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Why a Brisbane university student visited refugee camps in Iraq’s war zone

Rebekah Dowling

Locals: Rebekah Dowling and girls from the farming village of Kashawa

REBEKAH Dowling is putting her pacifist beliefs into practise by joining Christian Peacemaker Teams visiting northern Iraq.

The young Brisbane university student spent the past fortnight visiting refugee camps and villages close to fighting.

Ms Dowling, 23, is the daughter of West End Catholic Worker Movement founders Jim Dowling and Anne Rampa and grew up in a radical Christian family in Brisbane that is active in campaigns for non-violence and opposition to war, values based on American Servant of God Dorothy Day.

“I was (eight years old) when the Twin Towers fell (and) I have spent most of my life hearing about Iraq from the news, my parents and speakers at many different anti-war rallies,” Rebekah wrote in a blog of her visit

“To be actually going there for myself seems too strange, like reading a book then waking up to find that it is actually your life.”

In northern Iraq, CPT accompanies mountain village and shepherd communities as they struggle for a peaceful existence, resisting displacement and destruction caused by Turkish and Iranian cross-border military operations. 

CPT reports on the effects of the attacks on the civilian population and advocates for an end of the attacks.

bus ride

Insight: Rebekah Dowling travelling on the bus with other Christian Peacemaker Teams.

During one camp visit, Ms Dowling admitted she was confronted by her team mission, which was simply to follow God’s Spirit as it works through local peacemakers.

“One of our hosts asked us, ‘what are you doing here, what programs are you here to run?’,” she said.

“We looked at each other and I think we all wondered for a moment the exact same thing. 

“We weren’t there to run programs, we were meant to be listening and learning about the issue. 

“But he asked us why we couldn’t talk to refugees in our own countries, why not reading the news? Why come all this way? 

“It struck me, this question, as one I had been asking myself ever since deciding to come on this delegation – why? Is it poverty tourism? Is it the white saviour complex? Is it a doubting Thomas thing of needing to see it first hand? 

“I spoke briefly to the room of the feelings of overwhelming helplessness and disconnect when you hear these stories, or see the pictures but are a million miles away. 

“But does that mean I was there to make it more real for myself? What did that even mean? 

“I guess none of us had satisfying answers and squirmed under the gaze of these intelligent, capable people who have been through so much and weren’t willing to simply entertain a few more privileged westerners.

“I make it sound like they hated us but they were very kind and took us to see the mosque where we prayed and talked to the mullah.

“On reflection I know that the reason I am here is a mixture of God’s call in my life and to simply learn about CPT. 

“I am on a journey to find out if there is a way for me to work for peace in the world.”


No chance of peace: A piece of shrapnel from recent bombardment.

Ms Dowling’s mother Anne said she was worried about her daughter visiting a war zone, but she “had a moment with God” where she must trust that her daughter was walking with God.

“She is like a missionary for peace. We don’t believe in the use of violence to solve problems, but we don’t believe in not intervening either,” she said.

“We have to accept that she is in a dangerous place, but that is what peace-building can mean.”

Early this year The Catholic Leader reported on Ms Dowling’s efforts to set up a Christian community house in Greenslopes, where seven young house mates chose to live in “voluntary poverty” with a common mission to serve the poor and vulnerable.

The household is still operating. 

Ms Dowling is expected to return to Brisbane early next year after visiting Catholic Worker groups in England.


Groundwork: The CPT crew stand in a bomb crater overlooking the villages of Dupre and Kashkawa.

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