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Church Agencies Give Displaced Iraqis Fuel, Heaters for Winter

29 Jan 2015 – By Dale Gavlak

SHARIAH COLLECTIVE, Iraq (CNS) — Colorful blankets, shiny metal heaters and canisters of kerosene provided by Catholic Relief Services and Caritas filled a parking lot for collection by their new owners — Yezidis displaced by Islamic State militants in search of badly needed provisions to combat the cold.

Thousands of Iraq’s religious minorities were displaced by Islamic State militants during the summer. Left homeless and penniless, they now struggle in blustery snow and rain in the country’s northern Kurdish region, where the majority shelter.

“We’re so grateful for this help from CRS and Caritas,” said a slender Yezidi man named Salim, 34.

Although Salim’s family of 8, including his elderly mother, have received food parcels, until this distribution they lacked the means to stay warm in temperatures that often drop to freezing at night.

In August, Islamic State militants swooped down on the town of Sinjar, forcing thousands of people, mainly Yezidis, to escape up Mt. Sinjar with almost no food or water.

Salim said told Catholic News Service that, when the militants came, many young women were taken as slaves, while Yezidi men were forced to convert to Islam or be killed. His family managed to buy back a couple of their relatives for $800 piece, but several uncles have not been heard from since.

Dohuk and its surrounding mountainous region, including the nearby Shariah Collective, host about 450,000 displaced Christians, Yezidis, Shiites, Shabaks and Kaka’i people, according to Hani El Mahdi, CRS Iraq country representative.

The United Nations says there are 800,000 displaced Iraqis in the entire Kurdish region.

A delegation of U.S. Catholics — led by Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, in conjunction with Catholic Relief Services — visited northern Iraq on 16-20 January to see international church agencies’ work among Iraq’s internally displaced Christians and other religious minorities.

The majority of displaced live in tents, and heavy rains have flooded and damaged the fragile, material structures in several camps.

Salim’s family lives in an unfinished building with five other Yezidi families.

“Rain often comes inside because the building is a bare concrete shell,” Salim said. “The owners have run out of funds to complete it.”

Such unfinished buildings are scattered throughout Kurdistan, and the displaced have been taking up residence in them.

CRS already has installed insulated windows and doors in 424 unfinished buildings in exchange for permission by the owners and the municipalities to allow the displaced to stay in these places for two consecutive winters. Four hundred more installations are underway.

“The cost is cheaper than buying a tent or any other alternative solution for them by far,” said El Mahdi, adding that the installation is one-third of the price of a tent or even paying rent in a completed building.

“People prefer this. It’s much more dignified, safe and protected than putting them in camps,” he said. “It’s a win-win relationship for everybody.”

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