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December, 2017
Volume 43, Number 4
  
19 December 2016
Michel Constantin




Syrians try to get warm as they wait to be evacuated from the east part of Aleppo on 19 December 2016. Temperatures have dropped below freezing in the region.
(photo: Aref Watad/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


Editor’s note: we received the following email this morning from Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut, who has been in touch with our partners on the ground in Syria. He offers the latest information we have on what is happening in Aleppo.

The humanitarian situation is catastrophic; the weather is extremely cold. Over 15,000 people had gathered in a square in east Aleppo on Sunday for buses to take them to rebel-held areas outside the city. Many had spent the night sleeping in the streets in freezing temperatures. In the evenings, it can go to –5C [23 Fahrenheit]. They have access to very little food, fuel, water and medical supplies. The situation on the ground remains grim as people wait.

As for the Christian communities (which are in west Aleppo, in the areas primarily controlled by the Syrian army): they find themselves in a better security situation because combat and military activities have been reduced.

During the last few weeks, the situation of the Christians in Aleppo has been extremely difficult. Some convents were directly hit with shelling. At present the families are in great need for heating fuel and food.

With our partners on the ground, CNEWA is trying hard to support the neediest fragile families with emergency supplies, especially providing 2,000 children with milk components every month through the Marist brothers. We are also providing medical support through the Maronite Archdiocese of Aleppo and the Saint Vincent de Paul association.

At present, we are expecting some direct funds to help the neediest families before Christmas; we are working with the Besançon Sisters to try and keep some 750 families warm.

Of course, all of what we do is not enough. Any emergency donation should be directed to accompany the poor families through the harsh winter with winterization items.

To support the suffering people of Syria during this difficult time, please visit this link.



20 September 2016
Michel Constantin




Imad Abou Jaoude poses for a “selfie” with another CNEWA hero, Sister Maria Hannah, O.P., during a visit to Iraq. (photo: CNEWA)

Imad Abou Jaoude, a young civil engineer, joined CNEWA in our Beirut office in January 2000 as a part-time project coordinator when CNEWA was assisting the displaced population of Lebanon, mainly Christians. They had been forced to flee from their villages during the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 2000. With his engineering background, Imad mainly worked on technical issues related to the implementation of infrastructure projects.

Year after year, and with time, the mandate and the priority of the office were changing enormously, especially after the eruption of the war in Syria and the catastrophe of Iraq in 2014. This young enthusiastic engineer, Imad, feeling the importance of CNEWA’s presence to this vulnerable population, decided to join us full time and dedicate all his efforts and knowledge to helping us.

In 2014, only three weeks after the brutal offensive against the Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, and despite all danger encountered, Imad was very excited to join me in my first trip to Iraq. I still remember how we flew over Mosul only a few thousand feet above ISIS militants, within range of their rockets. For security reasons, our plane had to circle Erbil’s airport for almost an hour before we were allowed to land.

Thanks to Imad’s efforts, CNEWA is playing a leading role in responding to the needs of more than 150,000 displaced persons. With his engineering expertise, he effectively helped establish dispensaries and schools; with his very human touch he conveyed to all who needed it a spirit of solidarity and hope — truly a hero to many.



Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees CNEWA Relief

28 June 2016
Michel Constantin




In this image from 2013, worshipers leave Sunday liturgy in the village of Al Qaa in Lebanon. The village in on high alert today, after it was attacked by suicide bombers Monday. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)

Lebanon’s northeastern village of Al Qaa, a Lebanese Christian village, was in a state of alert Tuesday as security forces expanded search operations after eight suicide bombers attacked the village yesterday — Monday, 27 June 2016. The bombers killed five and wounded over 30 people in the latest violent spillover of the five-year-old Syrian war into Lebanon.

A first wave of attacks involved four suicide bombers who struck after 4 a.m., killing five people, all civilians. The first bomber blew himself up after being confronted by a resident, with the other three detonating their bombs one after the other as people arrived at the scene. A second series of attacks, involving at least four assailants, took place in the evening. Two of the bombers arrived on motorcycles, hurled explosives and then blew themselves up outside Mar Elias Melkite Greek Catholic Church — which has received support from CNEWA — as residents were preparing the funerals of those killed earlier.

Security sources said they believed Islamic State was responsible for the bombings but there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

These events have revived fears of a return to the violence that had targeted the Lebanese army and Hezbollah areas in the past.Lebanon has been repeatedly jolted by militant attacks linked to the war in neighboring Syria. The last suicide attack to rock Lebanon was on 12 November 2015, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up on a busy street in the Burj al Barajneh neighborhood of Beirut’s southern suburbs, killing 47 people and wounding over 200 others. The attack was claimed by ISIS.

