Full camps, overburdened aid workers, but also, tentative celebrations, Christians who are opening up their houses and churches to refugees and people who are hesitating about returning to their homes. Just over two months since the first influx of refugees, Open Doors worker Sara* visited the Kurdish Iraqi town of Erbil.
It is difficult to get a complete picture of the situation in northern Iraq. Since the fighters of the extremist Islamic State (IS) advanced with much violence on Mosul, the relatively safe Kurdish region has been flooded with refugees. Sara visited some of the refugee camps where local Churches are providing aid with the support of Open Doors.
“My previous visit to Erbil was in April, before the unrest. At first sight, little seems to have changed in Erbil: the airport is still peaceful, my hotel is still there. But when you look better, you see the changes. Restaurants are closed, here and there camps have grown up, and suddenly you see the beggars, the streets are filthy, food and aid packages are being carted about.”
What struck you in the refugee camps?
“I visited a number of camps in the Christian neighbourhood of Ankawa. There I saw that many refugees are trying to pick up the thread of their lives as much as possible. It is quiet. During the day, it is 45 degrees Celsius, so there are few people out in the streets. Even Iraqis are not used to having to live in such temperatures without the luxury of air-conditioning or the protection of a cool house. In the meantime, some people are trying to make something of their lives, while others are still in shock. Here and there, tentatively celebrations are held: life goes on. At the same time, you find other refugees weeping, in deep mourning in their tents. They cannot understand how others can be having parties, even though they are mainly seeking some distraction.”
How do people respond when you ask how they are getting on?
“People are severely traumatised: they have lost everything. Often they are fleeing for the second, third or even fourth time. One man told me, “Of my fifty-eight years, I have lived only eight years in peace. Sometimes I wish my parents had never brought me into the world.” For many Christians, this is the limit.”
But it seems that IS is being driven back. Does this not give some hope?
“Indeed, the advance of IS seems to have come to a halt. But Iraqi Christians know how quickly the balance can turn against them. Many Christians say, “It’s not for nothing that IS was so quickly able to march on Mosul.” According to them, this was only possible due to the taciturn support that many Iraqis feel for IS. Even if IS is driven back, the resistance to Christians will remain. There are also Muslims who don’t mind living with Christians in their towns. But nevertheless the threat of sudden attacks or a resurgence of IS still exists. Christians in Iraq have the experience that persecution comes in waves, and that the next wave of persecution is that bit stronger than the last. This makes it very difficult to foster hope for the future.”
How do Christian refugees then see their future?
“They want to leave, almost without exception. There is hardly anyone to be found who still wants to stay. At the same time, it is very difficult actually to leave the country: you will first have to spend a few years in Turkey or Jordan, for example, before you can move on to Europe or the USA. Besides this, emigrating costs stacks of money. Most Christians know that they will simply never be able to afford it. This realisation makes people passive: they live by the day, make no plans, prefer to think as little as possible about the future. A few try to return to smaller villages. Some Christians who originally came from Baghdad have even fled back there again. There they run the risk of being killed in a bomb attack or of being threatened. But there at least they still have a roof over their heads. They just put up with the risk.”
Are the refugee camps overcrowded?
“Yes, but there are also many people who are moving on farther. Before the big influx of refugees got going, in June, there were already many Christian refugees in towns such as Dohuk and Erbil. These people have been working on emigration procedures for some time, and now they are leaving for Turkey or Jordan. Their places are being taken by ‘new’ refugees. Many of them are in unfinished blocks of flats or shopping centres. Many Christians in Erbil have friends or family staying with them. But there are also people who have been camping in church halls for months, with only a few chairs as partitions. The lack of privacy and quiet makes many traumatised refugees additionally vulnerable.”
How do the local Churches respond?
“We see that very many Churches are setting everything in motion to provide help. They are providing shelter, but also offering spiritual help and distributing food, medicines and mattresses. Together with refugees, they set up distribution points and try to share out the emergency aid as fairly as possible. This is quite a task, when you think that in a big city, you are dealing with tens of thousands of refugees. Rooms with air-conditioning have also been arranged for young children, pregnant women and other vulnerable groups, because it’s too dangerous for them in the heat. Besides this, many pastoral conversations are held.”
Are Christians struggling with the question of what God’s plan is for them, and for the Church?
“These are questions which are not quickly posed out loud in an Arabic culture, not even among Christians. But you do notice that many Christians have reached a stage where they are past such ‘luxury questions’. Many Christians say, ‘I would find it terrible if there were no longer any Christians living in Iraq. Christians have to stay here.’ And then they immediately add, ‘But I’m leaving.’ The question of where God is in the suffering, why He allows this? This question is difficult to pose in a culture marked by Islam, in which fate plays an important role. On the other hand, one of the aid workers recently visited an Orthodox Christian family.
After a long conversation, they together had a Bible study about the book of Job, in which you read how Job comes closer to God precisely through suffering. One of the family members, an older man, then said, ‘This is one of the most wonderful things I have ever heard.'”
How do you help Christians who are traumatised?
‘Mainly by being there, by showing that they are not forgotten. I showed photos and videos of people in the West who are praying for Iraq. People feel greatly strengthened by this. Besides the emergency aid, we are also looking to see how we can set up a professional programme through our partners to help people in coming to terms with their traumas. It’s important not to wait too long with dealing with traumas. Besides this, the situation in Erbil is relatively stable. The city is not breathing an atmosphere of war, and the relationships between Islamic Kurds and the Christians are relatively good.’
What do the months ahead look like?
‘Much will depend on the developments around the city of Mosul. But even if IS leave Mosul again, the Kurdish region will still have to deal with large groups of refugees who cannot or dare not return home. We are praying that this lasting presence of Christian refugees in the towns will not lead to tensions. And on a very practical level, the winter is approaching. Fortunately now people are working hard to build accommodation that is more or less resistant to rain and cold, but we are preparing for a vast need for winter aid. The crisis in northern Iraq is still going to last for a very long time.’*Name changed for security reasons.