Winnipegger in Iraq urges Canada to take different approach to conflict

Two Canadians have devoted their lives to humanitarian work in Iraq and hope that Canada will soon reconsider their approach to the conflict with ISIS.

Thiessen splits each year between northern Iraq and Winnipeg

Kathy Moorhead Thiessen, in the centre crouching, works with the locals of Sulaimani, Iraq. (Kathy Moorhead Thiessen)

It's hot, always hot and it's getting hotter still, meanwhile, the tents press up against each other, housing thousands of people in the displaced persons camps near Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

That's how Winnipeg's Kathy Moorhead Thiessen described the scene in northern Iraq to CBC's Information Radio on Monday. She has spent five months of each year since 2011 in the country with Christian Peacemaker Teams.

The people in the camps face poor sanitation and hunger each day, Thiessen said, there is a serious lack of supplies. 

Thiessen, along with fellow Christian peacemaker, Harmeet Singh Sooden – a Canadian with ties to Manitoba but calls New Zealand home – encourage Canada's federal government to consider a different approach to the devastating conflict in the area. 

"According to the major aid agencies, two factors are compounding the humanitarian crisis. The first one is the strategy of the U.S.-led coalition, specifically, the ground assaults that are supported by coalition air strikes. And also the severe shortfall of funding," Sooden said Monday. 
A boy, who fled from the violence in Mosul, stands near tents in a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 14, 2014. (Jacob Russell/Reuters)

"So, I think Canada could take a different approach, one that's pushing for a UN-mandated mission rather than working within the U.S.-led coalition and of course increasing humanitarian contributions and intensifying the diplomatic efforts."

Sooden also expressed concern about the human rights records of other coalition partners.

With all of the time Thiessen has spent in Iraq, she described a changing atmosphere in the area since August. 

"It seems like the whole world is back here again," Thiessen told CBC's Information Radio.

They describe Sulaymaniyah, the town they're stationed in, as "fairly quiet" saying "life is pretty normal" and that you would never know that battles were being waged just a couple hours down the road. 

The more immediate need that the peacemaker teams are working toward, is better conditions in the displaced persons camps just outside the city. 

Sooden is currently documenting the tensions and ethno-religious discrimination occurring in the cramped camps with the hope that the research will help aid agencies and local authorities to run the camps more effectively. 

Kidnapped once before

For Sooden, travelling back to Iraq brings up memories of his kidnapping in November 2005. 

Sooden and his colleagues were held for nearly four months, during which one of them, Tom Fox, was executed.

"I find the work very demanding and difficult, so most of the stress is related to that. But of course the kidnapping has been more on my mind in the last few years but it's just something I need to work through. I guess it makes it all worth it if we can contribute something positive to this crisis," he said. 

Thiessen told CBC it is difficult to be away from her family for half of the year but she too feels her work is needed.

"As a pacifist, as a Mennonite, this is something I feel called to do. And I certainly do work for human rights as an activist when I'm in Winnipeg but right now [Iraq] is the place it is right for me to be," Thiessen said. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?