Local TV footage showed yesterday Al Qaa’s residents holding rifles calling on the government to support the Christian village in defending itself as hundreds of ISIS militants are holed up on the eastern outskirts of the town.

ISIS hopes to force Christian community to leave the village; by controlling Al Qaa, the fanatic militants will be able to create a corridor to the Mediterranean, as the Lebanese Army explained in a communiqué earlier.

ISIS had urged its followers to launch attacks on “nonbelievers” during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began in early June.

The area of Masharih al Qaa — a predominantly Sunni area near Al Qaa — is home to a large number of refugees who have fled the war in Syria.

Al Qaa is located about 30 miles north of the city of Baalbek, where Hezbollah holds sway, and about 90 miles from Beirut. It is a Christian village of 15,000 residents, mainly Melkite Greek Catholics — under the jurisdiction of the Melkite Greek Catholic bishop of Baalbek — situated several miles north of Ras Baalbek, next to the eastern border with Syria’s Homs district, in the Hermel area. Al Qaa and Ras Baalbek are the only two villages with a Christian majority in the predominantly Shiite region, where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.

For decades, this rural agrarian village has been lagging behind the rest of the country, having received less assistance from either the government of Lebanon or local NGOs. Consequently, it suffers from a high rate of poverty, limited economic and educational opportunities and dire health conditions. Around 80 percent of the inhabitants subsist on agriculture and thus are considered very vulnerable and poor, with unstable incomes. The remaining minority is engaged either in small businesses or in the army. During the Lebanese war, for security reasons, the majority of the Christians left the village for safer areas.

The village is poor in its supply of water. As one of the consequences of the civil war in 1976, the major source of water to Al Qaa coming from the Shiite village of Labweh was cut. CNEWA assisted in rehabilitating the village artesian well in 2013.

Due to the intense presence of Syrian refugees presently living in the village of Al Qaa — around 20,000, compared to 140 Christian families — the water supply represents a serious challenge to the local community, especially for irrigation.

CNEWA is coordinating with the Melkite Greek Catholic parish priest of Al Qaa, the Rev. Elian Nasrallah, and has spoken to him this morning, ensuring that he was safe.

Father Elian Nasrallah, a good friend of CNEWA and a long time partner in several projects, is not only an active priest of 28 years in his remote parish in Al Qaa, but also has been very vigorous and creative in finding ways to improve the educational growth and social development of his parishioners. What Father Nasrallah has been doing in his parish is a work of mercy. In his poor community, he keeps the youngsters off the streets and in schools, teaches them different skills, entertains them with music, theatre and sports activities, strengthens their spiritual lives and allows them to have fun, all the while providing impoverished families access to health services.

Since the 80’s, Father Elian has worked to create a stronger Christian community in a neglected region surrounded by a Muslim majority, where no economic, educational or health opportunities are available. In the village’s multipurpose hall, the father used to gather youth and provide activities — computer skills; technical formation; art, theater and music classes, including a choir; sports activities; summer camps; spiritual formation; and various other activities. He also provides the existing families with access to health services through the village dispensary, supported by CNEWA.

Following the huge influx of Syrians finding shelter in the village, and through funds from CNEWA’s generous donors, the father was able to extend his hands to the poor refugees and has provided them with basic emergency aid, including blankets, mattresses, food packages, fuel for heating, medical support and even education to young Syrian children.

Read more about the flight of Syrian refugees to Al Qaa in Crossing the Border from the Spring 2013 edition of ONE.



Tags: Lebanon Middle East Christians Violence against Christians Melkite

2 May 2016
Michel Constantin




A health worker carries a girl, who has been rescued from the wreckage, after a barrel bomb attack on a medical center in Aleppo, Syria last week.
(photo: Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


Last week, CNEWA was able to talk over the phone with the Maronite priest, the Rev. Elias Adas, who is running a health facility in Aleppo, and he confirmed that at present only 35,000 Christians remain in Aleppo out of around 200,000-250,000 before 2011.

He added that the last six days, all Christian quarters were subject to heavy shelling by Islamic militants — namely Suleimanyyeh, Azizeh and Midane. The Christians, along with all inhabitants of Aleppo, are living in very difficult conditions, with no electricity (mostly one hour per day) and inflation causing soaring costs for food and basic needs . He added that due to lack of employment and with very low salaries, all inhabitants of Aleppo are in need for support to be able to survive.

