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In Iraq, displaced Christians prepare for future that remains unknown

06 May 2016 – By Paul Jeffrey

IRBIL, Iraq (CNS) — As heavy fighting continues across the Ninevah Plain, some Christians displaced by the Islamic State group have given up the dream of returning home and joined the stream of refugees leaving the war-torn country. Others remain here in Iraqi Kurdistan, clinging to the hope that they can someday go back to their villages.

“When we fled our convent in Qaraqosh in 2014, we thought we’d be gone just a few days, then we could go home. But now it’s been almost two years, and the future is uncertain. Some of the displaced want to return home as soon as they can. Others have had enough, and they want to leave for good,” said Sister Maria Hanna, superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena.

The Dominican sisters opened a school for displaced children in Ankawa last August with 500 students. By April, Sister Hanna said, the enrollment had dropped to 445. The others have left the country with their parents for Jordan, Lebanon or other countries. And the numbers continue to drop.

“We’re preparing the children for the future, but we don’t know what that future will be,” she said.

Determined to continue their accompaniment of the displaced, the order has three sisters living among refugees in Sweden and is considering work in Germany, France, and the U.S. state of Michigan.

What the church cannot do, Sister Hanna said, is tell people what to do.

“The church can’t make decisions for people. If we say stay, we have few resources to help, and people will have problems. If we say to leave, they’ll also have problems. There are no good choices. And the most poor have even fewer options,” she said.

An Iraqi priest who manages a camp for the displaced in Ainkawa says it is wrong to think everyone is fleeing for Europe.

“There’s a myth that everyone wants to go to Europe, or that everyone is leaving, but I disagree,” said Rogationist Father Jalal Yako, who was among the last to flee Qaraqosh. He said he heard the cries of the Islamic State combatants as they entered the Christian town.

“There are already people who want to come back home, because Europe is not a paradise, and neither is the United States,” said Father Yako, who lived in Italy for 18 years. “I know what it’s like to live there as a stranger, and it’s not easy. We may all be strangers on the earth, but it’s better when you're in your home.”

Father Yako said Christians are not alone in their suffering.

“The Muslims and Yezidis have also been affected by this disaster. It’s not just persecution of Christians, but also of Shiites and Yezidis. It’s been even worse for the Yezidis,” he said.

Displaced young people here are not of one mind about their future.

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