Iraq: ‘Many Christians Hold a Hope to Return to Their Homes’

Archbishop Warda on the Context and General Situation of Christian IDPs in Erbil

ACN Photo

Christian IDPs in Erbil, Kurdish Iraq continue depend to depend on aid as they are awaiting the opportunity to return to their home on the Nineveh plains. They have been cared for by by the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil—under the leadership of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, Css—ever since ISIS invaded their homeland in the summer of 2014. Archbishop Warda, in an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), takes stock.

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Please describe the context and the general situation of the Christian IDPs in Erbil now.

At present there are still more than 10,000 Christian IDP families in the greater Erbil region. While many still hold a hope to return to their homes in Nineveh, for the majority of them this remains a very uncertain time due to the continuing conflict in the region and lack of any stable security plan from the central government in Baghdad or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).  There is at present no meaningful plan or support for reconstruction in these towns from either the KRG or the Central Government in Baghdad. As such the IDPs currently in the greater Erbil region face the two main obstacles: lack of security and lack of civil infrastructure. In this environment, the majority of the IDPs are not willing to return yet to their former homes, especially in the Iraqi controlled sector of Nineveh, which includes Qaraqosh.

The situation in the Kurdish controlled sector, which includes the towns of Teleskof, Batnaya and Baqofa, is somewhat clearer as it pertains to security, and returns to those towns are beginning.  However, these returns are completely dependent on private sources of funding for reconstruction

Regarding the economic situation of the IDPs—what are their living conditions? What do people lack most?

The IDP families are nearly all unemployed, or employed on the books of the government but without any meaningful pay. Such employment as does exist is largely in the form of self-employment, selling various items on the street, in most cases without proper permits. Those with savings at the outset of the crisis have in most cases greatly depleted these funds in the past three years. We expect to see a rise over the coming months in terms of the need for financial and humanitarian assistance.  The three most critical areas of need continue to be housing, food and medicine.

Could you please describe the situation of the children and of the youngsters?

Thanks to the heavy involvement of Church-based support, schools have been built to handle the needs of the IDP children at the early ages and elementary school. Significant assistance in terms of both teachers and facilities are still available at the High School level. However, college level access for the IDPs remains a crisis and many students have been forced to delay their college years. This problem is a specific issue for the IDPs as the universities in the KRG are generally using the Kurdish language for instruction, a language in which very few of the IDP students are fluent.  The recently established Catholic University of Erbil, which has English as its language of instruction, has sought to address this issue by focusing on IDP student scholarships, but additional funding is still needed to support this effort.

What is the situation of the elderly people?

They are experiencing a true crisis.  In many cases, elderly IDPs have been left behind by their children who have left the country.  In nearly all these cases the only support group for the elderly is the Church. The Archdiocese of Erbil has made repeated efforts to establish basic living facilities and proper care for the elderly, but meaningful support has not been found due to the emphasis being placed on the basic needs of the broader population. As many of these elderly individuals are now without family to support them, this crisis is expected to continue even after any return to Nineveh by the general population.

How may IDPs remain in Erbil?

The situation regarding IDPs remains fluid, but current estimates are that at least 10,000 IDP families remain in the greater Erbil region who are in need of food assistance, with well over half of these individuals being women, children, and the elderly.  Reliable statistics are not available regarding the numbers of sick due to lack of coordination between medical facilities, but anecdotal evidence from the clinics run by the Archdiocese of Erbil indicates high levels of chronic diseases, especially among the elderly, which are in most cases related to the stress and the difficult physical conditions that are part of their IDP status.

How are the IDPs in Erbil feeling at the moment, after the villages on the Nineveh plains have been liberated?

The feelings and disposition of the IDPs varies according to the town they are from and their economic condition.  Those IDPs from the towns in the Kurdish sector have greater optimism given the clarity of Church leadership and the security structure that exists there.  Those IDPs whose homes are in the Iraqi sector, which represents 70 percent of the total Christian IDP population, are generally in a very uncertain and fearful state of mind.  While their towns have technically been “liberated,” the political and security situations remain very dangerous and unclear. Despite the firm support of the local Church, many Christian IDPs continue to feel abandoned by both governments (within Iraq and abroad) and by major international aid organizations.

Are there many people traumatized?

The mental condition and traumatization of the IDPs is a crisis of its own.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is clearly evident in those that faced violence first-hand. Depression and anxiety are at extremely high levels among adults. Treatment is hampered by the lack of capacity of medical and psychological treatment, as well as by the cultural reluctance to admit to any sort of mental weakness. .

Yet, people’s faith by all accounts has remained very strong.

Without question the persecution which the IDPs have faced has made their faith stronger.  We see this every day.  Having had the very existence of their faith threatened with extinction, the people have come to value its importance in their lives in a much deeper way. The people’s highest hopes are for the welfare and safety of their children, as would be the case for parents anywhere.

Since March 2016, ACN has been the only organization consistently providing help for the IDPs. Since the beginning of the crisis in 2014, ACN has provided a total of $27M in food aid and in the provision of housing and shelter.

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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. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)

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