By Lundon Attisha
I received a text message at around 5:00 AM on the morning of June 13, 2014.
It read quite simply—“We are flying to DC tomorrow.” The text came from Mark Arabo. This was Mark Arabo before he was Mark Arabo, “global humanitarian” or Mark Arabo, Head of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation (MHF). No, at that point Mark Arabo was just Mark Arabo, President of the Neighborhood Market Association. He was the small business guy who was focused on things like gas stations and convenience stores.
I never could have expected that those 6 words would change our lives, and the lives of millions around us forever. From that point on we embarked on an irreversible journey. One that included, challenge, triumph and heartbreak. In the early stages we were children in a grown up world. We left to D.C on the next red eye anxious of what would become of our work.
During this early stage, the genocide that was occurring in slow motion was only showing it’s colors under the guise of, “isolated incidents.” We were all hearing stories, we all knew someone that had been hurt, we were all aware that there was something bigger bumbling underneath the surface. There was no doubt in our minds that our Christian brothers and sisters were being subjugated to cruel conditions by Islamic extremists. And while we were aware of the growing threat, none of us could have expected the level of violence that was waiting just around the corner.
Mark Arabo deserves all the credit in the world. Whether it is insight, or intuition, Mark knew that these acts of violence were not at all isolated. And he was acutely aware of the potential for this situation to get dramatically worse. But, hindsight is always 20/20, so in the beginning I told Mark, “you’re crazy.”
I showed up to work the next day like the early morning text was a bad dream. Mark showed up to the office with his bags packed, and asked what I was doing. I said that I wasn’t going to go to D.C. I said that I had work to do here, at the office.
It was at that point Mark looked me in the eyes and told me something I would never forget.
“In life you can be an onlooker. You can be someone that is happy with not influencing their surrounding, with simply seeing the world from afar. Or you can be an actor. You can be someone that actively makes a difference in the world around them, and makes a change for the better in the lives of everyone, even those too far for us to touch or see.”
He told me that it was my decision to make.
That night, Mark and I were on a redeye to Washington D.C will nothing more than a backpack full of clothes, a laptop, and the uncertainty of millions resting atop our shoulders. We were nervous, and hopeful that perhaps we would be the ones to make a change. On the flight, Mark told me that it was our job to “put an end to the genocide.”
I had never heard anyone refer to the crisis as a, “genocide.” But, even in these early stages Mark was convinced. He grabbed one of the cocktail napkins from the flight attendant and started laying everything out for me. He knew of the atrocities occurring, and he was confident that in due time, the world would understand.
On our short trip, we met with officials from the State Department, and from Congress. Mark carried the message he had rehearsed on the flight. I want to tell you it worked; I wish I could tell you that we managed to get something done. But we didn’t. In fact, some members of Congress and some within the State Department more or less gave us lip service and escorted us out of their respective offices. It wasn’t what we had hoped, but there were those that believed in what Mark was saying.
But the sense that I got from members of the State Department was that ISIS was still a small time operation. Christians may be struggling a little bit, but as a whole things weren’t terrible. The administration had tried to take its eyes off of the Middle East. They saw it as a black hole, one that warranted neither their attention or service.
We fled back to San Diego disappointed and a bit disillusioned. I can see it had taken a toll on Mark. He knew that every day that passed another life would be lost. And I think he took these losses as personal. We were afraid that nothing would be done. And I can see that Mark was not just disappointed in the way he was treated in Washington, but in himself.
Then, Mosul happened. And just like that hundreds of thousands of Christians fled on of the largest cities in a mass exodus of biblical proportions. In the chaos, thousands had been killed, some were forced to convert, and the landscape of Christianity in Iraq would forever be changed. Mark Arabo received an invitation to meet with White House officials almost immediately; member of the State Department had reached out to us informing that they had misjudged the situation. And so just like that Mark Arabo would be called back to Washington D.C vindicated, but disappointed at our American governments inability to listen to his original warnings. I remember before we flew to Washington D.C he had an interview with KPBS for their evening program.
