26 October 2016
Displaced Iraqi Christians take part in celebrations on 18 October 2016 in Erbil, to mark the liberation of Qaraqosh, which had been Iraq’s largest Christian town before it was overrun by ISIS in August 2014. (photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)
As Iraqi soldiers intensify their offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS, we are getting scattered reports from local clergy, describing scenes of great fear — but also tremendous hope.
The following is part of an email sent by Bishop Yousif Mirkius, Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Suleimaniyah. He described what happened last Thursday night, 20 October, when jihadists from ISIS, trying to escape security forces, sought shelter in local residences in Kirkuk, including the Dominican sisters’ convent and houses rented by the bishop to house immigrant students. The students, he writes, are
from all faiths: Christians, Muslims, Yazidis and Mandaeans, numbering about 500 in all. As he explains, 71 students were in the area that night when ISIS burst in. They were under the responsibility of Mr. Imad Matti, who described what happened:
The young girls realized the jihadists were invading at 3 in the morning on Friday. These terrorists had climbed the walls of the houses and reached the garden shouting “Allahu Akbar!” The students took photos of them and noticed that they were not only armed but also equipped with explosive belts around their waists. The security forces were aware of the seriousness of the situation and these girls had to remain 24 hours without electricity — trembling, in total fear. At that moment, heavy fighting took place. The terrorists would not surrender. So a plan was adopted to make everything possible to save the 14 students in the first house. The security forces succeeded in saving them despite their continuous gunfire during the whole operation.
At 2 a.m., we proceeded to rescue the seven students in the second house. It was the riskiest operation, as four terrorists were inside the house eating and drinking while the students were hidden under their beds. These terrorists must have been blinded by the Lord, because at no time did they find them. I therefore took the risk to ask them to come out of their hiding place, to run toward the wall at the back of the house. Nine of the emergency forces demonstrated exceptional courage and bravery. They were more than ready to give their lives to save these girls. It was dark and despite intense firing, the seven students were rescued.
As for the third group of students, the rescue operation took place at 5 a.m. on Saturday thanks to the “Suat” forces from Suleimaniyah. There were 30 students in that house. I must admit that I admired their courage and determination as the girls remained calm and followed very precisely all the orders and instructions that were given to them during these operations.
After this intervention, the four terrorists blew themselves up in the students’ house.
The seven students had remained under their beds 18 hours without moving and without letting their presence be detected. They were transferred to Erbil, where they are recovering and reassuring their families.
We do hope they will continue their studies with even more motivation than ever, with the help of the Chaldean diocese who has committed to finance their studies despite all the difficulties and challenges we are facing.
Bishop Yousif concluded: “We thank God for this grace and miracles. We also pray for all the martyrs, the wounded and victims as well as for all those who suffered damage and losses.”
Also this week, we received this jubilant, poetic communication from Basilios Georges Casmoussa, patriarchal auxiliary and Syriac Catholic archbishop emeritus of Mosul. He described the great joy surrounding the liberation of Qaraqosh, a Christian stronghold in the Nineveh Plain that had been emptied of Christians after the invasion of ISIS in 2014:
So, Qaraqosh is liberated!
Cry of joy, peace and hope for its children and all its friends over the world!
Message of thanksgiving to God. …
Message of gratitude to the courageous fighters of the Iraqi army, who came from all regions of Iraq, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis … together.
Who, at the dawn of 22 of Oct 2016, penetrated, with their Iraqi flag, the deserted city. …
The image of this valiant soldier, child of Qaraqosh, moved by the emotion, when he put his foot on the ground of his silent city, after a so long an absence, how he sprinkled his head and face by its dust, as a sweet balsam. …
Or, this other, with his weapon on his shoulder, kissing the entrance door of his childhood church. …
Or, this group of officers and soldiers, standing in front of the central altar, broken by Daesh [ISIS], and praying to the Virgin Mary “Shlama ellakh Maryam” in his maternal language, the soureth, an Aramaic idiom coming from the time of Christ. …
Or this young priest ringing the bell of the church of Bartella, another Christian city liberated in the Plain of Nineveh, yesterday. …
These views shall remain forever in the collective memory.
My message is a message of gratitude, also, to Kurdistan, who welcomed us when we were displaced, and to all those who came to help us by different ways. …
My message is a message of gratitude to all our friends, those unknown men and women over the world, who supported us by their solidarity, since the beginning of our exodus until today, in many ways: humanitarian aid, schools’ construction, churches, houses, medical centers, repeated visits of personalities coming from Europe, America and Australia.
