Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Refugees After Paris: An Eyewitness Account

GenJ Alum, Katie Kerschner

Guest post by Katie Kerschner

Earlier this year Katie Kerschner took a leave of absence from her law practice in California to spend 11 weeks in Iraq working with women who had been rescued out of ISIS captivity. She was actively involved with GenJ Student Action Teams during high school, and has been a huge supporter of GenJ and their mission ever since.

The views expressed in this post are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Generation Joshua or GenJ affiliates.

It’s the weekend of July 4th and our small team pulls into Duhok, Iraq after a long day of travel. We took the long way from Erbil, just to ensure we didn't accidentally end up in any ISIS controlled areas. We were traveling without an interpreter, and had not told anyone we were making the trip for security reasons. We decided to be wise and not risk taking a wrong turn on the way there. It was late and we hadn't eaten since lunch time. Everyone was very tired and hungry, looking forward to sleeping for a few hours. After taking our bags up to our room and settling in for a few minutes, we get back in the car to go find something to eat. At this point it's after midnight.

While stopped at a traffic light we see a little boy approaching our car. He's probably only 7 or 8 years old, and he's completely alone. He had some small packages of gum that he was trying to sell for a little profit. He's one of many refugee children who don't have a place to sleep, or any money for food. We roll down the window and hand him a granola bar and some applesauce that we had in the car. We ask where he is from. Pointing to ourselves we say, “Americhi.” Then we point to him and say, “Iraqi? Turkish? Syrian?” He responds so gleefully, pointing to himself, saying, “Syria! Syria!”

The light turns green and we pull away. Looking back we see him eating what we have given him with a smile on his face. This little boy that we met for that brief moment in time on the streets of Duhok, Iraq, in the middle of the night, is a young Syrian refugee.

When people talk about the refugee crisis, I see their faces and hear their voices. When people talk about ISIS militants, I can see the face of one of the men who held a young Yazidi woman captive for months. She was able to show me a picture of him, and the image is forever seared in my brain. When people start talking about ISIS, I often have to leave the room. The threat of ISIS, the refugees, acts of terrorism, it’s all very real to me.

The desire to keep our families and friends safe

Katie's camera cannot capture the full scope of what she saw
I understand the desire to keep your family and community safe. I've seen first hand the reality of the horrors of ISIS. As I held a sobbing 9 year old orphan girl who had been tortured and raped by ISIS militants, I couldn't help but think of my little sisters back home. Believe me when I say that I want to do everything in my power to make sure that my family is safe here in America. To this day it haunts me that my work in the middle east could have put my family at an elevated risk. I remember the time when I sent a cryptic message to a close friend asking him to carry his gun at all times over the weekend, and I couldn't tell him why. I remember when the team basically cut all communication back home, because we were concerned about the safety of our families and our communication being intercepted. I totally get the desire to protect our families, and I've personally taken what would seem to most to be drastic steps to that end. I get it.

But this desire for safety must be tempered by reason and facts. While I was in Iraq I started researching what it took to obtain refugee status in the US. I did so because our team received word of a 11 year old who had been impregnated by ISIS militants. This little one was being rejected by her last remaining living family members because she was carrying an “ISIS baby.” I didn’t pursue it, because it would have taken 18 months to 2 years for her to be able to come to America through that process. Much has been written over the last several days about this process, and I will not repeat it here.

Why closing the US to all refugees from Syria isn’t the right answer


Moon rise in the Middle East
I could go on for days about the command to love that we have as Christians, or about how the God given role of a civil government is to protect it’s citizens. I could speak passionately about how it seems like these two concepts are directly opposed in the current refugee crisis, and how we must act with wisdom. But others have already written about that, so I won’t repeat their words here. What I do want to address is that America, as a nation, has a moral obligation to help those fleeing from ISIS. Humanitarian aid is not generally a role that should fall under the jurisdiction of a government, but should instead be filled by the Church. It does, however, fall under the jurisdiction of the government when the government created the situation that led to the need of aid.

There is a well known principle of common law that an omission, or failure, to act isn't generally a crime. For example, if you drive by a car accident and fail to stop and render aid, and the driver dies because you didn't help, you cannot be convicted of murder. There are very few exceptions to this rule. One of those exception is that of creation of peril. If you are the one who caused the car wreck, and you fail to render aid and instead drive off, you could be charged with murder.

ISIS was allowed to grow roots and establish itself in Iraq as a result of a series of actions taken by America. When you remove a dictator from the position of power in a country, someone, or some group, will fill the power void created. After Saddam Hussein was removed from the position of power in Iraq, America filled that void for a time. If the goal was that of long term regional stability, America should not have withdrawn from Iraq before another power (i.e. a stable government) was prepared to fill the void that would be created by an American withdrawal.

