3 September 2014
Parts of Erbil, Iraq, have become a tent city for refugees fleeing ISIS. (photo: CNEWA)
My colleague, Imad Abou Jaoude, and I arrived in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, yesterday. Joining us is Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf of the Good Shepherd Sisters congregation, who is here to represent all the women religious in Lebanon as a show of solidarity.
Our first observation was that the route from Beirut to Erbil was longer than expected. Our flight had to cover more than 300 extra miles to avoid flying above the Syrian state of Al Raqqa and Mosul. Once we neared Erbil, we were relieved because we thought we passed the danger areas — but then the captain announced that landing would be delayed about 10 minutes because there were so many planes on the runway. After a second announcement of a new delay, passengers — most of them Lebanese working in Erbil — started to speculate about different reasons for the delay. I was so afraid that I couldn’t even talk with them. The plane kept turning above the airport for more than 40 minutes before finally landing safely. To our surprise, we discovered the runways were almost empty. We never figured out why we were delayed.
Early this morning we headed for the Christian neighborhood of Ain Kawa.
Ain Kawa looks very different nowadays, under the arid weather and the high temperature. The sidewalks of the once elegant Christian neighborhood are now very crowded with children and women gathering near the churches and public schools.
We first set out to meet with Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Boutros Moshe of Mosul, who himself was displaced from Qaraqosh with more than 120,000 Christians on 7 August. Walking through the streets, we passed through a large number of children with their mothers. They were all waiting for their turn to get a vaccine from a field dispensary set up in a small tent where doctors — themselves also displaced from Qaraqosh hospital — were providing medical services to hundreds of Christian refugees.
The archbishop received us in a steel container located in the front yard of his church in Erbil. He was surrounded by three priests helping him register displaced families. He bishop explained to us that the most urgent need at present is to find shelter for thousands of Christians who are still sleeping in tents or who are about to be kicked out of school buildings with the beginning of the academic year in mid-September. The Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Redemptorist Bashar Wardah, and the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Emile Shimoun Nona, agreed, and emphasized that finding shelter for the refugees remains the priority.
Archbishop Moshe has rented a small apartment in Erbil and is sharing it with 20 other people. He said sometimes people sleep in shifts on the mattresses because there is not enough space for everyone.
“When I wake up at 5 in the morning,” he said, “one of my relatives who lives with me takes my place to have at least a few hours of good sleep.”
The archbishop looked very tired, as most of his parishioners were displaced overnight and have found themselves confronting a situation where they have no where to turn but to the church.
Of the 7,864 displaced Christian families who found refuge in the Kurdish city of Erbil, more than 1,500 families remain in the backyards of churches or the playgrounds of some public schools.
Sister Maria Goretti Hanna, superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, was also displaced from Qaraqosh. She said at least nine convents of their congregation were invaded in the wee hours of the morning on 7 August. The 57 sisters living in those convents have found refuge in the Annunciation Convent in Ain Kawa. During our visit, the sisters were preparing the front yard of the convent to install some prefab containers that could accommodate all of them. The sisters are serving 26 displacement centers sheltering more than 50,000 displaced Christians in the city of Erbil.
One of the refugees we met told us that he was a public employee who used to work in a textile factory owned by the government in Qaraqosh, but it has been more than four months since he last got paid. The central government of Baghdad recognizes his rights, but for political and bureaucratic reasons it refuses to send the salaries to the Kurdish authority in Erbil. This is the situation of more than half of the displaced families. Others who used to work on their own or in private sectors have nothing to wait for. Another refugee said maybe going back to Qaraqosh and staying with ISIS would be more merciful and less painful.