In Iraq, many of the internally displaced Christian refugee families are now returning to their home villages in the Plains of Niniveh. But they still need help for food and daily living. Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil explains how “for them the benefactors of ACN are true good Samaritans.”
The 12,000 or so “internally displaced” refugee families who fled Mosul and the surrounding towns and villages of the Niniveh plains in 2014 for the relative security of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, in order to escape the advancing forces of the so-called Islamic State (IS), are still heavily dependent on the support of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Most will continue to need food and shelter for some time to come, as the programme continues to rebuild the up to 13,000 houses and homes in the region that were damaged or destroyed by IS. There are around 110 Chaldean Christian families still living in the “Erbil eyes” centre in Ankawa, in the northern suburbs of Erbil, and waiting to be able to return to their ransacked and ruined home villages of Karamles, Qaraqosh and Mosul.
They were forced to abandon these villages in just two or three hours in order not to be overrun by the fury of IS. On 6th August 2014 they arrived in Erbil and for 40 days they were given shelter in an unfinished building next to the church of Saint Joseph, before finally arriving at the centre. “The families are living in 46 apartments of two or three rooms each”, explains Father Thabet Habib Yousif, the coordinator of the centre.
“There is one family living in each room. They share the kitchen and bathroom. In such a situation of enforced proximity it is very difficult to have any family privacy. Many families, as soon as they are able, leave the centre and move to rented accommodation.
Like the majority of these families, I too am from Karamles and am a “displaced priest”. I was the last person to leave, accompanying the last family. Here I do everything – I direct, I coordinate, I teach patristics at the “Babyl” College for Philosophy and Theology. I want to return to Karamles and go back to being just a priest.”
He continues, “ACN is funding the “Erbil eyes” centre, and paying the monthly rent on these apartments. Moreover, this charity is also distributing food parcels to around 1300 families who are registered here.”
Although the efforts of ACN will henceforward be concentrated increasingly on the rebuilding of the villages in the Niniveh plains, these and thousands of other families will continue to need a fitting place to stay for the period from July to September 2017. The cost of this aid operation alone comes to 1.35 million Euros.
Just recently around a thousand additional refugee families have been transferred from the camps where they were living – the “Ankawa Brazilian Centre”, the “Ashti”, “Mar Eliya”, “Al-Amal” and “Al-Karma” camps – to Ankawa, where they are now living in communal centres, adding to the many thousands already needing financial support.
“For the most part these refugee families are unemployed, or at least without any regular or significant income”, explains Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil.
“Generally, they consist of parents with young children and in many cases with elderly grandparents to support as well. There has also been an increase in the number of displaced elderly people who find themselves without any family support. The refugees are living either in the “Ashti 2” camp or else in communal dwellings. In general there are 2 to 4 families living in each residential unit.”
Up to June 2017, in the seventh cycle of food aid provided by ACN, around 2 million Euros will be needed to provide for these 12,000 families. The transport and distribution of the monthly food parcels, each costing 60 US dollars, is undertaken by local priests and with the help of teams of volunteers, at no extra cost.
“The situation of these internal refugees is continually changing”, continues Archbishop Warda. “Our latest estimates suggest that there are at least 10,000 such families still living in Erbil province and still in need of food aid. Moreover, half of these people are women, children or elderly people.
We don’t have any precise statistics as to the number of those who are sick, but from the experience of the clinics being run by the Erbil archdiocese we can say that there is an increase in chronic illnesses, especially among the elderly, and that most of these are due to stress and physical conditions linked to their refugee situation.
As I have said, the overwhelming majority of these families are unemployed. Not only that, but, three years on from the initial crisis their financial reserves are now exhausted. Hence the number of people in need of our aid is increasing, and there is no expectation that this number will decrease in the coming summer months. Up till now the benefactors of ACN have been real and true “good Samaritans” to these people.
They have provided them with food, medicine, housing and schooling. The Iraqi Christians have decided to return to their home villages, but they will still need help of their benefactors.”
Since March 2016 ACN has been the only organisation regularly providing help for these internal refugees. Since the beginning of the crisis in 2014 ACN has provided some 13.2 million Euros in food aid for these refugees and additionally funded accommodation at a cost of 10 million Euros.
By Daniele Piccini