4 Things We’ve Learned From Years of Responding to Chemical Attacks

Over the past few days, many of you have shown up for Syrian families fleeing bombs, air strikes, and a chemical attack. Your love and compassion for the people of Syria is loud, your voice is being heard, and your generosity has us awestruck. Thank you!

As we reflect on yet another incredible response from you, it occurs to us you may not know how many times you’ve done this before. Did you know you’ve responded to other chemical attacks in Iraq and Syria? Over the past decade, you’ve extended a helping hand to thousands suffering the horrors of chemical, toxic violence.

Some of that help was indirect, responding to some of the longer-term needs created by chemical attacks—like providing food for fleeing families or medical care for children born with life-threatening birth defects. One was more direct, like oxygen tanks and skin treatment for Iraqi families harmed by chlorine gas.

In each of these responses that you made possible, we learned something together. We gained a little more experience as a community and got a little better at understanding what it means to respond and serve, to help and not hurt, to be timely without being in a rush, and to make sure that serving local people is our number-one priority.

Here are a few takeaways from years of responding to chemical attacks together:

1. Responding to chemical attacks is never easy.

The emotion, pain, and felt need for a response is so strong. Knowing exactly how to respond with help without causing further hurt can be difficult.

For our part, the first step must be listening. What are people on the ground saying? What are affected families asking for, and can we provide that help? Do we see other organizations already providing help? If so, we look to provide help in another area of need.

Often this evaluation has to happen in hours, sometimes minutes, if we’re going to show up for people right when they need it.

There’s a lot that goes into responding to a crisis situation like this, but it must start with slowing down a minute and listening. You’ve helped us respond to chemical attacks thousands of miles away in Syria and just a 60-minute drive from where I live in Iraq. But our response has always had to be the same regardless:

Listen, listen, listen… and then begin forming a response.

Man injured in a 2016 ISIS chemical attack on the village of Taza, Iraq

2. Attacks like this bring out the best and worst in people.

Any form of highly publicized violence has the ability to bring out the best and worst in people. But there’s something about a widespread, scandalous form of violence like a chemical attack that really polarizes us. They are shocking, upsetting, scary, painful—and they seem to demand a response.

Over the years, we’ve observed patterns in how people tend to respond. There is the initial shock, after which we tend to move into opposing corners as the attack is storied differently.

Whether it’s right near ground zero or around the world, there are usually some who deny that the attack happened or claim it wasn’t nearly as bad as people said. I once met a man who denied a chemical attack that hit just a few blocks from his house. There are typically also people who say it was much worse than it probably was, as “hundreds of injured” turns into “thousands dead,” for example.

There’s a reason for that. In times of stress, the part of our brain that deals with short-term memory gets thrown in the backseat (or maybe stuffed in the trunk), while the part of our brain associated with a “fight or flight” response takes the wheel. So it’s understandable that people process events like these in a particular way.

We often get messages from people asking us to weigh in on what “really happened” or whether we “know people are being irrational.” Our typical response is yes, we know this situation is about as clear as mud. But our first job is not trying to clarify every detail of what is an extremely complex geopolitical situation. Our first job is to love, listen, and show up as best we can for the everyday people who need our help.

That doesn’t mean we don’t care about different stories and sides and dimensions of the situation. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about the facts. It means we have a north star, and that’s to serve those who need our love and support, first and foremost.

Events like this also tend to end up getting politicized in one way or another as politicians or journalists or thought leaders work to leverage the attacks for their own agendas—or just as often, as they ignore the attacks and try to hush people up.

A child who could not stop bleeding after being exposed to a chlorine (and possibly mustard) gas attack in Iraq in 2016

In moments like this, though, when everything feels so scary and loud and divided that it can be confusing to know how to cut through the noise and love well, I try to slow down and remember a well-known quote from the late Fred Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

There are predictable ways we typically respond to the scary, dark things we see on the news. It really can bring out the worst in us, but it can also bring out the best—and that’s why we are so unbelievably grateful that you continue to cut through the noise to love, listen, and show up for people who need you most. Thank you for being the helpers!

3. Most of the victims of a chemical attack probably aren’t even born yet when it happens.

Bullets and bombs tear bodies apart. But chemical, toxic, or radioactive weapons have the ability to do a unique kind of damage: they can permanently change our DNA.

Now, it’s important to say upfront here that we aren’t scientists. We’ve studied a great deal of research on this subject, but we aren’t experts on genetic mutation or the long-term effects of chemical malformations. And the idea that all this is predictable or simple or easy to understand is ludicrous. That said, there are observable trends, and we’ve been observing and responding long enough to have an informed, seasoned opinion.

Many of you who’ve supported us for a long time may remember our work in the early days in Iraq with children suffering from life-threatening heart defects. Again and again, we encountered alarmingly high numbers of children born in Iraq with terrible birth defects and neural disorders. It hardly seems coincidental that large concentrations of these children hailed from regions of Iraq that affected by Saddam Hussein’s chemical bombs in the 1980s or the US military’s toxic, environment-altering munitions.

