Discovering the Beauty of Iraq and Seeking to Make A Difference Through Education: A Volunteer Shares Her Story

Susannah with two students in art class

Susannah with two students in art class

Although I did research prior to my trip and had attempted to prepare myself for what I would experience, it turned out to be an unimaginable journey which took me by surprise in the best of ways.

A message of hope in the camp

A message of hope in the camp

    On the first day in Dohuk, we visited the Greater Change Community Center in the IDP camp outside of the city. When driving into the camp, I was overwhelmed by what I was seeing. The camp, which hosts more than 13,000 individuals, consisted of thousands of tents, lined up in rows with occasional buildings from a variety of organizations. Children walked the roads between the rows of tents and watched us as we drove by. Some of the tents appeared to be markets, selling fruits and vegetables, snacks, packs of water, and sodas, etc.

    Upon arriving at the community center, we found an empty and very quiet playground surrounded by several buildings. I was initially surprised at how quiet it was, until about a half a dozen doors opened and children aged six to sixteen flooded the playground for recess. Teachers came out as well to supervise the children. The children were incredibly happy and kind, and they were very interested in the two young women visiting their center.

    Over the weekend, I was able to explore some of the most beautiful places I have seen. One experience which especially struck me was our visit to Amadiya, a city located on top of a lush mountain, which allowed for impeccable view. We stopped by a man outside of his home to ask him directions to a spot where we could take in the view, and without skipping a beat he invited us into his home and to his backyard, which essentially was a garden with fig trees and vegetables and, once we had made our way to the back, had a breathtaking view of our surroundings. His wife came out with teas and water, and encouraged us to pick the figs in their garden to eat. I had never received this kind of warm hospitality from complete strangers.

Susannah teaches infant first aid

Susannah teaches infant first aid

    Once the week began at the Greater Change Community Center, I found myself anxious to teach classes. While I did have a translator, my topic of education for the first couple of days was women’s health, which made the translation process a little more difficult. Additionally, there were cultural barriers to the learning process. For some of the students, the topics that were covered had much more controversy in their culture than they had in our culture. However, as time went on, we were able to find a balance between the two cultures, and the girls opened up and asked many questions pertinent to women’s health. They seemed to be excited to learn, and the next day they showed up with more friends for the class.

    Although the language barrier definitely made it more of a challenge, both I and the translator were able to adapt in order to make it easier for us and the students to learn. Throughout my stay in Iraq, I taught classes on women’s health (with a focus on menstruation, nutrition and exercise, mental health, sexual health and childcare).  Because of the lack of educational resources in the camp, there was a definite educational gap when it came to women’s health and child care. I had the women write down topics they wished to be covered and taught those about those topics the days following.

Additionally, I taught a CPR class as well as art classes for the children. I had a positive experience in both of these classes. In the art class, I had the children create self portraits for what they wanted to be when they were adults. We had many doctors, soccer players, and singers. At one point, I had a group of teenage girls come up to me, wanting to know how to take blood pressure and pulse, as well as listen to lung and heart sounds. All three of them wanted to either become doctors or nurses, and it was inspiring to see them so interested in healthcare, especially as they lived in a country where there is a demand for healthcare workers.

    My trip to Amadiya summarized Iraq for me. In the news we see a desert land filled with abandoned villages which have been wrecked, and a population of people who have been completely traumatized by violence. However, when I arrived in Iraq I was able to see that it was so much different that what my expectations had been. While it was true that there were security checkpoints and areas which had been ruined by war, IDP camps for individuals who had been forced to leave their homes, an increased medical demand and decreased resources in Iraq, there was also more beauty, not just in the land or the culture, but in the people especially. In Iraq, I experienced more love from this country than I could have believed possible.

View from Amadiya

View from Amadiya

In the Heat of the Iraqi Summer a Volunteer Makes a Difference

Alyssa with some students from her dance class. 

Alyssa with some students from her dance class. 

In the beginning of August, I spent 10 days in Iraq during which time I had the opportunity to teach art, reading, and dance classes at the Greater Change center. During my time there, I was also blessed to be able to do outreach with a few of the other members of my team by going and visiting families in the camp; we visited two families who had recently lost sons, one to infection and one to suicide, and a girl who escaped from ISIS captivity in April. We used these meetings as opportunities to evaluate the specific needs of people living in the IDP camps and discuss what paths Greater Change might be able to pursue to meet those needs. For example, a suicide outreach program, a general healthcare education program, and ways of helping girls recently returned from slavery were topics we were able to begin to consider based off these visits. 

