Canadian nurse Emily Way recently returned from Iraq where she worked in a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital near the besieged city of Mosul. She discussed with Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi the impact on faith of treating the wounded and fallen in one of the world’s most brutal war zones.
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Convivium: First of all, what got you connected to Samaritan’s Purse and this opportunity in particular?
Emily Way: I have known about Samaritan’s Purse (SP) for as long as I can remember. My elementary and junior high schools, as well as my church, participated in the Operation Christmas Child Shoebox campaign every year. I also have a very close family friend that is a missionary affiliated with SP.
My work with SP’s international disaster response began in 2011. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, my mother went down on six different deployments as a part of a medical team, and I had the chance to accompany her on one of those trips. This experience came just after I had decided to study nursing, but before I had formally started my program. The experience opened my eyes to what nursing could be as a calling to bring humanitarian aid overseas in a critical care context. From there, I entered nursing school with a dream to one day be able to work in a disaster and conflict zone as a Registered Nurse.
I had finished nursing school, and spent a year as a trauma nurse before specializing in intensive care when my mom forwarded me an email from SP. SP had just announced their intention to strike an emergency field hospital (EFH) in Mosul as a response to the overwhelming need there. This email was a call for staff. I honestly did not think twice or even really hesitate, I simply clicked ‘reply’, and said “give me the dates, and I’ll see what I can do.”
In a very special turn of events, my dad was able to get the same deployment dates as me! He is a trauma surgeon, and we used to work together on the unit at my old hospital. We got to travel over together and have the experience as a dream team in the EFH.
Convivium: Can you describe what a shift in the EFH might look like?
Emily Way: The hospital was run similarly to any hospital you could walk into here in Canada. We had 12 hour shifts, and in our ICU we had two Registered Nurses (RN), each responsible for four beds per shift. I worked nights while I was deployed, so that meant that my official shift ran from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m..
Even though we were in an active conflict zone, the days surprisingly did take on some routine and monotony. Surrounded by nothing but grey blast walls and white tarps, it was very easy to lose track of time and day. The running joke was that it was like living the movie ‘Groundhog Day’.
Our hospital was located outside of the city, and it was too dangerous for people to move at night. Therefore, it was not until daybreak that casualties would start making their way to our hospital. They would start arriving late morning. Since we never knew what was coming in, we had to be prepared for large numbers arriving at a time. The afternoons were always busy, and by the time night staff came on at 7 p.m., there was still lots of work to be done.
Things were typically quiet until 10 p.m. 11 p.m., when the bombs would start to fall. We worked steadily in the EFH through the night in the darkness with the soundtrack of artillery fire and shelling. You learned to steady yourself when the ground shook a little extra, and block it out when one sounded particularly close. It was something you simply got used to. After all, there was nothing I could do about it, so I just kept on working.
The shelling would usually peter out early in the morning, as the sun came up. By the time the day staff came on, we were ready to give report and get some food. I was always awestruck at how beautiful the sky was each morning as I squinted against the sun coming out of the tent. It reminded me of home, but broke my heart as the colours were distorted by the smoke rising from the direction of Mosul.
C: What surprised you about your work there?
EW: I think one thing that surprised me was how quickly a sense of normalcy came over me. I was in Mosul to do a job - a job I do here in Canada - and that is what I did. Same blue scrubs, same stethoscope, same knowledge that I learned through university, just in a very different context. It was very eye opening and humbling to be a part of such an organic experience of working at the EFH.
We were under very high stress, in a very dangerous location, and all united with the commonality as expat staff of wanting to care for these people and show them Christ. It was amazing how cohesive our team was, and how it took a constant reminder of extending grace, receiving forgiveness, and humbling oneself to maintain that beautiful flow of the Lord.
I was surprised as well as I got to know some of the national staff - cleaners, translators, and security. They signed up for a job that took them into the depths of darkness. I have a background of Critical Care. Death is something that is not new to me. But for these men and women it was entirely new, yet they were willing to jump in and get their hands dirty, wanting to do whatever they could to help. It was amazing how much they truly inspired me with their heart for helping their people.
C: You have mentioned that “relationship is everything” in the Middle East. How does “relationship” serve as the foundation for Samaritan’s Purse in the region?
EW: Relationship truly is a foundation for partnership in that region. It is amazing how a Christian organization was so graciously welcomed into that region, but it has taken a long time and great care. A large part of how SP has been able to get into regions - not just Iraq - where other organizations have some difficulty I believe has to do with their Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift ministry. It is a way to bring aid and care to people in a non-threatening way, and to begin to foster a positive relationship that leads to more opportunities
C: Samaritan’s Purse integrates faith into its vision and mission. How did you see the intersection of faith in the work and language employed by Samaritan’s Purse staff while in the field hospital?
EW: The intersection of faith within our work was blatant from the moment we arrived. You knew that the Lord was going to be depended on and spoken of very openly. Where we are often limited in North America about how we can integrate our faith into our medical practice, there was great freedom at the EFH. Every single person who came into that hospital as a patient was covered in prayer. By medical staff, admin staff, chaplains, and the many people back home who have been warriors of prayer for the hospital.