He assured us that the dispensary which he is running is still operational and is providing services to all needy patients.

‘Christian Today’ reports that the Syrian Christian neighborhood of Sulaymaniyah in Aleppo was attacked and at least eight children were killed.

Nuri Kino, founder of Demand for Action (ADFA), a group working to protect minorities in the Middle East, said: “Turkish forces fighting together with the so-called opposition have been fighting the regime’s army for a couple of days now, heavy fighting. But what people could not see coming was the attacks against Christian neighborhoods...Kurdish neighborhoods have also been attacked. Both the Christians and the Kurdish are seen as the enemy, it’s a mess.”

Speaking to Asia News over the phone from Aleppo, Armenian Sevag Tashdjian said: “Islamic terrorist groups supported by Turkey,” who “cross Turkish-Syrian border trafficking arms, ammunition and stolen goods” are responsible for recent deaths. Tashdjian continues “We woke up under the bombs, it is Turkey’s gift.” He added, “Entire neighborhoods have caught fire and we went under the bombs to bring relief to sick and elderly trapped in their homes and take them to safety, to safer underground shelters.”

The few open shopkeepers closed their doors, and for the first time in five years of conflict, “anger has overcome fear.” It must be said that the Aleppo Armenians are the group who paid the highest price so far in the war, with the destruction of the ancient churches (including the Church of the 40 Martyrs, a 17th century architectural jewel). The churches were destroyed by explosives placed in underground tunnels carved from areas controlled by pro-Turkish Islamic terrorists.

Islamic terrorists have launched a series of heavy bomb attacks from areas not under government control on Armenian districts of Aleppo, in clear violation of the ceasefire. The bombs killed 17 Armenians including 3 children and a woman, and have sparked a series of fires that are still raging due to the lack of water, causing extensive destruction and damage to property.

Zarmig Boghigian, the editor of the local Armenian newspaper “Kantsasar,” said “The fighting is very close to the Armenian neighborhoods.” She added: “There are terrible clashes involving rocket fire. They are so close that the population here can see gas shells fired by [rebel] fighters.” Ms. Boghigian confirmed that rebel fire at the weekend seriously damaged a clinic run by an Armenian charity and an Armenian school in the predominantly Christian Nor Kyugh district.

Residents of the city’s Armenian district stated their belief that the attack was deliberately timed for the 101th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide — an anniversary that had been observed at churches in the neighborhood the previous day. The biggest indicator of this belief is that unexploded bombs were found with the message “Martyr Enver Pasha” written on them, which notes one of the leaders of the Young Turk movement who perpetrated the Armenian genocide.

Residents charge that Islamic forces in Aleppo are receiving assistance from Turkey, and blasted Syria’s President Assad for his failure to protect the Christian minority.



8 January 2016
Michel Constantin




In the video above, the situation in three besieged villages in Syria is described as “extremely dire.” Activists say civilians have died because of a lack of food and medicine in rebel-controlled Madaya, near Damascus, or have died trying to escape. The Syrian government is finally allowing aid convoys into the area. (video: BBC/YouTube)

CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut, Michel Constantin, this morning sent us this report about the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Madaya, Syria:

The village of Madaya is a part of the east Ghouta region, along with Zabadani and Serghaya. This cluster of villages has witnessed fierce combat between the different fragments of the opposition on one hand, and the Syrian regular army supported by the Iranian guards and Hezbollah fighters on the other.

This area is strategically important for its location. It is very close to the Lebanese border, and also to the Syrian capital of Damascus. Located near the Beirut-Damascus highway, who controls the area controls the smuggling of arms and other items.

Two years ago, the Syrian government made a strategic decision to besiege all villages and towns bordering Lebanon in the hands of the opposition. They were successful in recapturing all villages of the so-called Qalamoun area. As a result, the fighters of the opposition were pushed either to Lebanon or to the Ghouta villages, mainly Zabadani and Madaya. Supporters of the opposition also sought refuge in there.

Syrian government and Hezbollah sources have stated that scores of trucks containing humanitarian aid are scheduled to be sent to Zabadani in January. The first wave of trucks carrying medical and food stuffs were sent to Madaya. But, militant groups allegedly confiscated them and sold them to the inhabitants at a very high price.

Yesterday, the United Nations said it had received “credible reports” of people dying of starvation and said that the Syrian government had agreed to allow aid convoys into the besieged cities of Madaya, Foah and Kefraya.

