint in Ukraine, providing support for refugees from the conflict with Russia. Now the couple has embarked on a more harrowing mission—helping the victims of ISIS aggression in northern Iraq.
“Andrew and I were drawn to Kurdistan based on the exceptional need,” said Kelila. She and her husband, who is a project manager for ADRA Kurdistan, now live in Erbil, Iraq. “The Middle East is high profile in Western media and the messages are predominantly negative, so while many people or organizations are willing to donate money, they are not willing to live here and do the work. When an earthquake or hurricane hits somewhere, many people are ready to jump in and provide relief. But jumping into a sticky political situation in a region that is chronically misjudged and misunderstood is a lot less glamorous. We felt moving here to do emergency response work was a way we could live God’s calling to Christians.”
Their current mission is focused on supporting refugees fleeing the conflict with ISIS raging just miles away. “Our project gives out vouchers for hygiene items and basic needs as well as rent assistance,” she said. “Many of the recipients are Kurdish, but some are also Arabs from Iraq and Syria.”
According to Saunders, the local government tightly controls immigration, and government liaisons recommend people who need help to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and other non-governmental aid agencies (NGOs) in the area. “We’re trying to reach the most vulnerable of the internally displaced people and refugees, such as single parent households, elderly, disabled, pregnant or lactating women, or extended families in one living space,” she explained. “The project helped in one case where nine families were living under one roof.”
The Saunders home in Erbil is only about 45 minutes from ISIS-occupied Mosul. “The city itself is safe,” said Kelila. “ISIS isn’t advancing at all right now because of the increased air strikes from the U.S. and Russia and the advances of the Kurdish army. Overall, as long as ISIS stays stagnant, we are safe.”
But at the moment, there’s no end in sight. “People from all over are staying in Kurdistan for the time being,” Kelila explained. “Many choose to seek residency and become Iraqi citizens, but many hold out hoping to go home after the conflict ends. The United Nations Development Program says the conflict will last at least two more years, so it’s likely the internally displaced and refugees will be here at least that long.”
Different country, same problem
The couple recently left a similar situation in Ukraine, where they worked for ADRA Canada to serve refugees from that country’s conflict with Russia. “Currently, more than 1.2 million people have been displaced from their homes because of the ongoing conflict,” said Andrew.
“Since this time last year, more than one million Ukrainian people have fled their homes in search of safety to central and western Ukraine,” Kelila added.
“The job of helping refugees is very stressful but the benefits of meeting those we have served, seeing the smiles on their faces, and catching a glimpse of the difference we helped make is extremely rewarding,” said Andrew. “We are privileged to experience a new culture and attempt to learn a new language.”
In Ukraine, Andrew focused on helping victims of PTSD. “The project focused on cash distribution and psycho-social support for those in need of financial support and counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Andrew, “Because of the war, there are many people under high stress from leaving their homes, not having work, and not knowing how to take care of their families. Not to mention many have seen terrible effects from the artillery shelling and destruction of their homes.”
Kelila worked to fund the projects. “I was managing a $1.6 million project provided by the Canadian Government’s International Humanitarian Affairs department,” she explained. “Our project sought to find [the displaced people] and provide them with emergency cash to purchase any immediate need the family has, such as food and water, clothing, bedding, apartment rent and so on.”
Both projects sought to help the most vulnerable populations, and funding is always an issue. “Funding for projects in Iraq is scarce right now but Andrew and I have both been writing proposals, submitting them to different donors to try to get more projects funded for the region,” she said.
The Saunders know firsthand that the refugee crisis is a worldwide problem, but it doesn’t crush the human spirit. “Being here in Iraq has been a blessing for us as well,” she said. “Our only expectations had been preset by Western media, but in living here, even if only for a short time, this place has stolen our hearts. We’ve been greeted and welcomed with more love and acceptance than I’ve ever felt anywhere. I’ve never met kinder or more selfless people.”
When Andrew and Kelila go to the market or to a restaurant, locals often pay for their food. “We try to politely refuse,” she said.
“But you are guests in our country, and guests do not pay,” they say.
It all leads up to this
For the Saunders, a lifetime of experiences and training has prepared them for these sometimes daunting tasks. “I feel my previous exposure to mission work and development prepared me well for the experience,” said Andrew. But he discovered mission work is not all navigating destroyed streets and thick jungles like he trained for while earning an IRR degree. Now he often spends quite a bit of time in an office doing administrative work.
Kelila studied IRR at Union because she felt called to mission work. “It takes time and effort to decide what you choose to focus on,” Kelila said. “Working with ADRA is everything I imagined. I have been working toward this job for years, through theory in the classroom, in internships, in volunteer positions, and now finally in a paid full-time management position.”
Most IRR majors choose this unique degree program because they want to serve people—in the medical field, as public safety officers, as emergency medical personnel or as disaster responders—no matter the conditions. Students are subjected to rigorous academic coursework as well as field training in disaster response and search and rescue. Each graduate also spends a semester doing medical work and jungle survival training in Central
“At Union I found my passion in the IRR program,” Kelila said. “All the classes I took, from EMT to Swift Water Rescue, to International Development, to Crisis and Resiliency, as well as spending a semester in Nicaragua, showed me I was called to a life in emergency response.”
And experiences outside the IRR program helped prepare her to follow her dream. “My experiences at Union also included a student mission year that helped prepare me for living long- term in a foreign country and culture,” she said.
Andrew arrived at Union planning to become a mission doctor, so IRR seemed to be the perfect fit. After graduating from Union, he decided to begin a master’s degree in international development administration from Andrews University. “My time at Union and in IRR made me less confident in my desire to become a physician and sparked a desire to work in disaster response,” Andrew said.
Kelila is also working on a master’s in international development administration from Andrews. “One thing I have learned since college is the importance of networking,” she said.” It wasn’t until I decided I wasn’t afraid of putting myself out there and taking a few unpaid internships that I managed to land the job I’ve been dreaming of for years.”
The two also developed a passion for each other at Union, and together have built a life where they can be together, serve God and do something they both love. “Union greatly impacted my life in many positive ways, and it gave me a new passion for mission service and to work internationally,” Andrew said. “At Union, I learned to adapt and go where God wants me to be. He has led in crazy ways over the last five years. I am excited to see where He leads in the future.”
“When it comes to disaster and emergency response, there is never any certainty,” Kelila said. “I may not know what country I’ll be in or what organization I’ll be working for, but I do know that in five years I’ll be exactly where God has called me to be.”
For the time being, that means living near a war zone. “The need is great and the situation is dire,” Kelila said of their current assignment. “Andrew and I are honored to be here serving these people as best we can.”
By Megan Wehling, student writer