Friends, as unknown soldiers, you made us feel we are not forgotten, we are not alone, we are beloved and recognized.
You have defended our cause. …
You, already, are preparing new projects to support us in our efforts of reconstruction. Be accompanied by our gratefulness and prayers:
To start the chapter of the reconstruction — the reconstruction of living together, with harmony and solidarity between different Christian denominations, and Muslim neighbors, Kurds, Arabs, Shabaks, Yazidis, Kakais, Mandaeans. …
In mutual respect, the recognition of diversity and rights. …
Consider all of them as citizens with the same rank, same rights, same duties.
1 July 2015
Tags: Iraq Iraqi
This CNEWA-supported dispensary in Erbil, Iraq, helps meet the medical needs of
displaced Iraqis. (photo: CNEWA)
After the ISIS attack on Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq — displacing thousands of Christians and Yazidis, forcing them into camps all over the Kurdish area of Erbil, Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah and Zakho — there was an urgent need to intervene and provide medical support and attention to these people.
In September, just three weeks after the displacement, the situation was miserable. CNEWA representatives who visited the region were shocked at what they saw, especially when it came to the medical care of the refugees. The only existing dispensary was a tent placed on the side of a street, with families waiting in line outside under the sun to get their medicine or their injections. This terrible situation moved CNEWA to install a prefab dispensary in Erbil, which has been successful through the support of its local partners.
The Dohuk dispensary consists of ten rooms, including a waiting room, two quick checkup rooms, two doctors’ rooms, a lab, two small operating rooms, a pharmacy and a storage. All are connected by a middle corridor. The building is a prefab steel structure. The rooms are properly air conditioned and furnished.
A dentist cares for a patient in the new Erbil dispensary. (photo: CNEWA)
In early May, the dispensary received around 55 patients per day in addition to about 20 chronic patients; this adds up to about 420 patients per week, and that number is expected to increase to around 700 patients per week. The dispensary is under the supervision of a committee representing all communities — Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox. It is managed and operated by the Rev. Aphrem Philippos, representing the committee; two sisters from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, who have great experience in similar projects; and a doctor.
On the first week of May, the dispensary got the blessing of both Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Msgr. John Kozar, who visited the facility as part of a pastoral visit.
Cardinal Sandri greets the staff at the dispensary. (photo: John E. Kozar)
14 April 2015
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Sisters Iraqi Refugees Relief
The president of CNEWA, Msgr. John E. Kozar, has authorized the immediate release of $686,000 to assist the Christian community in the Middle East as part of CNEWA’s ongoing commitment to the region’s churches and their humanitarian and pastoral initiatives.
The aid targets those most in need, he stated, and will be administered by CNEWA’s partners on the ground. The funds represent a portion of CNEWA’s allocation from the voluntary collection taken up last autumn in dioceses across the United States. Support includes:
$100,000 to renovate and furnish church structures damaged during anti-Christian riots in Egypt in August 2013.
$15,000 to help the Daughters of the Sacred Heart in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, run a home for the care of elderly and disabled women, many of them displaced by ISIS.
$3,000 to support the Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena for the formation of novices. The sisters have lost their mother house in Mosul and many convents in northern Iraq. From their exile in Erbil, they are CNEWA’s primary partners in caring for the displaced.
$150,000 to assist parishes in Jordan hosting Iraqi Christian refugee families. Living in parish community centers, families delineate space with temporary dividers, and receive bedding, clothing, food and a caring ear from the parish community.
$50,000 to support the Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zerqa, Jordan. Staffed by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, the sisters serve impoverished refugee expectant mothers, Muslim and Christian, an increasing number of whom are Iraqi and Syrian.
$50,000 to help the Pontifical Mission Community Center in Amman, Jordan, provide counseling, tutorial services, catechesis and English classes to marginalized populations, especially Syrian and Iraqi Christian families. The center is administered by the Teresians, an international Catholic lay association.
$50,000 to provide additional support to the Italian Hospital in Amman for its treatment of refugees and the poor. The hospital is administered by the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, an Iraqi religious community.
$75,000 to assist religious sisters in Lebanon with their outreach to poor Lebanese nationals. The influx of more than a million Syrian and Iraqi refugees has devastated the poor of Lebanon, who have grown poorer with the loss of income and housing. Funds provide food, medicines, counseling services and other forms of assistance.
$93,000 to help Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza renovate its community center, which provided families a refuge during the aerial bombing of Gaza last summer. The Latin parish is the only Catholic church in the Gaza Strip. It serves the entire community, sponsoring a school, hosting a home for children with special needs run by the Missionaries of Charity, and offering other social services, such as post-traumatic stress disorder counseling.