There are conflicting reports of how many people have died. The aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres puts the number at 23 since 1 December. One activist says it could be as high as 41. The UN statement Thursday provided only one confirmed death, that of a 53-year-old man on Tuesday whose “family of five continues to suffer from severe malnutrition.”

Sources add that this is a partnership between the WFP, the International Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and that aid would be enough to sustain 40,000 people for one month.

Finally, the situation is extremely difficult. The inhabitants are suffering, especially now in winter. The cold is another killing agent to be added to the mines besieging the town and thwarting aid efforts.

We contacted some leaders from the local church and they all stated that the only intervention right now is exclusively by the Red Cross and the United Nations. A church initiative is not possible at present because the political and military situation is very delicate.



7 July 2015
Michel Constantin




A Franciscan priest, the Rev. Dhiya Azziz, was kidnapped from Syria over the weekend.
(photo: Vatican Radio)


This morning, two Catholic priests from Homs told me of the abduction of the Rev. Dhiya Azziz. He is a member of the Custody of the Holy Land, an apostolate of the Franciscans charged with the care of Catholics in the Holy Land since the visit of St. Francis to the region in the Middle Ages. The kidnapping took place on Saturday 4 July, while he was in his parish of Yacubiyeh, a village in Syria’s Idlib province, more than 56 miles northeast of Latakia.

The Franciscans are asking for prayers, and released this communique yesterday:

“Some militants of an unknown armed brigade, perhaps connected with Jahbat al-Nusra, came to take him away for a brief interview with the Emir of the place. From that moment we do not have any more news and we are unable to trace his where abouts at the present moment...We are doing everything possible to locate the place of his detention and secure his release. We entrust him to the prayers of all.”

The whole area is under the control of different Islamic armed brigades, including Jabhat al-Nusra — which is affiliated with al Qaeda and is considered the most powerful and predominant force. They also mentioned that another Franciscan priest, the Rev. Francois Murad, was abducted and killed in the same region in June 2013.

Father Dhiya’s kidnapping is the latest in a series of attacks on Christian religious since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

In 2013, militants kidnapped the Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, S.J., in Raqqa, a group of Greek Orthodox nuns in Qalamoun to the west of Homs, and the Greek and Syriac Orthodox bishops of Aleppo. The nuns were eventually returned to their convent unharmed, but Father Paolo and the bishops remain missing.

In 2014, a Dutch priest the Rev. Frans van der Lugt, S.J., was murdered in Homs. The priest served in Syria for more than four decades. He was involved in interreligious dialogue and had built a spirituality center that housed children with mental disabilities.

The same year, another Franciscan priest, the Rev. Hanna Jallouf, was kidnapped together with as many as 20 people from his parish in Qunaya, a neighboring village of Yacubiyeh — the two are less than a mile apart.

In February, the Islamic State kidnapped at least 90 Christians from villages in northeast Syria.

And in May, the Rev. Jacques Mourad was kidnapped at gunpoint from a monastery southeast of Homs.



7 July 2015
Michel Constantin




Iraqi refugees line up to receive food and supplies in Beirut. (photo: CNEWA)

Iraqi refugees came to Lebanon because they had no other choice. They were uprooted from what was normal and familiar — from schools, homes and lands. More importantly, they have all witnessed the horror of war. They fled in large numbers from the bombing and destruction that ravaged their homeland, seeking refuge in Lebanon and neighboring countries. So far, an estimated 1.8 million Iraqis, fleeing ISIS, have been forced to leave their homes in fear for their lives.

As a result, a new wave of around 1,500 Iraqi Christian refugee families — including about 500 children who were pulled up from their schools and were at risk of being a lost generation — entered Lebanon in 2014, settling in densely populated areas of Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

From their first day in Lebanon, the Syriac Catholic Church has mobilized resources and staff to offer emergency assistance to these refugee families. So far, 1,080 Christian Iraqi refugee families have been screened, identified and supported through different local and international donors. They are provided with food and non food items, shelter, and other basic needs.

Iraqi children are able continue their education in a school run by the Syriac Catholic Church
in Lebanon. (photo: CNEWA)


To rescue the lost generation who already have lost one year of their school life, the Rev. Firas Dardar, from the Syriac Catholic Church, opened a school to educate the Iraqi children. He hired two floors in an old private five-story building school which provides education to Lebanese students in Nabaa, a densely populated Beirut suburb. Monday through Thursday, they are taught the Iraqi curriculum which Father Dardar brought from Iraq. It includes classes in English, Arabic, science, mathematics, civic education, sports and drawing activities. Fridays are specialized for catechetical studies.

