Visiting the Refugees in Iraq

Bishops’ Main Focus Has to Be Needs of the Moment

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Earlier this month, Karin Maria Fenbert, an official of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, travelled to Erbil, capital of Kurdish Iraq, to assess the needs of more than 100,000 Iraq Chaldean Christians, who had fled their homes in Mosul and surrounding communities on the Nineveh Plane in the wake of the violent take-over of the area by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the spring and summer. She reported on her findings in this Oct. 14 interview.

Q: How are the refugees in northern Iraq doing?

Fenbert: In Erbil, the situation is hard for the refugees. The school year has begun again and the refugees who had taken shelter in the school buildings have to vacate the premises as soon as possible—to avoid tensions with the local Christian population.

Moreover winter is not far away and many refugees are still living in tents that are not waterproof, some of which are set up on the bare ground. The Church is pretty much alone in caring for them; so far the Iraqi government has not done anything for them. The tents of the refugees are set up on parish properties. The Church in Iraq is urgently in need of financial support from abroad—and it has to arrive very quickly.

Q: What is Aid to the Church in Need doing to help?

Fenbert: After weeks of intense communication with local Church leaders, this fact-finding mission allowed us to put the final touches on projects that we will be funding in the weeks and months ahead. To put it in broad strokes, we will help the refugees get through the winter; they should have a permanent roof over their heads, and the refugee children should be able to go to school.

For example, later this month we will complete building a village featuring houses made out of residential container modules. This settlement is already under construction and will be named “Father Werenfried Town,” after the founder of Aid to the Church in Need. It will provide some 4,000 people with shelter for the winter.

Likewise, starting in December, lodgings for the refugees in the vicinity of Erbil will be rented. In order to give parents hope for the future of their children in their own country, we will support the construction of four schools in Erbil and four additional schools in Dohuk. These buildings, too, will be made out of weatherproof residential container modules. We were able to tour a model school of this type that is under construction and are convinced that this is a workable concept.

There are also priests and nuns among the refugees—and they too will get a roof over their heads. In addition we will support the one major seminary in Iraq, which now has 28 seminarians, as well as Babel College, currently the only institute in Iraq where theology and philosophy are taught. There are nuns in Erbil, too, to whom we have promised basic assistance, among other things.

In the Dohuk region we will distribute food packages to approximately around 8,000 families. In addition, we are preparing 15,000 Christmas packages for children. To pull off all these these projects, of course, we are counting on the generous support of all our benefactors

Q: What specific impressions were you able to get about the current conditions of the refugees?

Fenbert: We visited a refugee camp made out of tents. One parish made its property available for this purpose. The local pastor rewards the refugee children for good deeds, for example collecting trash. Therefore it is spanking clean in this tent camp, even though the people there have had to endure the most primitive conditions since early August. For example, eight persons live together in a tent that is only about 10 by 13 foot. Bathing and hygiene are taken care of outside, with the help of a bucket. The nearest showers are far away.

We also visited a school in which many refugees are housed. I deliberately use the expression “are housed,” because you can’t call that living. For instance, 22 people are staying in one classroom that measured perhaps 16.5 by 20 foot. During the day the thin mattresses are stacked up to the ceiling against one wall. We also saw people lying on their mattresses and sleeping throughout the day in that room. Under such conditions there is no privacy. And the sanitary conditions are very poor. A person who comes from the outside to get a look at the degrading situation feels anything but well—the refugees must feel that they are trapped in a zoo.

Q: You spoke with the local bishops and the nuncio to Iraq. What future do they see for Iraq?

Fenbert: The bishops are only reporting what they hear hundreds of people say: the Christians feel betrayed: betrayed by their central government in Baghdad; betrayed by their Muslim former neighbors; and betrayed also by the international community. They feel that they are being perceived merely as collateral damage in geopolitical power plays. Add it all up, and the bishops feel quite helpless and powerless.

Their main focus is on the needs of the moment, namely, to do everything they can to make sure that the refugees can survive the winter—and, as far as possible, with some dignity, although under these conditions it is difficult to give the refugees any kind of privacy.

At the moment more than one third of the Christians in Iraq are living as refugees in their own country. They see a future for themselves only if a certain degree of security can be guaranteed. How that might happen, if it ever will, is far from obvious.  Also fathers of families must be able to get a job; and the young must be able to complete their education. Surely, lack of education is one of the main causes of Islamic extremism.

Right now, most of the refugees remain in limbo, which keeps them—for now—from being able to make a free decision as to whether they want to remain in Iraq or would like to pursue a chance at happiness abroad instead.

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. (USA); (UK); (AUS); (IRL); (CAN) (Malta)

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