‘God Wants Me Here’ • Web Exclusive

Christians keep hope alive in Iraq

text and photographs by Paul Jeffrey

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When the mobile clinic rolls into Sharafiya, patients come from all over the village to wait their turn. Men line up on the left side, women on the right, of a social hall belonging to the parish of the Church of the East. A portrait of Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Addai II overlooks the room, where a portable divider separates the two lines and physicians attend to each side. Outside, two pharmacists dispense medicines out of a converted van.

The health team’s monthly visit to this Assyro-Chaldean village in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq treats the common aches and pains of residents, including the hundreds of displaced families who arrived after ISIS swept across the Nineveh Plain in 2014. The health professionals admit, however, that their treatment often falls short.

“Our patients are displaced, and so psychological problems are the most common thing we deal with. They tell us about back pain, for example, or neuralgia. But they are often suffering from psychological problems, and healing won’t come as long as they are displaced,” says Dr. Sally Mekha, a team member who herself fled Mosul when ISIS attacked.

“What pill can I give them that will solve their problems? There isn’t one. We can listen to them and encourage them, but if there is no security for them to return home, there’s not much we can do.”

Ahlam Ibrahim, a displaced Chaldean Catholic, fled from Tesqopa in 2014. Although ISIS was driven from her home late last year, she continues to rent a small apartment in Sharafiya.

“If the mobile clinic didn’t come here, we wouldn’t have medicines, because none of us can afford to buy them from a pharmacy,” Ms. Ibrahim says. “We are far from the fields where we can earn our living, and most of what we have goes into paying the rent every month.

“There’s little for us here, but we’re not ready to go back yet, either. I can rebuild my house, but I can’t do it without some sense of security that ISIS won’t return.”

The mobile clinic, a lifeline to many, is one of many initiatives of the Christian Aid Program Nohadra-Iraq (CAPNI), an organization based in Dohuk. Since 2014, CAPNI — which CNEWA helps suppport with funds — has focused on responding to the humanitarian crisis generated by ISIS.

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana is an archimandrite of the Church of the East and the executive director of CAPNI. He previously served congregations in the Dohuk area destroyed by the government of President Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s — including many displaced members. When Kurds of the region rose against the government in 1991, Abuna Emanuel became a spokesperson for the local Christian population, helping journalists and church leaders from abroad to understand the plight of religious minorities. As a result, President Hussein blacklisted him, and in 1994 a grenade was thrown into his family’s home. No one was injured, but Abuna Emanuel responded by moving his family to Germany.

For most of the year, however, he remains in Iraq.

“God wants me here,” he says. “I am a priest, so I must be present in order to be a voice for the voiceless, and a bridge between the persecuted church here and the sister church in Europe and beyond.”

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