Fresh clouds of sawdust floated in the air and settled over me as 12 carpentry students began their daily projects in the Northern Iraq Community Center carpentry shop. I breathed in, and the smell of freshly cut wood immediately provoked childhood memories of the log cabin my family used to visit in the summertime.
For many, that familiar scent triggers memories of a specific person or place; however, for the 12 internally displaced Yazidi men who stood before me, that smell no longer belonged to the past. Instead, it represented a renewed hope for the future and a sense of purpose for a people group that lost everything to evil and terror.
I spotted a man in an all-khaki outfit with sun-weathered skin and a bright smile and knew that this was the head carpenter. He greeted me enthusiastically over the piercing sounds of tools and graciously gave me time to ask questions and learn about the carpentry class. He explained that throughout the 8-week training, 12 men receive guidance and instruction in the workshop and learn how to make products such as stools, tables, shelves, and armoires. At the conclusion of the program, the students obtain a carpentry training certificate to provide them with proof and legitimacy as they search for employment. In fact, the next day marked the end of the program.
When I asked Ahmed to reflect on the progress he observed throughout the past weeks, his lips turned up into a smile as he thought back to the first days of training. He explained that all of the men started with no experience and little confidence. As if to complete his answer, he motioned toward the men working independently and knowledgably behind us.
“They fled their homes with nothing,” he said. “They get to take what they make home to their families and even the neighbors gather outside the tents to see. Now they have a chance to feel proud about something again.”
Gaining Hope After Desperation
Ahmed then called over to one of his trainees, Karwan, who put down his tools to join our conversation. This bearded man did not smile as readily as Ahmed, but his eyes were thoughtful and kind. I soon learned that he fled the Sinjar region on the morning of August 3, 2014, after the sound of explosions from the ISIS attack woke him. He left with nothing but his 13 family members and traveled by foot to seek safety.
When he tugged at the fabric of his flannel shirt, I understood the message before the translator communicated it in English.
“I only brought the clothes on my back,” he said.
With no home or possessions, Karwan adjusted to his situation and joined the carpentry course in order to support himself and his family. He worked with focus and diligence and even volunteered with additional projects in order to get more experience and training. Now, with the conclusion of the program, he plans to establish his own carpentry business in the area.
In a period of eight weeks, a transformation occurred through which Karwan developed the skills necessary to improve his future and leave behind the sense of desperation and lack of hope that is a daily reality for so many.
Although some of the other men remain unsure of what they will do with their new skills, it’s evident that they also experienced a renewed sense of energy and drive. As I watched them carry on their work, I noticed two younger men collaborating on an armoire and asked if they planned to keep or sell their finished product. Their eyes widened and they immediately shook their heads while smiling.
“We will keep it,” one said as he lifted his palms. “We made this with our hands. In the future we can give it to our grandchildren and tell them how and why it was made.”
I ran my fingers over the wood and admired its smooth texture, remembering that it once felt rough and splintered. I thought about the men surrounding me and realized that they too experienced a transformation as they turned scraps of wood into something beautiful and useful. In a similar way, so is God constantly molding and shaping us as believers in Jesus Christ. He takes our brokenness and gives us renewed energy and life in Him. I pray that He does the same to this country.