This child in Iraq received a lifesaving heart surgery in 2017. For years, Iraqi children have suffered from an unusually high rate of heart defects. Many believe this is due in part to exposure to chemical weapons.

A few years later, when you galvanized our efforts to serve Iraqi families fleeing ISIS, we began seeing it again: people suffering from the effects of chemical warfare. But this time, we saw the rockets falling, the mushroom clouds rising, the burns and injuries with our own eyes.

RELATED: The Day We Witnessed a Chemical Attack

I remember one response two years ago, just up the road from our house. We got word that ISIS had launched Katyusha rockets full of chlorine and possibly mustard gas at a small village called Taza.

You helped us send a last-minute response within 24 hours. You sent doctors to the local clinic to provide initial care and refer patients to a larger hospital in the area for more in-depth treatment. We encountered children who couldn’t stop bleeding, people short of breath, going blind, and with extreme headaches.

At one point, the leader of the village took us to see where the rockets had hit. Most of the neighborhood showed no sign of life, apart from a half dozen birds either dead or twitching on the ground. I moved in close to get a photo of the rocket’s shell casing. I had a scarf over my mouth and nose, but it wasn’t enough. I breathed in the residual fumes. The smell almost knocked me over, it was so intense. I got the photo, but had to stumble away and almost fell. One of the soldiers charged with our security laughed at me.

The shell of a chemical rocket that was dropped in Taza, Iraq in 2016

I knew immediately I’d made a mistake, and for the next few days I felt awful. I had headaches, was nauseated, and often got dizzy—my head spun like a top. My wife was upset with me since we were hoping to have a baby, so I downplayed it like it wasn’t a big deal.

A few months later, we found out we were expecting and shortly after that my wife miscarried. I doubt I’ll ever forget the regret and shame and anger I felt with myself—“This was my fault.”

Now I know there are countless reasons a miscarriage can happen and that I’m really only making a wild guess, but that’s kind of the point. People who’ve endured chemical attacks are left guessing for generations—and for a brief moment, I felt what many here have felt.

Having a baby in this culture is a high honor and considered essential, something to rejoice about. It’s such an honor in Islam to be blessed with a child. Yet here, this beautiful thing is now bittersweet.

Will their child be born with a death sentence, like so many others in their community? Is this all a dark, genetic legacy left by Saddam, ISIS, the Americans, Assad, or someone else? Is it God’s punishment? Or could it just be the chemically-contaminated water or food?

They’re left to guess—and even if they had definitive proof why this is all happening to their babies, would anyone listen?

4. In a way, chemical attacks can feel random, but they’re of sinister design.

At first glance, chemical gas attacks may seem arbitrary. Gas can’t be controlled like a missile or a sniper bullet, and it seems like haphazard killing—and that’s true.

The first time we encountered chemical attacks ourselves, we saw ISIS launching rockets indiscriminately in a part of Iraq that had already endured genocide. It just seemed so evil and random. But there’s also a “designed-ness” to these attacks that is absolutely horrifying.

Much of the weaponized gas we know today was developed in Europe over 100 years ago. Its first major use in combat was during World War I. When the fighting reached gridlock and both sides dug in for trench warfare, they were keen to test new weapons that might give them the upper hand.

The site of an alleged chemical attack in Syria, 2017

The Germans first tested out gas as a weapon, and the French and British quickly followed suit. They were was horrifically effective, and the success of its dark design has to do with the fact that the gases used are heavier than the air. Bullets fly over trenches, but gas falls. It seeks us out in our safest spaces.

During World War I, it seeped into trenches and filled the lungs of soldiers on both sides.

During World War II, gas seeped into chambers containing the Nazi’s enemies—mainly Jews.

During the Vietnam War, Agent Orange used by the US military fell through the protective jungle canopy, reaching unseen enemy soldiers on the forest floor.

During Saddam’s genocide against Shia Arabs in the south and Kurds in the north, his army would use artillery or mortar fire to shatter the windows, then drop chemicals so they could flow freely into homes, basements, and bunkers where people hid.

And today in Iraq and Syria, these gases still fall, seeking people out in their basement and underground hiding places, where they’re sure no weapon can reach them. But some weapons are designed to reach us right where we feel safest.

The fact that you’ve read to this point is honestly remarkable, so thank you. This isn’t an easy topic, and for you to dedicate some of your day to learning more about it with us means a great deal. It’s just one more example of your outrageous love for people you may never even meet, and it’s yet another reminder how truly thankful we are to live and love shoulder-to-shoulder with you in some of the toughest places.

A particular word of thanks to those of you a part of our Frontline monthly giving community. We talk a lot about how you make last-minute, urgent responses possible—and responses to chemical attacks are often the most urgent we can possibly make. There just isn’t always time to create a campaign and invite people to donate. Sometimes, we have to get in right away to serve people before it’s too late. You make that possible by giving each month.

If you aren’t making these last-minute, lifesaving responses possible as a member of the Frontline, you should! We’d be honored to have you as part of our community—at whatever amount you’re able to give each month.

Thanks to each of you. Please know that we’re with you through and through.