$100,000 to provide medical care for impoverished families in Syria through CNEWA’s partners on the ground — religious communities of men and women.
Samir and Nevine Deshto, Iraqi Christian refugees, stand with their newborn daughter in the Italian Hospital in Amman. (photo: Nader Daoud)
Msgr. Kozar noted that portions of this disbursement supplement the agency’s commitment of more than $6.8 million to the peoples and churches of the Middle East in 2015. CNEWA’s Middle East program includes an array of aid from emergency relief for displaced Iraqi Christian families and support for formation programs for seminarians in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon to health care and schooling initiatives in Syria and Palestine.
An agency of the Holy See, CNEWA works throughout the Middle East, with offices in Amman, Beirut and Jerusalem. On behalf of the pope, CNEWA works for, through and with the Eastern churches. CNEWA is a registered charity in Canada and in the United States by the State of New York. All contributions are tax deductible and tax receipts are issued. In the United States, donations can be made online at www.cnewa.org; by phone at 800.442.6392; or by mail, CNEWA, 1011 First Avenue, New York, NY 10022-4195. In Canada, visit www.cnewa.ca; write a cheque to CNEWA Canada and send to 1247 Kilborn Place, Ottawa, Ontario K1H 6K9; or call toll-free at 1-866-322-4441.
3 March 2015
Tags: Middle East Christians CNEWA Middle East Relief Eastern Churches
A displaced Syrian girl finds temporary shelter at a school in Damascus, Syria, on 23 February. (photo: CNS/Youssef Badawi, EPA)
Syrian families who have fled their homes after the Islamic State raided their villages are receiving aid from CNEWA.
Catholic News Service interviewed Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, who coordinates our regional emergency relief programs:
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, upon learning about the Islamic State attacks, contacted Bishop Aprim Nathniel of the Assyrian Church of the East in Hassake, with whom the agency had collaborated on previous projects, said Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon.
“What we learned from Bishop [Aprim] is that so far, there are around 900 families that have been displaced from around 18 villages out of 35,” Mr. Constantin told Catholic News Service on 27 February from Beirut. “Another 200 families are expected to come as soon as the fighting cools down a little bit.”
He said most of the 900 displaced families have been temporarily settled in homes in Hassake abandoned by fellow Christians — Assyrians, Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox — who had earlier fled out of fear because Islamic State groups were very close.
“There were many individual houses that were vacant, so the bishop took the initiative to open these houses, knowing that nobody would mind,” Mr. Constantin said. Although the homes are furnished, the displaced families were in urgent need of food, heating fuel, gas for cooking and medication.
“It’s very important to reach out to them with something very basic to sustain them at least for a couple of weeks,” he said. As a first step, CNEWA arranged to send 900 food packages, enough for each family for that initial period.
However, delivering aid or money to Syria is complicated.
“It’s a very long process to buy food from the outside and send it to Syria. It’s not feasible, it takes too much time,” Mr. Constantin explained. Furthermore, transporting goods is perilous because there are daily raids by Islamic State along the only road that links Hassake to Qamishli.
Under such circumstances, he says it is more efficient to send money to purchase whatever is available locally, but due to the conflict, there is no banking system working in Hassake to send funds via bank transfer.
He said CNEWA was working with an Iraqi aid agency able to get the funds into Syria.
“Without this contact in Iraq we could not be so efficient,” he said.
As a first step, CNEWA sent around $36,000 to buy 900 food packages for $40 each. The agency determined from its work in Syria that $40 can sustain a family of five with food for about two weeks.
“It’s a top priority for us to help these people at this moment and then we can coordinate with other partners to see how more grants, more funding can be conveyed to them,” he added.
CNS has more details.
Meantime, the need continues to be urgent. Please keep these refugees and all who are seeking to help them in your prayers. And to learn how you can help, visit this link.
27 February 2015
Tags: Syria Refugees CNEWA Relief
A young girl celebrates the Divine Liturgy in the village of Al Qaa in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, currently home to many Syrian refugees. (photo: Tamara Hadi)
The Christians of Syria need us to take direct action. The families who have escaped need food to eat. A warm place to sleep. Medical care to ease their pain. Trauma counseling to soothe emotional wounds that may never heal.
We wish we could stop the violence, but we know we can help these suffering Christians heal. With their world destroyed, they’re desperate for any small patch of peace. A helping hand. So let’s reach out to them today, together.