CNEWA’s Beirut office, thanks to its donors, is supporting the local church with emergency aid: mattresses, blankets, food and non-food packages to these Iraqi families. In an attempt to save the future of these children and preserve their Christian faith and hope, CNEWA will support their catechetical studies and education.

Despite the huge efforts exerted by the Syriac Catholic church to support these needy families, much is still needed. Many times, they still fall short of funds. To support CNEWA’s important work in Lebanon, and to aid these families, visit this giving page.

And please keep all our brothers and sisters in the Middle East in your prayers.



1 July 2015
Michel Constantin




This CNEWA-supported dispensary in Erbil, Iraq, helps meet the medical needs of
displaced Iraqis. (photo: CNEWA)


After the ISIS attack on Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq — displacing thousands of Christians and Yazidis, forcing them into camps all over the Kurdish area of Erbil, Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah and Zakho — there was an urgent need to intervene and provide medical support and attention to these people.

In September, just three weeks after the displacement, the situation was miserable. CNEWA representatives who visited the region were shocked at what they saw, especially when it came to the medical care of the refugees. The only existing dispensary was a tent placed on the side of a street, with families waiting in line outside under the sun to get their medicine or their injections. This terrible situation moved CNEWA to install a prefab dispensary in Erbil, which has been successful through the support of its local partners.

The Dohuk dispensary consists of ten rooms, including a waiting room, two quick checkup rooms, two doctors’ rooms, a lab, two small operating rooms, a pharmacy and a storage. All are connected by a middle corridor. The building is a prefab steel structure. The rooms are properly air conditioned and furnished.

A dentist cares for a patient in the new Erbil dispensary. (photo: CNEWA)

In early May, the dispensary received around 55 patients per day in addition to about 20 chronic patients; this adds up to about 420 patients per week, and that number is expected to increase to around 700 patients per week. The dispensary is under the supervision of a committee representing all communities — Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox. It is managed and operated by the Rev. Aphrem Philippos, representing the committee; two sisters from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, who have great experience in similar projects; and a doctor.

On the first week of May, the dispensary got the blessing of both Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Msgr. John Kozar, who visited the facility as part of a pastoral visit.

Cardinal Sandri greets the staff at the dispensary. (photo: John E. Kozar)



Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Sisters Iraqi Refugees Relief

30 June 2015
Michel Constantin




In this image from March, displaced Assyrians who fled the villages around Tel Tamer gather outside the Assyrian Church in Hassake as they wait for news about abductees kidnapped by ISIS. The city of Hassake is now under siege, and Christians there are seeking refuge
in nearby cities. (photo: CNS/Rodi Said, Reuters)


While I’m working in Erbil this week among the refugees in Kurdistan, I’m also monitoring developments in Hassake in northern Syria.

It’s estimated that that about 1,300 Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac families have been displaced from Hassake and have fled to the nearby city of Qamishli. Most of them are being housed in churches, schools, and monasteries; some are in the homes of host families. A number of other families have fled to the towns of Tel Tamer and Derbassiyeh.

In the wake of the latest attack by ISIS on Hassake city on Wednesday 24 June, the terrorist organization was able to gain control of the Al Nashwa neighborhood south of the city. Clashes are still ongoing between members of ISIS and government forces backed by militias.

It’s not accurate to say that the situation is similar to what happened in Mosul — mainly because the fighting is still going on and it is fierce; in Mosul, the area was occupied without any local resistance and without any real fighting.

In Hassake we have different parties involved in fighting ISIS. In addition to the Syrian regular army, the Kurdish fighters and local inhabitants of Sunni Arab nomad clans (al Shouaytat family) are also fighting on the side of the Syrian troops.

This Sunni clan is one of the largest in northern Syria. Last year, they lost about 925 young men. The men opposed ISIS occupying their region, and the militants executed them all within three days.

CNEWA has already rushed funds for the displaced Christians of the city, and is working with partners on the ground to respond to the growing needs of the families in flight.

To learn how you can help, click here.



23 September 2014
Michel Constantin




Iraqi refugees gather outside a makeshift dispensary in Erbil. (photo: CNEWA)

The Christian Presence in Iraq

The Iraqi Christian community, perhaps the oldest in the world, has survived more than 1400 years under Islamic rule in its homeland. During the first 500 years of the golden age of Islam, the Christians participated and shared in the shaping of the most advanced civilization of its time. Then, during the downfall period under the barbarian invasion of the Mongols in 1258, followed by the Ottomans and different brutal military invasions and occupations, the Christians remained in their homelands continuously, sometimes in harmony and many times in fear with their Muslim neighbors.

