On a cold morning, a small group of Iraqi refugees cluster together at the Chaldean diocese in Baabda. It’s a typical Friday, and there are some new faces among them. The refugee experience is one of asking, hoping and waiting. For years, they have been confined to spaces of waiting: in the host countries they for now reluctantly call home, and in rooms like these.
One among them, Evelyn Polis, paces nervously. “I just have the money for one more month’s rent,” said Polis, a Chaldean, who first fled from Baghdad to Syria four years ago. The unrest in Syria recently brought her to Lebanon. The Chaldean Diocese of Beirut sent out a call for more help last week.
Bishop Michel Kassarji, whose announcement went public across Lebanese media channels, said that the church desperately needs funds to help aid the rising numbers of refugees at his doorstep. It’s the beginning of Lent, and Kassarji hoped that donations would increase as people remember the poor and needy.
Funds are dwindling at the worst possible time, as an increasing number of Christians are fleeing Iraq. “The situation of Iraqi [refugees] in Lebanon is pitiful,” Kassarji said, explaining that the Lebanese government doesn’t give them the benefit of refugee status. He added that they are “prevented from working and, where they can work, they’re doing it through very difficult conditions and in return of low salaries.”
The Chaldean Diocese of Beirut has provided aid in the form of food, home necessities and cash assistance to needy refugees over the past seven months. Through a health and social center in Sad al-Boushrieh, it has also provided medical care. Kassarji estimated that around 2,000 Chaldean Iraqi families receive monthly support.
Considered an order of Catholics under authority of the Vatican, the Chaldeans are the largest of Iraq’s Christian denominations. Christian roots in Mesopotamia reach back 2,000 years. They are among the millions of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis who began to flee after the 1990 and 2003 U.S.-led invasions, as well as the more recent expansion of ISIS control over large parts of the country.
Iraqis, regardless of religious affiliation, have fled the grip and bloodshed of the extremist group’s militant rule. The fall of Mosul to ISIS in June of last year resulted in a sharp rise of Christians seeking refuge outside their homeland. Multiple reports have documented the dwindling numbers of Christians in Iraq. Twenty years ago, there were 1.4 million.
Today, estimates fall closer to 300,000. The U.N. planning figures for 2015 cite the number of Iraqis in Lebanon at 6,100, while Lebanon’s social affairs minister, Rashid Derbas, said the number was around 8,000, as of August. With more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the country, the needs of Iraqis have been forgotten, say community leaders and aid organizations.
Kassarji opened the church doors seven months ago, to help fill the gap. He said that Iraqi refugees were typically getting just 50 percent of their needs met through the U.N. and NGOs. He has tried to provide additional help with the church’s money, but he said that’s becoming unsustainable with the drop in funding levels and the high amount he’s already spent.
At first, church staff were able to help everyone who came, regardless of religion, but Kassarji said they have recently had to prioritize Chaldeans, as money has run low. “In six months, I’ve spent around $400,000, and this is only on food,” he said. Kassarji added that around 120 people come daily to the health center he funds in Sad al-Boushrieh, a Beirut neighborhood heavily populated with Iraqi refugees.
He wants to open an additional center in the area in the coming months, to address the rising number of those in need. Tensions have simmered between Lebanon’s Iraqi and Syrian refugee communities. Local laws don’t classify Iraqis as refugees, resulting in barriers to finding employment and earning income.
By virtue of a previously established economic and social agreement between Syria and Lebanon, Syrians have typically been able to work in the country and enter just with an ID card. Iraqis, by contrast, need a passport to enter the country, and they face greater difficulties obtaining a work permit.
Funding for Iraqi refugees from international NGOs and U.N. agencies has been squeezed as the number of Syrian refugees has grown. An October 2014 report from Caritas, one of the leading aid organizations addressing Iraqi refugee needs, said that nearly a quarter of those surveyed had entered Lebanon illegally, due to strict visa restrictions.
The report found that nearly 40 percent of Iraqi refugees currently reside in Lebanon under an “irregular status,” resulting from staying beyond the expiration date of their tourist visas issued upon entering the country. Resettlement to a third country is a long process, with low success for the majority of cases.
Due to compounded stressors, several studies on the refugee population have revealed high prevalence rates of psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical health consequences and susceptibility to exploitation from employers. Rita Saky works for the Chaldean Church, handling requests for food and cash assistance.
She hears the stories of refugees on a weekly basis. “They come as tourists but in fact they are refugees. They are homeless and need a big amount of money for rent. Because they are tourists, they are not allowed to work here.” She said that cash assistance is one of the most frequently requested needs, as the cost of rent has sharply risen in the past several years.
The church has distributed food staples such as rice, sugar and cooking oil, but Saky said that the reserve is shrinking as she showed the sparse number of food items on the shelves of the diocese’s basement pantry. Previously, The Daily Star reported on an AUB study that found food insecurity among Iraqi refugees to be “alarmingly high.”
Meeting adequate nutrition needs is particularly challenging for families with children, and among families lacking strong social networks. Gladis Khamees was among the cluster of refugees at the Baabda diocese. An Assyrian Christian, she said she has asked for help from local NGOs and the U.N. in Lebanon, but lamented that receiving enough help is a challenge.
For Khamees and her children, life in Lebanon carries chronic uncertainty. “We don’t know what our fate will be here,” she said. Originally from Baghdad, she fled to Syria nearly four years ago. Last fall, the violence in the outskirts of Damascus had her fleeing across the Lebanese border.
Family members have helped her where they can with rent and food expenses, and she is actively seeking resettlement outside of Lebanon. “When we were in Syria, we were the No. 1 priority, but here [in Lebanon] the top priority is the Syrians,” she said. Acknowledging the needs of Syrian refugee influx, she added, “We understand this, but we are like them. The suffering is the same.”
To learn more about how to donate, call the Chaldean diocese at: +961-5-457-732 and +961-5-459-088. To donate directly: Credit Bank S.A.L., Shiyah branch, Beirut, Lebanon, Swift Code: CBCBLBBE, No: 803845, IBAN: LB65010300081010570803845003
by Sarah Weatherbee