Click here to take direct action. Thank you, and God bless you.
24 February 2015
Tags: Syria Refugees Middle East Christians Relief
(image: Tele Lumiere)
More than 90 Syrian Christians, including women and children, have been captured by ISIS militants near the northeastern Syrian city of Hassake.
A number of accounts from Syria report heavy fighting that began over the weekend as ISIS attacked Christian villages along the Khabur River. The river flows into Hassake, a city of 188,000 people, many of whom are Assyro-Chaldean and Armenian Christians.
Hassake is now cut off.
A “mass exodus of people took place [to] Hassake” writes Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana in an email to aid partners, including CNEWA. Church of the East “Bishop Mar Aprem Athniel told me the church and community hall are overloaded with people.”
Syria Daily reports that “the jihadists struck along the Khabur River, moving southeast from Tal Shamiran all the way to Tal Hurmiz. Claims are circulating that churches were burned and villagers were kidnapped, with women and children separated from the men as the Islamic State seeks a prisoner exchange with local Kurdish groups.”
An ethnically diverse region, northeastern Syria is home to large numbers of ethnic Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslims, and Assyro-Chaldean and Armenian Christians. Many of the Christians are descendants of those who survived previous massacres. These include the genocidal murder of the Christian community in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, and the Simele Massacre of 1933, in which the Iraqi army systematically targeted northern Iraq’s Assyro-Chaldean Christians, perhaps murdering as many as 3,000 people.
“Those villages,” writes Archimandrite Youkhana of the 35 Syrian communities now under siege by ISIS, “were started by Assyrians who fled the massacre of August 1933. So far, they never use the term ‘village’ or ‘town’ for their settlements … [but] insist to say ‘camps’ to reflect the fact that they were settled temporarily.”
The villagers, he notes, “hope to one day return to Iraq.”
At present, writes CNEWA’s Michel Constantin, “all roads leading to Hassake are blocked by so-called Islamic State militants, and the only way to respond to the needs of the refugees is through Turkey or northern Iraq.
“We are establishing communication now to explore any possibilities of providing emergency relief to these new refugees.”
(image: Tele Lumiere)
1 December 2014
Tags: Syria Violence against Christians Chaldean Church Assyrian Church Church of the East
A sister walks among families in the basement of an unfinished building in Erbil now used as a shelter for displaced Christians. (photo: Don Duncan)
We recently received the following urgent appeal from Sister Maria Hanna, prioress of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq:
After four months of exile there are no signs of hope that the situation here in Iraq will be resolved peacefully. Unable to think or make decisions, everything is vague and we feel as if we have been living a nightmare. Christianity in Iraq is bleeding; so many families have left, and many are leaving to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, preparing themselves for second immigration and an uncertain future. We do not know how long these families will be able to tolerate the burden and survive financially.
The conditions remain the same for those of us in Iraq. Many still are forced to stay in unfinished buildings on construction sites. In one place, a mall has been remodeled to accommodate families, with the hall divided merely with partitions. Although they are better than tents, they resemble dark, damp cages with no ventilation. Most difficult of all is the lack of privacy.
There have been some attempts to provide containers and rent houses and flats, but this is not enough, as the number of displaced people increases each day. Many come from cold, mountainous places. Psychologically, people are tired, worried, confused and irritated — who would blame them? They are jobless, their children do not attend school and young people are still waiting to start their academic year. Some tried to register at Kurdish universities, but they were not accepted. All this is causing tremendous strain on the families, and the result is abuse and relationships that are unhealthy. The problems are totally overwhelming, and it seems as if our efforts are amounting to nothing.
People have been stripped of their dignity and unjustly deprived of all their money and possessions. What money people do have cannot be withdrawn from banks as the central government has frozen their accounts. Moreover, some people desperately look for work, ready to labor for minimum wage.
Despite this, things would be much worse if it were not for the aid we have received from you and the many benefactors who have contributed what they can.
Thank you. Indeed, we are so grateful to you, and we have tried to help as many people as we can with these donations. Our focus has not been on the refugee centers and camps only, as refugees at these centers are supported by the organization and the church. Rather we are trying to help those families who rent houses, but cannot support themselves. So we help them by providing bedding and clothing.
As for our community, we are extremely exhausted with concern for the family and friends we have who are unjustly forced to leave us. Everyday we hope that tomorrow will be better, but our tomorrows seem to bring only more tears and hardship. “Out of the depths we cry to thee, O Lord! When will you rescue us?”
We desperately count on your prayers, and we need you carry us to Jesus like the men who brought the paralytic to Jesus.