Having the opportunity to teach classes at the Greater Change center in the camp was very rewarding for me. In my art class, I enjoyed getting to see each student's unique way of approaching a project, and I felt like that class in particular afforded me the opportunity to get to know the kiddos on a more personal level. My favorite project we called "What's in Your Heart". They each drew a heart on a piece of paper and then inside the heart drew things that they love. At first, there was some hesitation, but as they thought about it, the kids drew everything from families, to sports, to school, to music...Each one was individual, and I enjoyed getting a chance to catch a glimpse into their "hearts". We also had a day where we discussed how we can use color to demonstrate the emotions we are feeling. As a class, we assigned each color an emotion or an idea and then I had the students color pictures using shades that represented the emotions they feel on a daily basis. Profoundly, as a class we had assigned green the emotion of hope and the idea of new life, and green was the most commonly used color that day.

Students display their "Heart" Art. 

Students display their "Heart" Art. 

Being a dancer, my favorite class to teach was, of course, dance. Dance and movement is something that goes beyond the realm of spoken communication, so having the opportunity to be able to effectively communicate with the kids despite the language barrier was a tremendous blessing for me. I also feel that movement is something that is universally understood; for example, no matter what part of the world you go to, people use hand motions to emphasize or aid understanding. Because movement is universal, dance is a natural extension of that. Having those moments where I felt like I was successfully communicating with the kids even though I couldn’t speak their language was thrilling. I also was very impressed by how quickly every single one of them picked up the concepts of guided movement and technique. Many of them had tremendous natural talent, and it was a joy to me to be able to guide them in nurturing that talent even if for a short period. I believe that dance can be of tremendous therapeutic benefit, both emotionally and physically, and teaching dance in the IDP camps confirmed that certainty in my mind.

Another highlight was having the opportunities to go visit the families in the camps. Though these times were hard, I appreciated them greatly; they allowed me to gain a better understanding of what these people are enduring and how we might be able to help them. Getting to visit a girl who recently escaped from ISIS was absolutely incredible despite it being extremely hard; she is so beautiful and sweet. The progress we saw in just two days with her was amazing, but she has a hard road of healing and recovery ahead of her. After everything she's been through, I believe that loving and gentle interaction is important in helping her heal.

I honestly never believed I would love any place as much as I love my home in the States, but within 24 hours of being in Iraq, I knew I had been mistaken. The peace that I believe can only come from God came almost immediately, and I fell in love with the people, the work, the culture, the landscape...everything. In the strangest and most unexpected ways, it felt like home. This trip was so amazing and eye-opening; far beyond the words I have to describe it. As an American, of course I’ve heard about the wars and hardship in the Middle East and in Iraq, but often it is easy to dismiss them to the back of my mind. However, being there, meeting families, working with the kids, talking to people from all sorts of backgrounds, and seeing firsthand the struggles of these people, helped me understand the importance of the work that Greater Change is doing. The war may be considered over for now but the road to recovery is a long and difficult one, and Greater Change is seeking to find ways to make sure that these people are not forgotten and to help them begin to heal. I am so thankful for the opportunity I had to serve in Iraq, and I was beyond blessed by the many opportunities I had to learn and grow in the field. I truly believe in the work Greater Change is doing, and I pray that we will continue to be able to educate and empower the people in the IDP camps. Thank you to all of the people who support us both financially and in prayer; we could not continue to do this work without you.

Alyssa Dancing.jpg



In the News: From Boone to The Middle East Zenat Drown is Making a Difference


As a former refugee, Zenat Drown, pictured with these children in Iraq, understands the plight of the families, especially the women and children, currently served through her Greater Change organization. She was around 5 when her family decided to flee Afghanistan.

By Sherrie Norris

The smile on her face and the excitement in her voice tells a lot about Zenat Drown, especially when she is talking about Greater Change, the nonprofit organization she formed last year in the Middle East.

One woman with a mission in mind is a force with which to be reckoned — and those who know Drown best will tell you that she has the determination needed to make things happen.

Drown, an astute businesswoman and professional photographer, moved to Boone in late 2017 with her husband, who works locally, and their two children who attend Hardin Park Elementary School. While her family has established a home base in Boone and attend church at Alliance Bible Fellowship, a big part of Drown’s heart is thousands of miles away — in a remote camp where hundreds of families have found refuge in search of a better life.

Greater Change is on the ground in Northern Iraq, educating and empowering women and children to transform their own communities. “We seek a transformed Iraq where families can live in peace and women and children are empowered to flourish and grow,” said Drown.

To read further click here:

A New Library in the Camp!