He referred to the persecution of Christians as one that constituted, “genocide.” He argued that the United States, and Christians globally should assist in providing safe passage and refuge for any Christians who wish to leave the afflicted area. His comments received backlash from many, even from some within the Chaldean community. The numerous attempts to discredit his opinions and assesments seemed to be a recurring theme. Mind you, this was in 2014. But, as was the case previously, Mark’s comments were proven to be the most fitting for the tragedy occurring in Iraq and Syria. As we will find time and time again, he ended up being right.
Many believed that he was misguided in saying such comments. People thought that the persecution of Christians wasn’t as bad as they were being led to believe. But, Mark was resourceful and introduced a participatory list that many in the media dubbed, “the Arabo list.” Something of this magnitude had never been done, and Mark was at the forefront of this unprecedented strategy. This list was a way for the world to see that many Christians sought to leave Iraq after the threat of ISIS. And, it was a way to see just how many Americans were willing to support said Christians if they were to seek a sponsor within the United States. In the span of a few weeks, Mark Arabo established the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, and compiled a list of 70,000 victims seeking safety, and 70,000 American families willing to house them. Just like that, the tide turned and the establishment became receptive to Mark’s ideas regarding an exit strategy for Christians in the area.
It was July of 2014 when Mark and I made our first trip to the White House. Joining Mark at the White House was also Bishop Jammo and Father Noel. At this stage his ideas weren’t the norm. They were anti-establishment. And many were worried that he was too young, too bold. I can remember hearing some public officials, and some Chaldean leaders criticize him behind closed doors. They thought his idealism got in the way of what many thought was reasonable.
Here we are now, two years later. The State Department just gave the designation of, “genocide” victim to Christians persecuted by ISIS. It was a landmark decision that now gives hope to thousands of Christians throughout the Middle East. And, it was made possible largely because of Mark Arabo. After months of discussion with the State Department, we were able to make this incredible idea a reality.
We succeeded in completing the first stage, but now we have to capitalize on the momentum of the designation. We need all of your support. Our accomplishments, our journey, and our future are dependent only on you. I work with Mark Arabo at the Minority Humanitarian Foundation (MHF). We are a tax-exempt non-profit founded with the intention of producing bold action. The type of bold action dismissed by many people who serve as the status quo establishment. We are an organization founded upon idealism. We are an organization built on the audacity of hope. We will never limit ourselves to the principles of our past, because we are a non-profit that seeks to brighten the future. And we will only do so through the unconventional, through the bold, and through risk.
MHF is an organization that provides aid, empowers, and serves Christians of the Middle East and Christians here at home. Our successes are a direct result of the contributions made by people like you each and every day. I am calling upon you to join Mark, and to become part of the movement at MinorityHF.org. Our next challenge is ensuring that comprehensive legislation is passed to secure long-term safety for displaced Christians in the area. Mark intends to pass a bill that would provide priority refugee status for any Christians found to be in a zone of risk by ISIS. Just like last time, there are doubters arguing that something so massive cannot possibly be passed a Congress so dysfunctional. But Mark has no hesitation in moving forward with this bold strategy, just as he has done before.
Just like two years ago, I was once again woken by an early morning text message by Mark saying one thing—“We did it… Christian Genocide.” He told me that the Minority Humanitarian Foundation just received a phone call from State Department Religious Freedom Ambassador, David Saperstein indicating this historic position. He told me that the State Department wanted our organization to know that the decision would not have occurred without our relentless pressure.
But unlike the text I received two years ago, this time I did not doubt him. This time, I knew that he was right. Finally, I knew what Mark was talking about in that conversation about being an onlooker or an actor. All of us, the entirety of our community were actors. It was all of us that made the difference. Together, we did it.
Lundon Attisha is Communications Director at the Minority Humanitarian Foundation