The OR staff prayed over each patient before the first cut. We would pray over the patients when we had a spare moment. In stressful times, we prayed harder than ever for wisdom and effectiveness in our actions.
I saw how the Kingdom of God was made manifest by the actions of my coworkers. They oozed the fragrance of the Holy Spirit as they interacted with every single person within the compound. It did not matter to us if you were a civilian, and ex-pat, Iraqi, Syrian or Kurdish, a member of militia, Iraqi Special Forces, or even perhaps ISIL. The love and grace of the Lord was demonstrated to them, and the Gospel was shared. Our national staff translators were key in this, and it was wonderful to see the reactions of the locals to watching our behaviour.
We were, after all, a lot for them to take in. Young, white, single, females travelling alone into a war zone? What were we thinking? Their hearts broke over what was happening in their country, and as we worked together, we prayed for their hope be renewed as they learned of the hope and restoration found in Christ.
We saw some patients come to faith as well. They were quite fearful of us, as ISIL had spread rumors that we were torturing and experimenting on patients. The surprise was palpable as they encountered the reverse behavior - compassion, kindness, and love. One translator overheard some men speaking to one another saying, “Why are we supposed to hate these people? We were told they would hateful and despicable, but they have been nothing but kind and generous.” What was so beautiful to me was that the natural conclusion many would come to was that it must be because of the God we serve; that was the only possible explanation.
C: How did you faith equip you or intersect with your time spent in Iraq?
EW: My faith is what led me into nursing, as I came to the realization that my vocation was a skill that would allow me to practically engage with people in the most vulnerable times of their lives. I had and continue to have trust that if the Lord would lead me into a war zone, He would keep me safe. This conviction is what allowed me to go with little hesitation. It is what kept my mom and sisters from worrying about my dad and me while we were gone. I truly believe it is what kept me going with the rigorous schedule that I kept while there.
I wrote home a few times while I was gone, and in one I said to my friends that “I try to see where God is in this evil - and it's remarkably hard to grasp how good can come of this. But it does, and I've witnessed it, and I hold to His promise of sovereignty. In the land of Jonah and Nahum evil still seems to reigns, but God's grace proves more abundant each day.”
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My faith was stretched and challenged in a whole different way, as we all faced an unimaginable evil that North American culture cannot possibly even begin to understand. I have asked questions that I never could have conjured up before; some have been answered, others I know never will. I learned to completely depend on the Lord in my work, as it was truly by His grace that some patients made it through those nights.
My faith equipped me to know that it is right to be brokenhearted over what I saw. That the tears shed - both in the tent and since I have returned - are not unnoticed, and they serve to remind me that He still comforts and provides even in the darkest spiritual moments. That all people are His children, and that perhaps the devastation there is more prominent, but we are all so broken and in need of Him.
C: What should Canadians know about the situation in Iraq that they might not know/be receiving from the mainstream media?
EW: The country of Iraq - or that entire region - is so much more than a tragic war-torn land. The landscape is an amazing depiction of our Lord’s beautiful creation. The land is rich for agriculture and growth in certain areas. Most importantly, the people are beautiful souls who are so generous and hospitable even though many have lost everything time and again due to the unrest.
Canadians need to remember that the refugees that are coming here are fleeing a country where many lived daily surrounded by war and terror, and are finally coming to a place of peace and rest. Yet, lately, they are not received with welcoming hearts. We should feel a Biblical urgency to help them settle into our country and reach out to them.
C: You must have an abundance of stories to tell.
EW: I still dream about certain cases and wake up wondering what happened to certain people that I cared for.
The few stories I do share more publicly are those that remind me of the human side of this conflict. A young man who woke up and asked for his mobile to go on Facebook. Literally his biggest concern was keeping connected with his friends. Or a soldier with a cracked chest and piece of shrapnel in his heart who wanted nothing more than for us to discharge him so he could go back to his unit and continue fighting. A nurse who learned how to make balloon animals for the children, or the nurses who carried the stable kids across the compound to watch an animated film in the recreation tent. The people of head office who would send treats, and coffee, and burgers, and little gifts to remind us of home and that we are not forgotten.
Each morning I could tell the time when our head of security, an older gentleman who was ex-military, showed up in our ICU tent. As we bustled about doing our job, he physically knelt down at the end of each bed and prayed for the person in each bed. It brought tears to my eyes daily - it still does.
C: As Canadians continue to keep Mosul and the surrounding areas in their prayers, what do you most wish to share about that community with their Canadian brothers and sisters of faith?
EW: When things no longer are the hot topic in the mainstream media, it does not mean that they do not need prayer and support. Continue to pray for the people of that entire region. The city may be ‘liberated’, but many fled from that region over two years ago - and the task of reentering is far more daunting than it seems. In Iraq, many are going back to nothing, and it is a long road ahead to even try and think about Mosul becoming the city that it once was.
As well, know that while (people there) are daily persecuted for their faith in the Lord, their faith is strengthened knowing that we hold them in our prayers. They, too, pray for us, knowing that we are just as lost and broken.
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