God bless you,
Sr. Maria Hanna, O.P.
Prioress of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena — Iraq
This comes at an especially difficult time in the region, amid reports today that the United Nations is cutting food aid to refugees:
A lack of funds has forced the U.N. World Food Program to stop providing food vouchers for 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, the agency said on Monday.
“Without WFP vouchers, many families will go hungry. For refugees already struggling to survive the harsh winter, the consequences of halting this assistance will be devastating,” said WFP, which needs $64 million to support the refugees for the rest of December.
Please visit our giving page to help our brothers and sisters during this hour of great need. Please remember them in your prayers.
30 September 2014
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Sisters Iraqi Refugees Relief
Good Shepherd Sister Micheline speaks to the Syrian students in Bechouat, Lebanon. CNEWA — through its generous benefactors — supports the ongoing work of the Good Shepherd Sisters with Syrian refugees. (photo: Tamara Hadi)
CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, Michel Constantin, has just filed a comprehensive report on Syria that highlights this agency’s activities on behalf of Syrian families displaced within Syria and those now living in Lebanon.
“Since May 2012, CNEWA has disbursed U.S. $1,799,767 for more than 24,069 needy displaced Syrian families and 24,234 children,” he reports. “In 2014, CNEWA has thus far disbursed U.S. $553,109 to assist around 6,324 Syrian displaced families inside Syria and Lebanon.” These funds:
- Provided milk and diapers for newborn infants and also for children under 14 years old; this need was identified and prioritized by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Homs,Tartous and Damascus, in addition to the Daughters of Charity of Besançon in Damascus. This program reached around 2,525 children in four locations.
Provided daily breakfast and school kits for some 5,000 displaced students in 11 educational centers in the district of Homs, the Valley of Christians and Aleppo in coordination with the Jesuit Fathers in Homs, the Paulist Fathers in the Valley of Christians and the Maronite clergy in Aleppo.
Distributed winter clothing and blankets to some 2,500 displaced families in the area of Damascus, Homs, Tartous and Latakia.
Provided heating fuel for 400 families in Aleppo through coordination with the Society of St. Vincent DePaul in Aleppo.
Distributed food packages for around 1,740 Christian families recently displaced to downtown Aleppo, through coordination with the Marist Fathers in Aleppo and the Maronite Archeparchy of Aleppo.
Offered trauma healing and catechetical activities to around 900 children in 4 parishes (Maamoura, Qusayr, Hamra and Dmeineh) located in Qalamoun, recently recuperated by the government. This program was implemented through coordination with the Good Shepherd Sisters in Homs and the Greek Catholic Bishop Abdo Arbash of Homs.
Supported two Christian Armenian schools in the village of Kessab to repair damages to allow 260 Armenian students to be reenrolled in their schools after the liberation of Kessab from the Islamic militants.
Provided potable water tanks and food ratios to 514 Syrian families in Deir el Ahmar, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, through coordination with the Good Shepherd Sisters in the Bekaa.
Provided programs offering psychological and spiritual support to mothers and children and 155 families as follows:
155 Assyrian — Syriac Orthodox and other Syriac Christian — families displaced from Syria and settled in the suburbs of Beirut.
350 Armenian Syrian mothers and 105 children settled in Bourj Hammoud and the surrounding areas northeast of Beirut.
Provided educational support to 970 children as follows:
486 school kits to 486 children including school uniforms, sports suits, shoes, stationery and books.
484 Syrian and Lebanese children with summer school and tutorial/remedial classes to strengthen their learning capacities to betterintegrate in Lebanese schools and follow the Lebanese academic curriculum.
“CNEWA’s operational approach relies on partnering with church affiliated groups (parish priests, congregations, patriarchal representatives, bishops, lay societies and others) that are already active and efficient in collecting the necessary data,” he writes, “can implement the program (purchasing, packaging, distribution, etc.), and have the capacity to report back in a timely manner.”
There’s much more here. To help CNEWA continue its good work for displaced Syrian families, click here.
23 September 2014
Tags: Syria Refugees CNEWA War Relief
An independent Catholic family foundation, Raskob, has awarded Catholic Near East Welfare Association an emergency grant to assist the agency in opening two additional medical clinics serving Iraqi Christian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to CNEWA’s partners on the ground, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena and the Syriac Catholic Archbishop Boutros Moshe of Mosul, there are pressing health concerns for the 4,530 Iraqi Christian refugee families living temporarily in the cities of Dohuk and Zahko.