Our new library has now opened! And the first book was borrowed by an ambitious girl from the camp who loves reading. Poviding refugees with books is very important, as this will help them to be aware of the outside world and continue to dream big and achieve their goals.

This opportunity will also help the people in the camp to cultivate a reading habit that will encourage them to face the difficult circumstances they live in now.
“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” — W. Somerset Maugham


The New Greater Change Community Center!

The new Greater Change Community Center is inside a refugee and IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp in northern Iraq. We had a lot of meetings over the last weeks with the donor, camp manager and our lawyer working on governmental approvals. Now we officially have the keys for the Center! It is a 6 trailer facility and includes the space for up to 10 classrooms, kitchen and even a playground with a covering for the hot summers! This is all located inside the camp with direct access to the most vulnerable refugees. 

The programs that the camp residents need the most are: Preschool, photography and art therapy classes for children and skills based classes for teens including English, and health and nutrition. Here are some photos of our Community Center:

The covered playground can be used during the hot summer.

The covered playground can be used during the hot summer.

Inside one of the rooms for the early childhood education 

Inside one of the rooms for the early childhood education 

Art Therapy Class at Greater Change Community Center

New classes started this week at the Greater Change Community Center in Northern Iraq. Hear's a note from are incredible art therapy teacher, Miss Kaveen and below is some artwork from the kids: "It is very important for these children that they have have a safe place. The reason we see so many drawings of homes by the kids is because that is something they long for. They want to have their home back and they express their frustration and their dreams all together at the same time. That's why it's important that Greater Change gives the opportunity for these kids to have freedom of expression with their artwork."

Who are the Yazidis?

Editor's note: Many thanks to our volunteer Communications Manager, Kailey Tachick for researching and sharing more about the background of the Yazidi people in Northern Iraq. She recently traveled to Iraq and we are so thankful for sharing her time and talents with Greater Change. All of the women and children we serve at the Greater Change Community Center are Yazidis. 


Three years ago the lives of thousands of Yazidis living in the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq were forever changed. On August 3, 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) pushed forward into the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq, killing and kidnapping almost 10,000 people despite their attempts to flee [1]. Men were taken captive, forced to convert to Islam, or executed. Women and girls were made to marry, raped, beaten, and sold as sex slaves. Children – mostly young boys – were indoctrinated and given new roles as child soldiers.

Many are dead, many are missing, and many are still in captivity.

The Yazidi people entered the international spotlight when the genocide began but responses have been insufficient. The UN Commission of Inquiry recently stated that the genocide against Yazidis “is on-going and remains largely unaddressed...” calling those aligned against the Islamic State to “consider plans aimed at rescuing Yazidi captives”[2].



Who are the Yazidis? Why does Isis target them? Where are they now?

There are many misunderstandings about the Yazidi people and their history, which is transmitted orally and less accessible for scholarly study. Ethnically and linguistically Kurdish, Yazidis practice a religion bearing resemblance to different elements of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. The central religious figure, Peacock Angel Melek Taus, is one of 7 angels created by god and the mediator between god and people, bearing resemblance to the fallen angel Satan/Shaytan[3]. The centrality of Melek Taus, paired with his role, leads ISIS to label Yazidis as “devil worshippers” who are not “people of the book.” They consider this justification for their annihilation.

  Yazidi  s believe   Melek  Taus   is a divine   being that   manifests   as a peacock

 Yazidis believe MelekTaus is a divine being that manifests as a peacock

Genocide is not a new experience for the Yazidi people. In fact, they can recount 74 genocides throughout their history, extending back to the Ottoman Empire. German Yazidi psychologist, Jan Kizilhan, speaks of the trauma they experience as not only personal and collective, but also historical as Yazidis bear the identity of being hated throughout the ages[4].

The Yazidi community has two key leaders – a sheikh to address spiritual matters and an emir (or prince) to lead in the non-religious realm. White is considered a color of purity, while wearing blue is taboo and strictly avoided by all [5]. Some women wear headscarves, though the requirements differ from the Muslim faith. Men can also be found wearing turbans (see photo).


Prior to August 2014, 400,00 Yazidis called the Sinjar region of northern Iraq home where many had agricultural or pastoral livelihoods. While ISIS no longer has control over Sinjar, other groups have fought over the region and many Yazidis have not yet returned to their destroyed homeland. Instead they remain in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDP) or as guests in others’ homes. Those that are released from ISIS find it difficult – if not impossible – to return and re-integrate with their communities due to their trauma, shame, and rejection.

The Yazidis long for their loved ones as well as freedom for those still held in captivity and slavery. They long for healing. They long for home. In a world that has largely turned its back on them, we at Greater Change seek to be a place of safety, support, and healing for them.


