Sarah Jane Weaver: Why reaching out locally, as well as globally, matters

HOWESK, IRAQ — In early 2015, Kohar Mardiros was going blind. She needed surgery to save the sight in one eye; she was combating an infection in the other. But her village, located just outside of Duhok in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, had limited medical resources.

“I was afraid I would lose my sight,” she said.

Her family and community pooled money and Mardiros received the laser surgery that would save her vision.

Mayor Murad Wartanian says residents in Howesk take care of each other — and others in need.

That’s why when the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq targeted many living in the region in August 2014, the villagers literally opened their homes to some of the thousands of internally displaced people in need.

At the time, Howesk was home to 115 families, most Armenian Catholic, in northern Iraq. In August, another 82 families — some Catholic, some Yezidi — moved into the community.

Mayor Murad Wartanian sits outside his home in the village of Howesk, located just outside of Duhok in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Latter-day Saint Charities is helping internally displaced people finding refuge in the village.
Mayor Murad Wartanian sits outside his home in the village of Howesk, located just outside of Duhok in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Latter-day Saint Charities is helping internally displaced people finding refuge in the village. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

Many were able to find space in the homes of local families; others moved into the school or community center.

The villagers in Howesk — where those giving and receiving aid set aside political and religious differences — exemplified using local resources to meet local needs. Their outreach to Kohar and others not only built charity but also capability in people.

It is a kind of charity embraced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Speaking during the Pioneers in Every Land lecture series in 2015, Sister Sharon Eubank — of the Relief Society general presidency and president of Latter-day Saint Charities — said there are three “foundational planks” that guide the Church’s ability to help others.

  1. Humanitarian acts “rooted in a desire to listen, to heal, to cooperate, to respect” are as potent agents for change as anything on the Earth, she said.
  2. “Charity is more than aid,” Sister Eubank added, noting that true charity emphasizes dignity, human worth, cooperation, unity, sacrifice and assurance that no one is too poor or too marginalized to contribute something of value.
  3. Humanitarian acts that foster real change come with a significant relationship, she said. “Everything is local. … Our most powerful acts are in the place where we live.”

The villagers in Howesk exemplified these foundational planks — inviting those in distress into their community, living and serving among them, reaching out in friendship and seeing their needs. They knew Mardiros might lose her sight, because they knew Mardiros.

Mayor Murad Wartanian walks in former school in the village of Howesk, located just outside of Duhok in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Latter-day Saint Charities is helping internally displaced people finding refuge in the village.
Mayor Murad Wartanian walks in former school in the village of Howesk, located just outside of Duhok in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Latter-day Saint Charities is helping internally displaced people finding refuge in the village. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

The Church does this every day in big and small ways.

Thanks to the #LightTheWorld charitable vending machines, placed in 10 locations around the world, the Church is currently distributing unique items and services worth more than $6 million in support of 45 global and local charities.

The vending machines provided Church members with opportunities to sponsor specific activities or services.

“We’re givers and receivers at different points and parts of our lives,” said Sister Eubank. “Something like this connects us to one another.”

This week, the Church distributed checks to international organizations totaling $3,260,267.

But every giving machine also offered the opportunity to support local charities.

In Salt Lake City, for example, the giving machines supported Utah Refugee Connection, Eye Care 4 Kids, Neighborhood House and the Utah Food Bank. In Denver, the machines gathered donations for the Black Child Development Institute, an organization working to improve and advance the quality of black children’s lives through education and advocacy; Mile High Ministries, an entity seeking to help the poor; and the Rose Andom Center, a group that facilitates services for victims of domestic violence.

Sister Sharon Eubank, right, president of Latter-day Saint Charities, shakes hands with Eye Care 4 Kids staff members in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Feb. 20, 2020. Sister Eubank and a Church member met with the charity to deliver a #LightTheWorld campaign donation check that will aid the charity with providing vision services to underserved children who suffer from vision problems.
Sister Sharon Eubank, right, president of Latter-day Saint Charities, shakes hands with Eye Care 4 Kids staff members in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Feb. 20, 2020. Sister Eubank and a Church member met with the charity to deliver a #LightTheWorld campaign donation check that will aid the charity with providing vision services to underserved children who suffer from vision problems. Credit: Intellectual Reserve

And in the Philippines, donations supported UNICEF Philippines; Caritas Manila, a Catholic social welfare program; and the HERO Foundation, a local organization that provides scholarship assistance to children of fallen armed forces members.

The Church gives almost $1 billion a year to help the poor and the needy. But Church leaders say the great strength of the organization is the 16 million members who reach out to others in their communities.

In Howesk, this was also their strength, said Mayor Wartanian.

“History records everything,” he said. “We would love that our names would be mentioned in the history in a good way.”

Charity is woven into the identity of the village, he said, because everyone in the village not only serves but has also been served.

Howesk was built in 1928. For decades, residents made a living in agriculture. However, the village was destroyed during Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq — leaving many homeless until the village was rebuilt in 2005.

“There is an old saying that says, ‘One hand does not clap alone,’ ” Mayor Wartanian said. “So a human needs his human brother.”