Simply put, we left too soon, allowing ISIS to take root. Whether or not we should have been there in the first place is irrelevant now. We created the peril by our actions. Because of that we have a moral obligation to assist refugees who are fleeing from ISIS.

Why taking “only women and children refugees” isn’t the right answer


Her name is Medya, and his name is Shedar. They were so in love and were less than a year from being old enough to marry. That’s when ISIS captured her. He escaped. After months of torture, rape, and abuse in captivity, Medya was able to escape from those holding her captive. The details of her story are horrific, and I could hardly contain my emotions as she recounted her time in captivity. There was one bright spot in her life, one glimmer of hope.

She and Shedar still loved each other. Shedar’s life was at great risk if he remained in ISIS controlled areas, simply because he was a young man of fighting age, not willing to fight for ISIS. If he was caught by ISIS he wouldn't be kept in captivity. Because he’s Yazidi and not Muslim he would meet the same fate that Medya witnessed her brothers, father and uncles face. Death. Execution by a gunshot to the head, in front of any women and children he was captured with. Because it is not safe for him to remain in the area, he was left with no choice but to flee. He promised Medya that they would meet up in Europe, someday, and get married.

If it’s true that the US has a moral obligation to help those who are fleeing from ISIS, it does not matter if those people are men, women, or children. Those fleeing are fleeing for a reason. They fear for their lives.

Why a religious test isn’t the answer


His name is Mahmoud. As a teenage boy he lives with his family in Erbil, Iraq. Out of all his family members, he is the one at greatest risk if ISIS were to ever capture the city. He, as well as his parents and siblings, are Muslim. Muslims who do not agree with what ISIS has done and is doing. Because he is of fighting age, if the Peshmerga were to lose a fight for Erbil, he would be one ISIS would take to train as a militant. Not his sisters or his parents, but him. If ISIS was getting close and the whole family couldn't flee together, they would send him away. Hoping that he would find a place of refuge.

Thousands of Muslims are fighting against ISIS right now. The Peshmarga is the Kurdish Army that is on the front lines fighting ISIS. This army is made up almost entirely of Muslims. These brave soldiers go into battle with very little training, because they are fighting for peace and stability in the region. If you are born in a Muslim country, to Muslim parents, you are Muslim. It was incredibly eye opening to me when I found out that your religion is listed on your birth certificate, and it’s illegal to ever convert to another religion. Your birth certificate saying that you’re a Muslim doesn’t make you a follower of radical Islam anymore than infant baptism makes you a devout Catholic. There are Muslims who are fleeing from ISIS, just the same as Christians and Yazidis.

The solution 


Any long term refugee strategy shouldn’t be centered around what to do or not do with refugees, who to let in, and who to keep out. Instead it should be centered around what should be done to make it so that they no longer are refugees. Instead of talking about whether we should allow Syrian refugees to come to this country, we need to be talking about what should be done to eliminate ISIS. The majority of refugees did not want to leave their countries. Now that they have, they want to return to their homes, in safety. Our long term goal should be to allow them to do that.

We need to act with wisdom, fulfilling the objective of protecting America and eliminating the threat of ISIS. ISIS has declared war on the US, and it’s time for us to get serious about defeating them, before another attack happens in the US.

In the short term, we need to fulfill our moral obligation to those fleeing ISIS. This does not necessarily mean bringing millions of refugees to the US, and it most certainly doesn’t mean that we throw wisdom out the window in screening processes when refugees do come to the US. It does mean that we act with compassion, and look for solutions that allow us to fulfill our moral obligations and protect the citizens of the US. I don’t have all the answers, but I would ask that you be willing to search for them with me.


  1. Katie, what is your opinion of "sheltering in place" (creating safe zones in Syria with American military support where the refugees can live in safety, until the ISIS threat can be eliminated)?

    1. Thanks for the question. Let me first say that I'm not a policy expert, and this is my opinion based on my experience, conversations while in Iraq and some research. Sheltering in place seems like a very viable and valid option for the majority of refugees and IDPs (internally displaced people). It is an option that allows us to help them, without moving them halfway around the world. However, it is not the best (or safest) option for all refugees. For those who have actually been held captive by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the trauma of that experience will continue even in a "safe zone." So, while sheltering in place is a good start (and something I believe the US should be actively pursuing), it isn't a comprehensive solution.

  2. My opinion is that if the American government was capable of something more than politically correct posturing as pertains to a reasonable assurance that we weren't importing ISIS terrorists, then...
    then the American public would rise up in generous response to these people in need...
    then the Christian community would begin the evangelism process with kindness, love, and the meeting of physical needs...
    then... American resources would become available for rescuing refugee families and loved ones out of these crisis areas.

    I find it sad that we are forced to accept these refugees with no assurance that any reasonable vetting process is in place.