Want to learn more? Check out these resources to find out more about the Yazidis, their religious belief system, cultural practices, and history:

• Yezidis International:

• Encyclopedia Britannica:

• Surviving Genocide: Storytelling and ritual help communities heal:



[1] Cetorelli V, Sasson I, Shabila N, Burnham G (2017) Mortality and kidnapping estimates for the Yazidi population in the area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014: A retrospective household survey. PLoS Med 14(5): e1002297.

[2]United Nations Commission of Inquiry:

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica:

[4] The German village helping Yazidi women raped by ISIL:

[5] Encyclopedia:

Photos taken by Zenat Drown.  

Sana’s Story – 11 year old Survivor of 3 years of Isis Captivity

In mid-July, our Greater Change Community Center's Deputy Director, Bayan, met 11-year-old Sana. She bravely shared her story and asked that it be shared with others. We have changed her name and edited her story only for grammar and for clarity in brackets. Please note that this story contains descriptions of the harsh realities of war.

My name is Sana and I am 11 years old. This is my story [starting] 3 years ago. I am an 8 years old little girl. I live in a city called Sinjar with my family.  I go to school and I have a normal life. One day in 2014, I heard about Isis and that they entered Iraq specifically (Mosul). A few weeks later in August 2014, Isis entered Sinjar where I lived. Everybody from Sinjar started to run away towards Sinjar mountain.

I was with my family and my grandmother running away as everybody else. When we got close to the mountain, my grandmother feels sick because she has diabetes and she couldn't run anymore, she had to stop. At that moment, we didn't know what Isis will do to us if they captured us and we thought that we will get help soon. My grandmother went back to Sinjar to her daughter’s house and I had to go back with her to take care of her because she is sick. Me and my grandmother went back to the house to Sinjar and we hid. A few hours later, the city was full of Isis members we had to hid for 1 day.  Then my father called and he said we [must] start running towards the mountain again because Isis are killing people and he will be waiting for us.

We started to go towards the mountains again on our way running Isis captured us and we never made it to the mountain.  Isis took us back to Sinjar. I was so scared. That was the first time I see animals with the shape of humans. They were so ugly and scary they were killing people on the roads and taking the girls and the children.

There was so many of them. I held my grandmother’s hand all the time.  They took us to a place called Tlafar and they put us in a school. There was so many Yazidi people in that school and for a moment I thought that they captured every single Yazidi person and put them in that school. We stayed there [for] one month with a very small amount of food and water. Isis treated us in a very bad way, yelling at people and telling us that they will kill us and they will sell the girls.

After that, they moved us to another place called Bahdosh close to Mosul. They put us in jail. The jail was so dirty and so big. There was big rooms Isis used to store Dettol cleaner. There were so many big red water tanks. Those tanks were full of garbage and dead mice and insects and Isis used them for our water. They were giving us food one time a day. One tomato, one cucumber, one small bread for both me and my grandmother. They were giving us water to drink once every 3 days so we had to save that water for 3 days. We stayed in this jail for two months and then they took us to so many places I don't remember. After a few months, they brought us back to the same jail.

Isis kept reminding us how bad they can be and how many people they killed and how many men they beheaded. One day in the jail, they wrote our names and they said that they will send us home a few days later. They sent a car and they said you can go home. I couldn’t believe it I was so happy. I was holding my grandmother’s hand, but no that was not the end. When I was about to get in the car, somebody took me by the hand and took me back to the hell. I cried and screamed, “Grandmother, don’t leave me alone!” I wanted to die at that moment.

The car left without me and my journey without my grandmother started. They put me with 10 other people in a small house. They were taking the men every day to the mosque to do Muslim prayer and read their book and they were taking the girls to sell them or to marry them and to use them as slaves.

We stayed there for two months, and one morning they took all the men and never brought them back and they took all the girls (I don’t know where) and they took me with the other children and put us in a school. When first I entered that school, I saw so many clothes for other people left behind. The place was so dirty and smells bad. There was an old lady they said that she will take care of us. We were around 200 children. That was after 11 months of me being kidnapped and till now, I never had a shower or changed my clothes. 

