From Boone to the Middle East: Zenat Drown is Making a Difference

Published Tuesday, April 3, 2018 at 5:25 pm

As a former refugee, Zenat Drown, pictured with these children in Iraq, understands the plight of the families, especially the women and children, currently served through her Greater Change organization. She was around 5 when her family decided to flee Afghanistan.

By Sherrie Norris

The smile on her face and the excitement in her voice tells a lot about Zenat Drown, especially when she is talking about Greater Change, the nonprofit organization she formed last year in the Middle East.

One woman with a mission in mind is a force with which to be reckoned — and those who know Drown best will tell you that she has the determination needed to make things happen.

Drown, an astute businesswoman and professional photographer, moved to Boone in late 2017 with her husband, who works locally, and their two children who attend Hardin Park Elementary School. While her family has established a home base in Boone and attend church at Alliance Bible Fellowship, a big part of Drown’s heart is thousands of miles away — in a remote camp where hundreds of families have found refuge in search of a better life.

Greater Change is on the ground in Northern Iraq, educating and empowering women and children to transform their own communities. “We seek a transformed Iraq where families can live in peace and women and children are empowered to flourish and grow,” said Drown.

It’s not like she’s just “doing good” for the sake of doing good. Drown knows the needs of the people and she is determined to do everything she can to make their lives worth living.

As a former refugee, herself, Drown understands the plight of these families, especially the women and children currently served through her organization. She was around 5, she said, when, her father chose to flee Afghanistan with his family, which included Zenat, her step-mother and her siblings.

“I was born on the northern border of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union withdrew from the country shortly after my birth, and then the Taliban swept in. We eventually moved to an area of Pakistan known as Balochistan. We lived as refugees, renting a small single room — as a family of 6 six. Because my father was only able to afford about half of the rent each month, we had to perform tasks for the owners of the house to let us stay in that room. We cleaned and cooked and babysat.”

Describing her life as “one transition to another,” Drown recalls her first experience with a westerner was with a family of missionaries who were living nearby.

“They let me come to their home for Christmas, showed me kindness and provided a safe place when I mostly just faced rejection from everyone else I encountered. They eventually helped us apply for a UN program that resettled our family in Chicago. I was 12 when we moved from Pakistan to Chicago.”

She returned to the Middle East for the first time in 2015 with her husband, a former US Marine and their two boys – who were ages 5 and 7, on assignment with a Christian relief organization to serve refugees and internally displaced people.

Drown fit in well. “I just had this community of Yezidis that I fell in love with. I saw all the tensions the community was facing between the displaced families and the families that were hosting them. There had been some organizations that pulled out of the area, and so we decided to go in.”

After two years of living in Iraq, Drown said she noticed a gap in service to refugees and the families fleeing ISIS.

“While other organizations distribute care packages and goods, many Yazidi women and children are also in need of comprehensive skill training and psychological support.”

As her family prayed about how God had called them to Iraq, they felt Him directing Zenat to found an organization to serve vulnerable communities. The Drowns quickly decided that the money they had been saving for a big 10-year anniversary party could go a lot farther helping others. The justice-of- the- peace wedding they had years earlier would be enough.

Greater Change lives up to its name The Drowns were given a house from a community member to start their work.

“He felt what we were doing was so important for his people that he was willing to let us fix it up and use it for the first five months for free,” she said. “We ran everything from children’s after-school programs to trauma counseling and health and photography classes.”

It all started in May 2017. “At the end of this year, we learned that an organization was leaving the camp near our community and they were looking to transition their center to someone. We stepped up and offered to run it ourselves. They agreed to give it to us, so early this year we took over that center and started working inside of the refugee camp.”

It was never about her, Drown contends, but rather, about the people that she saw around her.

“Having been a refugee myself I know what it is like – that feeling of losing places where you had precious memories, of knowing they are destroyed and you can’t go back. I found my hope in Jesus Christ, and I wanted to be able to share that hope with others who have not experienced Him yet.”

Managing the organization from a far distance has its drawbacks, Zenat agrees, but, one of the beauties, she said, is that she is successful mainly because people in the community “own” the center.

“This is something I’m particularly proud of. We tell the members of the camp that this is their center and that we are just there to help them serve their own community. It is a central principal required to build community ownership. None of us NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are going to be there forever, and we want them to step up, to come up with their own solutions.”

The refugees are excited about the center and the opportunities they have, Drown said.

“They love that they get to own this program. You should see how excited the volunteers are every day coming in and giving to their own people. Their home, their land, and everything they owned is destroyed. Now they get to claim some of that back by taking responsibility and serving their people.”

“We also have a good team in place, including several expats, that help make sure the organization is accountable with our funding — to make sure the money goes to the beneficiaries. We have a country representative, an area coordinator, and a program manager that all help keep our systems accountable and all of our goals accomplished on time. In addition we have two expatriate board members who are actually working in the country, as well.”

Greater Change is managed entirely by volunteers right now, Drown said, which keeps the funding focus on covering the costs of the programs.

“I will be the last person to get paid in our organization,” she said, “but, I’m hoping to eventually hire some of our best volunteers, because they need money to support their families as well.”

But, that will come in time, she added.

“We have a rock-star board of directors that I’m very proud of,” Drown shared. “They believe in this organization and its cause, and are from a bunch of different backgrounds, but care passionately about the need that we’ve been able to address.”