With fears of cholera and typhus, volunteer doctors are inoculating children in a makeshift dispensary in Erbil. Thanks to CNEWA’s benefactors, three more suitable clinics will open to serve better the needs of Iraqi Christian refugees. (photo: CNEWA)
The Dominican Sisters will administer the clinics day-to-day, as with CNEWA’s clinic taking shape now in Erbil. The sisters are coordinating their efforts with the Chaldean and Syriac priests responsible for relief efforts in Dohuk and Zahko, respectively.
The clinics will be staffed by volunteer doctors, Christians displaced from the city of Qaraqosh, and will provide quality care for chronic ailments and medical emergencies. Health care in Iraqi Kurdistan is largely private and cost prohibitive for the refugees, who fled their homes with nothing.
The emergency grant will help set up four examination rooms; install two bathrooms; waterproof a tent to serve as a waiting room; and provide medical equipment, such as an ultrasound machine, eye pressure meter, electrocardiograph, birthing and dental chairs, and other tools and equipment.
Members of CNEWA’s team in Beirut, who are making regular visits to Iraqi Kurdistan, are monitoring the implementation of the clinics.
23 September 2014
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Health Care Iraqi Refugees Relief
Iraqi refugees gather outside a makeshift dispensary in Erbil. (photo: CNEWA)
The Christian Presence in Iraq
The Iraqi Christian community, perhaps the oldest in the world, has survived more than 1400 years under Islamic rule in its homeland. During the first 500 years of the golden age of Islam, the Christians participated and shared in the shaping of the most advanced civilization of its time. Then, during the downfall period under the barbarian invasion of the Mongols in 1258, followed by the Ottomans and different brutal military invasions and occupations, the Christians remained in their homelands continuously, sometimes in harmony and many times in fear with their Muslim neighbors.
Unfortunately, the Christians could not hold on and support the last wave of modern Islamization. The brutality of ISIS militants and the marketing of this brutality over social media succeeded in creating shock and terror among all minorities of northern Iraq. On 6 August, the Christian presence in Mosul and Nineveh plain faded completely along with their trust in the international community and Baghdad and Kurdish governments, the latter of which withdrew their forces from the Christian towns over night, leaving more than 130,000 Christians without any kind of protection and subject to the brutality of unmerciful militants.
Lacking options and weapons to defend themselves, all Christian inhabitants fled to save their lives and those of their children. At midnight, they left with few garments and headed further north to find shelter in the Kurdish territories. Some drove through the desert for many hours to avoid military confrontation and ISIS checkpoints, other slacking the means of transportation had to walk for more than ten hours before reaching safe areas. Children, elderly, and all families found themselves helpless and alone under the burning sun of August, where the temperature reaches 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). The Kurdish government provided them with only permission to stay in their territories safely; besides security, nothing was available. The only shelters they had were the backyards of the churches and some unfinished commercial centers transformed into temporary camps with primitive textile partitioning.
The Christians of the Nineveh Plain were considered the elite of the Iraqi population in the north, largely because of their education, occupying the best positions in the majority of skilled fields requiring advanced educations. They were counted among the best medical doctors, the best teachers, the best engineers, etc. They believed they could make a difference and worked hard from one generation to another to create a more open society where an individual is accepted and respected for what he is and not for his religious beliefs. Unfortunately, their efforts did not yield positive results, and the people with whom they lived for over 1400 years decided to attack them and force them to either convert to Islam or leave. There is little surprising about their collective decision to leave.
Refugees gather inside the temporary dispensary to receive medical care. (photo: CNEWA)
CNEWA Representatives Visit to Iraq — 2-5 September, 2014
Since the early days of the displacement, CNEWA’s Beirut office has been in continuous contact with the local church in Erbil and with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, showing solidarity and figuring out the best ways to accompany them and help reducing the suffering of refugees.
On 2 September, a delegation from Beirut composed of Michel Constantin and Imad Abou Jaoude, representing CNEWA, and Sister Marie Claude Naddaf from the Good Shepherd Sisters, representing all the female congregations in Lebanon, headed to Erbil to better understand the humanitarian situation and to get in direct contact with the local church people who are involved in reaching out for the refugees.
Our activities during this visit could be summarized as such:
We first met with the Syriac Catholic Archbishop Boutros Moshe of Mosul, who himself was displaced from Qaraqosh with more than 130,000 Christians of all denominations from nine villages and towns in the Nineveh Plain.
