A group of men pose for a photograph in a class room with a cross on the wall.
Photo provided by Nathan Hershberger

Nathan Hershberger (back row third from the right) stands with students in his English class at St. Peter’s seminary in Erbil, Iraq.

Name: Nathan Hershberger

Hometown: Harrisonburg, Va. (Com­mun­ity Mennonite Church)

Assignment: I teach English at three church institutions in Erbil, Iraq: a seminary, a church center for people displaced from other parts of Iraq and a private high school.

Typical day: Most mornings I plan lessons or tutor students at the high school. In the afternoons and evenings, I teach English classes at St. Peter’s seminary or Mar Elia Church, which hosts about 170 displaced families from the area around Mosul.

Joys: It is a great joy to feel like I can contribute something — teaching English — that many people here want. It is an even greater joy to develop friendships with students and colleagues here and feel like my presence is valued and affirmed for who I am, not just what I can do. A good day is a day when I connect with people. I also love the food. 

“Anything you can say is going to feel like not enough, inadequate to the depths of the suffering.”

Challenge: Being with people who have suffered incredible hardship and feeling unable to do much about it. How do you respond when someone tells you they’ve lost their family, their home, their career? Anything you can say is going to feel like not enough, inadequate to the depths of the suffering. And every conversation reminds me that all my needs are taken care of and I have a safety net a continent wide ready to pick me up if I fall. That creates a lot of anxiety to do more for the people here who don’t have those benefits. A bad day is when I feel like I’m not contributing or connecting with anyone.

On learning while teaching: I see myself as a very sensitive person who tries hard to put people at ease and not make assumptions or say things that will make them uncomfortable.  However, teaching in a new place, and one with the kinds of conflict that Iraq has had, have made me question some of my own assumptions – oftentimes in the middle of a lesson!

As a warm-up conversation activity in the beginner’s English class I teach at St. Peter’s Seminary, I asked students to each say a place they’d like to visit. A few students said Germany or Brazil or Italy, which was more or less what I expected. About four of them said, “Someday I want to visit my home in Qaraqosh.” ...Oh. Right. Even though their homes are less than 100 miles away, it's possible they will never see them again.

This nativity scene was set up in a tent where displaced people used to live on the grounds of Mar Elia Church in Iraq. The Arabic on the tent flap says Jesus' tent.

Last Christmas season, at Mar Elia Church, where I teach high school students, the priest put up a life-size tent nativity, in the midst of tents where displaced people were living. The Arabic on the tent flap says Jesus' tent.

Iraqi Christians seem to love large elaborate nativity scenes, so spotting the nativity was not a surprise at first. But a moment later, when I realized it was a tent that families had been living in, I was jolted with a sense of how fitting it was.

Moments of connection: At St. Peter’s Seminary, I had asked my students to write about their decision to study for the priesthood. I was curious, and it seemed like a useful exercise.

Most of them mentioned a desire to serve the church in difficult times, a commitment to God and formative experiences as children. One student had decided to enter seminary after his parish priest in Mosul was assassinated several years ago. 

But I was most surprised when one of the students turned the tables on me and asked for the story of how my wife Kaitlin and I met, and why we came to Iraq. Another student, Bahjat, had just summed up his calling by drawing a heart with an arrow sticking through it and “Bahjat and Jesus forever,” so the analogy between marriage and the priesthood seemed to be clearly in their minds. 

Judging by their reactions, my account of meeting Kaitlin through friends at Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.), dating and getting married, was probably a bit more boring than they were hoping. (One said, “Next time we see Kaitlin we’ll get the real story.”) But their interest in my life and their openness has helped create a comforting sense of camaraderie.

Encountering the realities of displacement: One time on the way to an MCC-sponsored trauma training, I saw two kids carrying a wooden pallet down the street. Half a block behind them I saw a middle-aged man doing the same thing. They must have been a displaced family living at a camp nearby. It had been raining heavily, and the conditions they had been living in had undoubtedly gotten even worse in the last few days and nights. The pallets, I assumed, were intended to lift mattresses or goods off the ground a few inches in their tents. That scene made me feel terrible. At the same time, it also was a reminder not to view refugees entirely as powerless victims. They need help, but they also look after themselves in resourceful ways, just like everyone else – something that is surprisingly easy to forget.

Advice for someone considering teaching through MCC:  If you are new to teaching, like I was, prepare as much as you can, and then be ready to learn on the job. Teaching has a steep learning curve to begin with, and diving into it for the first time in a new context and culture doubly so. There is only so much I can do to prepare, so I have to have a lot of grace for myself and learn from what does and doesn’t go well.