While she plans to be at the camp at least three times a year, “at often as I am needed so I can regularly engage,” Drown said, she is on the phone daily with the leadership team there.

Currently, there are about 300 people who come into the center throughout the week. The camp, which is split into two, actually, contains about 30,000 people.

When asked about her greatest blessing of this organization, Drown is quick to answer:

“Giving the children in the camp hope, and showing them the love of Christ the way that missionary family showed me the love of Christ in Pakistan.”

Responding to our questions about any obstacles or challenges she has had to face, she answers just as quickly. “Financial support.”

“We don’t need a lot and are so thankful for the donors who have given, but every month we are just able to scrape by,” she said. We’d love to get more consistent, regular support. At the same time, this has also taught us what Jesus said:, ‘Don’t ask what will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.’”

One might think that a young, lovely woman such as Drown might not be taken seriously by the authorities in an otherwise male-dominated culture, but she sees it differently.

“I think what matters is the character and personality you bring to the table, and for me, as a Christian, letting the glory of God shine through. He works through broken people. But I have to imagine that sometimes these guys who I meet with must think, ‘What does this stupid little girl think she is doing being here?’ I don’t play politics, and so I come across very straight-forward. I think that helps give them some level of respect for me.”

We asked, too, about the safety of Greater Change.

“Those camps are carefully run by the local police, and, generally, crime levels are very low. The reason we have a guard is because we need someone to make sure the center is closed and the gate is locked at the end of the day . . . that the generator is off, and that kids don’t climb back in during the night, because they can cause some real chaos if they get in unsupervised.”

Drown pointed out a vital factor: “You have to understand that the Kurdish people are very loyal. Once you make a friendship you become a sister or brother for life and they will protect you even if they have to use their body to do it. In their country, we are guests and in their culture guests are a ‘blessing from God,’ so they do everything they can to respect and support you.”

Where do we go from here?

Drown’s vision for the future is to help as many little girls (“girls like I was,” she said), little boys and families who have been traumatized by war or crime. “My grandmother used to say that the real heroes are the women and children who are caught in between the war. Not the ones who are shooting at each other and waiving this or that flag. I want to help those who fall through the cracks and help them become better educated and empowered so they can really change their own communities. The Bible says, ‘Greater is He who is in me than He who is in the world.’ When people have that promise, then they can face any adversity and overcome it.”

Is it too early to measure success, we asked?

“So far this year, 2018, we’ve been able to serve about 300 members of the camp through our classes” Drown said, “but, maybe a better way to answer your question is to share this story: “When I was working at the center last fall, one of my students came to one of our classes and I could tell he was disheveled and struggling a bit. I asked him how he was doing and he told me that his father had just hung himself and committed suicide last night. He said his father kept telling everyone in the house that he was hearing voices tell him to do this but no one took him seriously — until it was too late. I asked him why he was at the center and not with his family? He told me this center was the only place he felt safe and at peace, and begged me not to send him back to his home. This is what motivates me to keep this place open – to continue to provide that safety, warmth and love for people who are so hungry for it.”    

Greater Change is not the only organization in the camp, Drown said. “Some are responsible for providing food, some for water and garbage collection, and some for education. We focus on community-level activities and improving the social wellbeing of families who are struggling with the trauma they have experienced.”

While Greater Change focuses primarily on women and children, Drown said that ultimately men still hold the power in these communities. “So, if we don’t engage them and get them to work with us, then they can just say their women and children cannot go to the center or can hurt them in other ways.”

One woman Drown met at the camp as the center was opening, told asked her, “You want to educate and empower me? Why don’t you educate my husband who has been beating me up?”

Drown explained, “The reality is, in these cultures the man is the authority, so to help the families progress, you have to work with the men. The men want to have something positive to do too and this is a big part of what we want to do.”

While the people feel safe in the camp, they are uncertain about their future. “They talk about going home, but they suspect that if they go back, they will just get swept up in the fighting and get hurt and traumatized again —or worse, killed. The US State Department labeled what happened to the Yezidis a genocide.”

These families have been here in the camp for nearly four years, Drown said. “We feel it is our job to help them see that they do not just need to be recipients of everyone’s care, but that they can step up and start to own their own future. Ultimately, I believe our best hope is outside of this ‘world’ and in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. I hope that through our love they will see that too.”

 

How can the High Country help?

The greatest need of Greater Change is ongoing regular commitments, Drown said. “We have had some generous donors give one-time commitments, and we are very thankful for that. However, because the needs are ongoing and monthly, we really need people to come alongside us and give on a regular basis.

You can also help by praying for me and our team,” Drown added. “We have a lot of start-up needs. We need help from people who have legal skills, accounting skills and people who would be interested in going and teaching a class or two even short-term. I’d love to take some folks with me next time I go to see this amazing world and beautiful people. You can also share about what we do.”

And, there are friends in Boone, like author, Katie Hagaman, who has sent copies of her book and offered some proceeds from the sale of her book, to help with Drown’s work in Iraq.

Tax-deductible contributions may be sent to Greater Change. P.O. Box 2742. SpringfieldVA 22152. 

For more information, follow Greater Change on Facebook or sign up for the newsletter by visiting www.greater-change.org.

Zenat Drown is pictured with a few students and volunteers at the Greater Change organization in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq.

 

Giving children in the refugee camp hope, and showing them the love of Christ “the way that missionary family showed me the love of Christ in Pakistan,” is among Zenat Drown’s greatest blessings, she said.

 

 

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