The first thing that old lady did was shave all the children's hair.  Every day she was teaching us how to read the Quran and how to do Muslim prayer. She was yelling at children. And treating us in a very bad way. One day an old man came and he looked at me he wanted to take me and marry me but, thanks God, I was too young for him he did not want me. A few days later, some Isis member they came and they took all the children. They left me with other 11 children. (Maybe because I was too young for them to marry)

Two days later, an Isis member came and he bought me. I thought that he will marry me.  He took me to his mother's house and they told me that I am their servant starting from today. I was only nine and a half years old. I was doing everything in the house. I was serving around six family members, two of them were Isis members, they used to go every morning to kill people. Those two family members used to go every morning to kill people and to fight the Yazidi people. They came back every night and I knew that they are killing my people and I still had to serve them. I served that family for almost 2 years. There was a woman in that family, she was nice to me and she saved me. Her husband was an Isis member but she couldn't do anything about it. One day her husband and his brother went to fight and never came back. A few days later we heard about the Iraqi army and other armies entered Mosul to fight Isis and during that time we run away from Mosul. And thank God we made it to the refugee [camp] and I got back to my family.

Photography Class Goes to the Zoo

What is the purpose - you may ask - of taking a group of displaced kids to the zoo?

They learn to appreciate the beauty that God has created that is near them. Beauty is not in some far off world... someone has taken the time to bring it to them, and it is an opportunity to see what exists close-by.  

They learn to appreciate the beauty that God has created that is near them. Beauty is not in some far off world... someone has taken the time to bring it to them, and it is an opportunity to see what exists close-by.  

In the neighborhood around our community center - kids kick dogs. 

In the neighborhood around our community center - kids kick dogs. 

We get to teach them to love and care for God's creation. To be gentle with His creatures.

We get to teach them to love and care for God's creation. To be gentle with His creatures.

To help them to experience different perspectives... to encourage a wonder for "simple" things. 

To help them to experience different perspectives... to encourage a wonder for "simple" things. 

And to just have fun! 

And to just have fun! 

And my kids had fun along with them! 

And my kids had fun along with them! 

God's Plans and Trauma Class - by Lori Bryan

Three and a half weeks ago I left the US to come to Northern Iraq and be a part of Greater Change opening a community center to help the IDP’s who had to run for their lives from ISIS. I planned my class very carefully to make sure I had all the right materials to teach them about stress, trauma and how it affects your body and life. I arrive ready to make the class happen and everything we try falls through. In our thinking, of course this is such an important class to teach to the students to help them understand themselves. Well our thinking was different than their thinking and God’s thinking. Instead I was helping with English class, cooking lunch, working with students sent out of class and even child friendly space (CFS). It gave me time to experience the Yazidi students we have coming to the school, learn from them, and get to know the volunteer staff better. Yes that is right, all the staff working at the center come to give of their time completely free. Each day. That amazes me each day they come. 

When God decides to change your plan, it’s best to just sit back and go along with the changes as they happen and see how He shows up each day. I got to see God in the smiles and laughter of the youngest kids in CFS, in the labor of love from Bayan’s mother bringing us lunch almost everyday, in the progression of students from rowdy, misbehaving kids to students who come in saying hello, sit properly in their classes and work to grasp the English that is spoken to them, and even in the plants that have begun to grow tall. Then today I get the opportunity to teach my first class on trauma. It was taught with 2 translations (Arabic and Kurdish). I spoke English, English then was translated to Arabic by a teacher, then the Arabic was translated into Kurdish for the students. Crazy fun!  Although it seemed as though it was a lot of information for a young crowd, by the end some were asking very good questions about how to help someone experiencing symptoms from their traumatic events.  Even the translators learned. I am happy and I look forward to open discussion tomorrow in the second class. My hope is that they will be the ones to learn this information and help others in their family and community to know they are having normal reactions to the abnormal events that happened in their life. I don’t understand why God chose for the class to happen 4 days before I leave, but I trust that God’s plan is so much better than anything I’d dream up.

The "Greater" in Greater Change

Well - here goes another first... the blog is online, and I'm sitting down to write my first post - excited to be sharing with you from here on the ground in Northern Iraq. I am amazed at what God has already done in this community we're serving in, and am excited to see what lies ahead.  

I figured a great way to kick off the blog is to tell you about our name. The second word is obvious... change.  We want to see change - authentic transformation of a community that desperately needs it. Improved health, better economy, better environment, happier people. 

But what about the first part? "Greater"...

What is a better way to bring about change than through the love of Jesus? I have been here now for 2 years. The picture in my mind is of a mother, with one child clinging to her leg while another latches onto her breast... with a heartbroken look on her face. From the moment she gets up in the morning to the moment when she lays her tired body on her tent floor she is seeking a way to a better life.  But like the Samaritan woman at the well she is looking for a better life here, not realizing her emptiness is a longing for her Maker.

I know pain. I know scars. I also know nightmares. And on that level I can connect with them. But ultimately who took the pain, the scars and the nightmares away from me?  It was my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.