Living in tents and wondering where home will be.
While the Obama administration develops a strategy and forms an international coalition to fight the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Christian refugees in the north of Iraq are continuing to struggle with poor conditions and are feeling homeless and forgotten.
And now that a new school year is beginning, they are afraid of losing the shelter they’ve had since being forced out of Mosul and villages on the Nineveh Plain beginning in June.
“In Erbil there are 600 schools that need to be evacuated. The refugees living in them don’t have a place to go,” said Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council in Chicago. “They’re probably going to end up on the street, parks, construction sites.”
An estimated 110,000 Christians are living in Kurdish capital of Irbil in northern Iraq.
“We’re working with huge numbers of people every day to find some small places where we can provide some medicine, some food,” said an Iraqi humanitarian aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears for the safety of her family. She said that when the Islamic State began forcing people out of their homes, people thought they would be able to go back after just a few days, but after more than a month, people are still living in tents, parks and unfinished buildings with no bathrooms. In some cases, seven or eight families must share one house.
“In the 21st Century, for a people who built the civilization to be living in tents is a shame both on the government and the world to be silent. It’s like a forgotten case,” she said. “When a woman is forced to give birth in a tent and has no other facilities, this is a humiliation.”
She said that a little news leaks out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, where the Islamic State gave local Christians an ultimatum to convert, leave or be killed. “It’s a disaster there because it’s all controlled by the IS,” she said. “People are stuck there; they have no way out. There are still a few Christians, but even the Muslims there are saying the situation is unbearable.”
Throughout Iraq, more than 1.5 million people have been displaced in precarious conditions, many without access to food, water or other basic essentials. The aid worker who spoke with Aleteia from Erbil said that people are having difficulty finding enough to eat, but the United Nations World Food Programme announced recently that it has resumed delivering food assistance to an area of Iraq encompassing much of the western part of the country for the first time since May, targeting 76,000 refugees.
Malteser International, the humanitarian aid agency of the Order of Malta, reports that thousands of Christians, Yazidi and Arabs as well as Syrian refugees have fled into Kurdistan’s Zakho district, north of Mosul, on the Iraqi-Syrian border.
“The displaced families tell me that they are afraid of further attacks,” says public health expert Dr. Marie Benner, who is currently in the region as part of Malteser International’s emergency relief team. Many have already fled their homes three or four times. They never stay in the same place for long, and are always looking for safe shelter.”
Malteser International’s relief efforts, which started in the city of Erbil and neighboring areas, is now expanding as the refugees continue to move towards other regions, Benner explained. “For that reason, it is essential to have a mobile team that can bring aid items and medicines to neglected areas." In Zakho, the team distributed basic drugs such as antibiotics, iron supplements, wound treatment and pain relievers. “People with chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure also lack treatment,” she added.
For many, though, there is another option. Fides news agency reported that the problems caused by the Islamic State have led to a significant increase in the number of petitions to for visas to the United States. As reported by the website http://www.kaldaya.net, the Eparchy of St. Peter the Chaldeans, based in San Diego, California, has been solicited by White House officials to compile a list of Chaldean Christians eager to leave Iraq to escape persecution and conflict. In a few days, more than 5,000 forms with the names and personal details of nearly 25,000 Iraqi Chaldeans wishing to obtain a visa for the United States were filled in the offices of the diocese, thanks to the intense work of 20 volunteers. The collection of the completed forms will be delivered to the White House in the coming days directly by Bishop Sarhad Jammo.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.