The humanitarian situation of the Christian refugees in Iraq has improved – but the lack of future prospects is getting the people down

By Oliver Maksan

“Thank you, thank you, thank you”: Suheila, an old Christian woman from Mosul was effusively expressing her gratitude as she met a delegation from “Aid to the Church in Need”. “May God make things easy for you in your lives.” The old lady lives in the Sports Club Center in Ankawa, where more than 200 Christian families from Qaraqosh have sought refuge. It was “Aid to the Church in Need” who procured the mobile homes there. “This is really a big improvement. I’m grateful for it. But in general, of course, this is no life. We’ve lost everything. The worst thing is that we don’t know when or whether we will be able to return to our homeland.” The old lady has been fleeing since June. She ran for her life twice with thousands of others. When the Islamic terrorist militia ISIS overran Mosul in early June, thousands of Christian fled. “First we went to Qaraqosh. But when ISIS advanced there in August, we had to flee again. Now we have been here in Ankawa for four months. But none of us is angry at God. Fortunately we are all still alive.”

There are the unforgettable pictures from August, when tens of thousands of Christians fleeing ISIS flooded the towns of Kurdistan. They had a panic-stricken flight into the August heat behind them. Given the lack of suitable accommodations, they often slept on the bare ground under the open sky, even in Ankawa, the Christian district of Erbil. The people lay on the pavements and under bushes. A lot has happened since then. “I can see major progress since my last visit in August,” said Johannes Heereman, the President of “Aid to the Church in Need”. In the middle of December he visited Iraqi Kurdistan, where the majority of the roughly 120,000 Christians have found refuge. “It’s a great leap forward. The people are much better housed now. Many have found work and can therefore help support themselves. This is important because the assistance only secures a subsistence minimum. Even so the situation makes you despair of course because there are no prospects. There’s still no way of knowing when the places occupied by ISIS will be liberated.”

In the meantime the local Church has not been twiddling its thumbs. “When the people arrived here they were totally traumatised,” Father Daniel reported. The young priest works in the Chaldean Mar Elia refugee camp in Ankawa. More than 800 Christians are living in 62 tents. “It wasn’t easy for the people to cope with the fact that they suddenly had nothing and had to live in tents. After all, previously they had been used to having their own houses. And they also mistrusted one another. The children in particular were suffering under the situation. They saw their mothers crying and their fathers yelling. Then we began to structure the everyday routine to give the children something different to think about.” Games as well as dancing and singing competitions put a little joy back into their lives. “Today,” Father Daniel said, the children are a lot calmer. And the adults, who were completely apathetic at the beginning, are now also trying to get a grip on their lives again. Many have jobs in restaurants or on building sites in Erbil.” In fact the camp gives a good impression. There’s no garbage lying around. The laundry is hanging tidily on washing lines strung between the tents. Even so, Father Daniel knows full well things can’t go on like this indefinitely. “Sure, we can improve the camp facilities by installing electricity and washrooms. That’s important and necessary. But the crucial thing is that the people be able to think beyond the present day again.” Father Douglas Bazi, who manages the Mar Elia Camp, agrees. “The people won’t go along with it forever. Many want to leave Iraq. The desired destinations are Australia, America or Europe. They’ve lost all faith in a future here in Iraq. We can’t force the people to stay, and neither do we want to. Others in turn want to stay. Some of them want to return to their houses on the Niniveh Plain after it has been liberated. Others want to set up a new life here in Kurdistan. But it’s really important that we don’t lose the next generation. The crucial thing is therefore to enable the children to go to school again.”

It was therefore a big leap forward when, in the middle of December in Ankawa, the first school for Christian refugee children was opened. Seven other schools spread throughout Iraqi Kurdistan will follow. They have been funded by “Aid to the Church in Need”. More than 7000 children will thus be able to attend school regularly again as from January 2015. Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, Chaldean spiritual leader of Erbil is grateful.” This is an important contribution towards giving our refugees new perspectives. We want to thank all benefactors for their generosity.”