DULUTH – In the end, neither the military helicopter nor the escort of local officials worked out, so Michele Naar-Obed struck out for Syria alone, her itinerary built on trust, her eventual crossing of the Tigris River and arrival in the country made on nothing more than a lowly pontoon boat.
That was the start of a nervy peace mission the Duluth woman undertook recently to deliver $10,000 in cash to a Syrian city to help rebuild a library that had been reduced to rubble. Traveling solo with a backpack, the cash and a cellphone that turned out to be useless, Naar-Obed spent four nights inside the country.
"Everyone said you're not going to get into Syria," said Naar-Obed, now safely back in Minnesota.
A committed peace activist, Naar-Obed has spent much of the past 15 years traveling in and out of Iraq, working at first with a group known as the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Prizing person-to-person contact while building trust with locals one by one, Naar-Obed was the driving force behind Duluth's decision to become sister cities with Ranya, a city in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The sister-city relationship has slowly blossomed, with several delegations from Duluth traveling there. Brooks Anderson, a retired Lutheran pastor from Duluth, was among the first to follow Naar-Obed's trailblazing connections into Kurdish Iraq, which he and five others visited several years ago.
"Kurds in general feel like they're shut out of the world," Anderson said. "So the six of us went, and it was pretty overwhelming, the way they received us."
As the Syrian refugee crisis began, Anderson began looking for a way to help. Naar-Obed, meanwhile, had begun meeting Syrian refugees in Iraq and realized it made sense to try and help Syrians themselves, before they become refugees. The idea quickly found support, said Anderson.
"We're grateful that there's a dedicated, free spirit like Michele willing to take this on," he said. "I think it's partly Duluth, we're a pretty special peacemaking city. It's always been our frame of mind."
Months of planning and two fundraisers in Duluth led to a departure in January, when Naar-Obed traveled first to Ranya. Nervous about carrying so much cash around, Naar-Obed asked her Iraqi host family to hide the money in their house.
For several weeks she lobbied local government officials to open the border between Iraq and Syria. Some of her friends in Ranya even asked the U.S. military to fly her over in a helicopter, but it wasn't allowed. After six weeks of seeking permission, and just before Naar-Obed was about to wire the money into Syria rather than visit personally, she was told she would be allowed in the next day, which she said was Feb. 21 or 22.
She was planning to travel with two men from Ranya, but the official who granted her entry into Syria denied them visas.
Naar-Obed would have to travel solo inside the war-torn country.
With 15 hours to arrange transportation and logistics, she eventually got a ride to the border and was told to walk toward the pontoon boat that would carry her across the Tigris. She had the name of a man she was to meet on the other side. He was there, and he handed her a piece of paper with a stamp on it that allowed travel for 30 days.
But Naar-Obed needed something more to help her through the country. Unable to speak the local dialect of Kurdish, Naar-Obed said she simply spoke the name of Gharib Hassou, a high-ranking person in Kobani, Syria, whenever she needed to explain what she was doing.
Wary Syrians could then call Hassou and he would explain that he was personally overseeing Naar-Obed's visit. Naar-Obed said she built trust with the English-speaking Hassou months before her trip via Skype and e-mail.
The drive through Syria was rife with evidence of war, with checkpoints and armed individuals, but Naar-Obed said she didn't see any actual fighting. Her hosts were female Kurdish fighters who housed and fed her without asking for payment.
When she made it to Kobani, Naar-Obed was met by an English-speaking Iranian woman who was working in Kobani to help with the city's reconstruction. Kobani was ruined by urban warfare that culminated in the expulsion of ISIS forces in 2015. Some 80 percent of the city was destroyed, and tens of thousands of people fled. A 3-year-old boy from that city, Alan Kurdi, became the tragic face of Syrian refugees in 2015 when photos of his lifeless body on a Turkish beach showed the risks families were taking to flee.
Naar-Obed met with the library officials on her first morning in Kobani.
"They were shocked and stunned" that an American had come to deliver them cash, she said.
She also handed over three books, a children's book translated into the local dialect, a copy of the book "I Am Malala," and a journal written by people in Duluth who had contributed to the library project. Naar-Obed said reconstruction of the library has already begun.
Naar-Obed said she spent two days in Kobani, touring portions of the city that have been reconstructed and other areas flattened by shelling and war.
She also saw firsthand the work that Kurds of northern Syria have done to rebuild their society, starting with the establishment of the Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava. The autonomous region within Syria ratified a new constitution in 2014 that grants gender equality and freedom of religion. Inspired by their example, Naar-Obed said she wants to learn more.
Her initial plan, she said, was to hand over the money and leave without ever returning. That's changed.
"I hope to go back," she said.