Top female Latter-day Saint leaders visit refugees in northern Iraq

Relief Society leaders Jean Bingham and Sharon Eubank tour a Yazidi camp, find reasons for more hope.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saint Charities President Sharon Eubank, far right, speaks at Camp Sharya in Iraq with Karzan Noori, head of programs for Barzani Charity Foundation, as Relief Society President Jean B. Bingham, far left, looks on.

Four years ago, Latter-day Saint Charities President Sharon Eubank visited a camp for thousands of Yazidi refugees in northern Iraq, where conditions were grim and hopes for the future even grimmer.

In recent days, she returned to Camp Sharya in the Kurdistan region and found the circumstances improved and hopes on the rise.

“We sat down with a mother and her family, and I said, ‘Is this any better?’” Eubank explained in a news release, " … And she said, ‘I have a kitchen, I have a bathroom. So, this makes the whole difference. We feel safe and secure.’”

Eubank and President Jean B. Bingham, who oversees the worldwide women’s Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, went to the 7-year-old camp, which provides temporary shelter to 12,000 Yazidi refugees just south of the Turkish border, to meet with government leaders and aid workers, and to see firsthand how the 2,350 families are faring.

In June, a fire destroyed nearly 188 tents in the camp. Now, thanks to the Barzani Charity Foundation and Latter-day Saint Charities, the Utah-based faith’s humanitarian arm, new concrete structures have been built.

“They had a cement floor. They had cement walls,” Bingham said in the release. “They had privacy. It was clean and new, and you could see that they felt much better about themselves.”

Karzan Noori, head of programs for BCF, expressed his “deep gratitude” for the donations from Latter-day Saint Charities.

Of course, the Yazidis, driven from their homes by violence and political unrest, yearn to return to their ancestral lands. On that score, the Latter-day Saint delegation talked with Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, and with Omed Khoshnaw, the governor of Erbil, the capital.

“After talking to the prime minister, I had a little bit more hope that they are actually making some progress on resolving the difficult issues that are keeping them away from their home,” said Eubank, who also serves as first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency. “They’ll still need schools and health clinics and housing, but it’s the politics that’s keeping them out right now.”

Said Noori in a video, “The beauty about human beings, and especially those people you see in the camp, they have hope still.”

The visitors also ventured from Erbil to Duhok, about 100 miles away, where they huddled with a few fellow Latter-day Saints, including Valentina Merezaoiam, the first returned female Latter-day Saint missionary from Iraq.

“I never looked at it the way that I’m the first,” Merezaoiam said in the release. “But I think that … I was focusing on the way that … the gospel will change me as a person.”

“The saints in Duhok are pioneers,” Bingham said after meeting Sister Hanaa, a mother of three, including a son who was the first Latter-day Saint missionary from the area.

“I was so impressed with Hanaa, who was the first member of the church in this part of the world, and the way she has taught her children the gospel in her home [even though she] hasn’t been able to gather with saints very much at all,” Bingham said. “She is a true pioneer.”

High-level Latter-day Saint leaders have been making the rounds this month in Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Bingham and Eubank previously visited Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, where the church plans to build a temple in Dubai, its first in the Middle East.

Apostle David A. Bednar, meanwhile, traveled to Jordan, the UAE and Expo 2020, where the Dubai Temple is to be built.

“It makes great sense that the temple would be located in this vicinity,” Bednar said in a video. “Transportation systems have been oriented to bring people to this location. And it’s in a very dynamic area. The Lord has picked a perfect location for his temple.”