To get to the archbishop’s office in Martha Shmouny Center in the quarter of Ain Kawa, a neighborhood of Erbil initially inhabited by Christians, we passed through a large crowd mainly composed of children with their mothers waiting for their turn to get a vaccine from a field dispensary set up in a small tent where doctors — themselves also displaced from the hospital in Qaraqosh — were providing medical services to hundreds of Christian refugees.
The archbishop received us in a steel container located in the front yard of his church in Erbil. Three priests helped him to register the displaced families. The archbishop explained to us that the most urgent need at present is to provide a primary health care center.
We visited the dispensary outside the displacement center and met with the Rev. Behnam Benoka, a Syriac Catholic priest in charge of the dispensary. Father Benoka explained that at present, there are only two dispensaries taking care of the Christian refugees; the first one is called Habib al Maleh — a private dispensary, run by a Chaldean director, and supported by the Kurdish government. The second is an on-site dispensary installed during the first days of displacement inside a tent on the sidewalk outside Martha Shmouny Center. Fifty staff members operate the facility, all of them displaced and volunteering their expertise and time for free. Among the volunteers are 15 medical doctors from the hospital in Qaraqosh, in addition to 15 medical assistants and 20 volunteers.
The dispensary receives an average of 500 patients every day and provides vaccinations for the children. The patients are from all displacement centers of Erbil.
An empty garage has been turned into living quarters for refugees. (photo: CNEWA)
The urgent need at present is to extend the dispensary by providing four prefab rooms and a large new tent to serve as a reception area. Each room will serve as a clinic for one doctor according to each specialty — internal medicine, pediatric, gynecology, ophthalmology, etc. — and will be equipped with the basic needed equipment. The dispensary will be located in the front yard of the displacement center of the Syriac Catholic Church. Martha Shmouny will provide services all over the day and the doctors will be shifting to cover the needs of all patients.
Regarding the second major problem that they have which is the provision of proper shelter for the displaced people, Archbishop Moshe informed us that a commercial building called Ain Kawa Mall was put by the owner under the disposition of the refugees, to be partitioned to shelter 100 families on each of three large unfinished floors. We visited the location and met with the contractor who was assigned by UNHCR to prepare the first floor.
The cost of each floor is estimated at U.S. $150,000 — or an average of $1,500 to shelter one family — including a collective sanitary bloc and a common cooking area.
The total cost of partitioning the two floors to accommodate 200 additional families is estimated at $300,000.
Then we visited the Redemptorist Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Wardah of Erbil and Chaldean Archbishop Emile Shimoun Nona of Mosul at the Chaldean Archbishopric of Erbil, also located in Ain Kawa. Archbishop Bashar of Erbil informed us that the food rations, water tanks and mobile toilets will be ensured through the donation of the central government of Baghdad. He is in charge of communicating with the government on behalf of all the refugees.
He also emphasized on the urgent need to provide primary health care and to find shelter for families living in the backyards of churches. The families without shelter are estimated at around 1,500 families.
Archbishop Bashar also informed us that, through his connections with the Kurdish government, two large storage hangars have been made available to the refugees. We visited the location with the archbishops and inspected the potential shelter. Each hangar can be partitioned into 25 private rooms, and each room is large enough to accommodate two families, the sanitary block could be ensured through the mobile toilets and showers provided by the government of Baghdad. The cost of partitioning of each warehouse is estimated at around $45,000 to $50,000.
We then visited a number of religious congregations working with the refugees in their convents. We visited the Chaldean Daughters of Mary, the Chaldean Sacred Heart Sisters and the Syriac Catholic Ephremite Sisters. The next day, at the patriarchal Chaldean seminary in Ain Kawa, we met all 32 sisters and priests who were displaced with their people. They are presently very active in reaching out for the refugees in all the settlements. The meeting was the first of its kind and every sister and father was pointing out the different difficulties facing their daily work with the refugees. This meeting was very important and gave us the broader vision for the needs assessment and the priorities.
Sister Maria Goretti Hanna, O.P., and Good Shepherd Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf meet refugees in Erbil, Iraq, during a visit earlier this month. (photo: CNEWA)
First of all, it is very important to mention that the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena are providing a real witness of accompanying the poor in their daily sufferings and remaining with them through every step of their walk on this unprecedented crisis.
Among all the sad stories and the uncertainty of all the refugee families, I saw a shining light through the common life of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, and all the sisters living among the families. It was really a remarkable situation, where the poor help the poor and refugee reaches out to refugee. The solidarity among the different congregations is so strong that the superior general of the congregation has prepared in the backyard of the convent a place to install prefab rooms to accommodate all the refugee sisters, regardless of congregation. And in the morning the sisters, along with the brothers from the Congregation of Jesus the Redeemer, would leave two by two — like the apostles — to serve in the displacement centers.
As for the needs of the refugees, it is very difficult to prioritize the needs as they are living on the streets and are practically in need of everything.
Following are the needs by sector:
Capacity building and coordination efforts: Despite all the good intentions, we felt that both the people and the churches are still dealing with the situation as a temporary one. They are still in shock, waiting for a miracle to happen or to wake up from the nightmare and to resume their lives as though nothing had happened. During the meeting, we shared with them our experiences in Syria and advised them that as long as time passes, the difficulties will increase and the needs and the sufferings will be greater. For all these reasons it is very important to coordinate the efforts, and to come up with a plan for the needs of the refugees and to address the world accordingly.
Shelter: The majority of the displaced Christian families are currently living either in schools or in tents outside the church properties of Ain Kawa and Erbil. This situation cannot continue indefinitely; by mid-September, the great majority of the families living in the schools will have to evacuate. The Kurdish Authority has already sent warning notes, and some schools were evacuated during our visit.
In the absence of any statistical effort, we estimate the number of families living in tents and in schools at around 2,500 to 3,000 families in Erbil only. Archbishop Emile of Mosul informed us that the worst refugee conditions are in Erbil, since in the northern cities of Duhok and Zakho and in Suleimaniyah most of the refugees are either living with their relatives or have rented small apartments and are sharing them with other families.
It is to be mentioned that the rent cost in Erbil, and especially in the Christian neighborhood of Ain Kawa, is very high and is estimated at an average of $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.
Health: The issue of health care is very important, as a good proportion of refugees used to rely on a public insurance system provided by the central government of Baghdad, especially for public employees. This system is not applicable in the Kurdish territories, and private medical care is extremely expensive. Therefore the local dispensaries that provide primary health care and on-site medical services are extremely important for the lives of the refugees.
Education: The problem with the education issue goes beyond the scarcity of enrollment openings in the Kurdish schools. There are also cultural barriers, since the curriculum taught in the Kurdish schools relies on the Kurdish language, while all Christian students used to rely on the Arabic as the first language in their curriculum.
Employment: A good proportion of Christian refugees used to work for the government, either as teachers, doctors, engineers, or workers in the oil sector or industries owned by the Iraqi government. All these employees used to get their salaries from the central bank branch of Mosul. Since the invasion of Mosul in June 2014,employees could not retrieve their salaries. Even at present in Erbil, the lack of trust between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, and the lack of any mechanism to transfer the salaries to Erbil, has left refugees without any source of income.
Moreover, because of the crisis in Syria and the displacement of large numbers of Syrian Kurds to Erbil, Syrian Kurds became the priority in private and public employment at the expense of the Christian Iraqis.
Food and essentials: At present, food and other critical supplies are provided through local donations and the Christian funds available by the central government and the Ministries of Religious Affairs and the Emigration. Archbishop Bashar Wardah is leading the efforts and has been successful.
Winter items: The weather in Kurdistan is dry and arid desert weather, where the temperature in summer reaches around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and in winter falls drops to freezing from November until early March. Therefore, enduring the winter will require wool blankets in addition to winter clothing — especially for children — in addition to heating fuel and heaters.
Spiritual and trauma healing support: Many of the families found themselves, in a blink of an eye, losing everything. Many who were well off in their homelands found themselves on the streets. In order to maintain their hope and their faith, huge efforts must be exerted to support all the local churches and religious people to maintain their activities and to provide the families with psychological support. This holds especially for mothers, on an individual and collective basis, to help them accept their new situation while waiting for a solution and end to their problems.
Start with establishing a good, well-equipped dispensary in Erbil that could enhance the efforts of the volunteer staff and improve the quality of the services provided to the displaced families. The tent currently used as a dispensary suffers insufficient sanitation and ventilation, especially in Iraq under the extreme weather conditions.
Help Archbishop Moshe to establish a small center for people with special needs in the multipurpose hall.
Help the sisters in their efforts to provide basic necessities for newborn children — a need not yet covered by any donors — and to purchase some underwear items for children as well as some basic urgent needs.
CNEWA has already started implementing this phase in coordination with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena and Syriac Catholic Father Behnam Benoka. For this purpose, CNEWA has allocated the amount of $75,000. A first payment has been already transferred to the sisters’ account as of 9 September.
As for later phases, they will be elaborated during further visits and through continuous consultation with our church partners.
Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Iraqi Refugees Relief