Unfortunately, the Christians could not hold on and support the last wave of modern Islamization. The brutality of ISIS militants and the marketing of this brutality over social media succeeded in creating shock and terror among all minorities of northern Iraq. On 6 August, the Christian presence in Mosul and Nineveh plain faded completely along with their trust in the international community and Baghdad and Kurdish governments, the latter of which withdrew their forces from the Christian towns over night, leaving more than 130,000 Christians without any kind of protection and subject to the brutality of unmerciful militants.

Lacking options and weapons to defend themselves, all Christian inhabitants fled to save their lives and those of their children. At midnight, they left with few garments and headed further north to find shelter in the Kurdish territories. Some drove through the desert for many hours to avoid military confrontation and ISIS checkpoints, other slacking the means of transportation had to walk for more than ten hours before reaching safe areas. Children, elderly, and all families found themselves helpless and alone under the burning sun of August, where the temperature reaches 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). The Kurdish government provided them with only permission to stay in their territories safely; besides security, nothing was available. The only shelters they had were the backyards of the churches and some unfinished commercial centers transformed into temporary camps with primitive textile partitioning.

The Christians of the Nineveh Plain were considered the elite of the Iraqi population in the north, largely because of their education, occupying the best positions in the majority of skilled fields requiring advanced educations. They were counted among the best medical doctors, the best teachers, the best engineers, etc. They believed they could make a difference and worked hard from one generation to another to create a more open society where an individual is accepted and respected for what he is and not for his religious beliefs. Unfortunately, their efforts did not yield positive results, and the people with whom they lived for over 1400 years decided to attack them and force them to either convert to Islam or leave. There is little surprising about their collective decision to leave.

Refugees gather inside the temporary dispensary to receive medical care. (photo: CNEWA)

CNEWA Representatives Visit to Iraq — 2-5 September, 2014

Since the early days of the displacement, CNEWA’s Beirut office has been in continuous contact with the local church in Erbil and with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, showing solidarity and figuring out the best ways to accompany them and help reducing the suffering of refugees.

On 2 September, a delegation from Beirut composed of Michel Constantin and Imad Abou Jaoude, representing CNEWA, and Sister Marie Claude Naddaf from the Good Shepherd Sisters, representing all the female congregations in Lebanon, headed to Erbil to better understand the humanitarian situation and to get in direct contact with the local church people who are involved in reaching out for the refugees.

Our activities during this visit could be summarized as such:

  1. We first met with the Syriac Catholic Archbishop Boutros Moshe of Mosul, who himself was displaced from Qaraqosh with more than 130,000 Christians of all denominations from nine villages and towns in the Nineveh Plain.

    To get to the archbishop’s office in Martha Shmouny Center in the quarter of Ain Kawa, a neighborhood of Erbil initially inhabited by Christians, we passed through a large crowd mainly composed of children with their mothers waiting for their turn to get a vaccine from a field dispensary set up in a small tent where doctors — themselves also displaced from the hospital in Qaraqosh — 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. Three priests helped him to register the displaced families. The archbishop explained to us that the most urgent need at present is to provide a primary health care center.

    We visited the dispensary outside the displacement center and met with the Rev. Behnam Benoka, a Syriac Catholic priest in charge of the dispensary. Father Benoka explained that at present, there are only two dispensaries taking care of the Christian refugees; the first one is called Habib al Maleh — a private dispensary, run by a Chaldean director, and supported by the Kurdish government. The second is an on-site dispensary installed during the first days of displacement inside a tent on the sidewalk outside Martha Shmouny Center. Fifty staff members operate the facility, all of them displaced and volunteering their expertise and time for free. Among the volunteers are 15 medical doctors from the hospital in Qaraqosh, in addition to 15 medical assistants and 20 volunteers.

    The dispensary receives an average of 500 patients every day and provides vaccinations for the children. The patients are from all displacement centers of Erbil.

    An empty garage has been turned into living quarters for refugees. (photo: CNEWA)

    The urgent need at present is to extend the dispensary by providing four prefab rooms and a large new tent to serve as a reception area. Each room will serve as a clinic for one doctor according to each specialty — internal medicine, pediatric, gynecology, ophthalmology, etc. — and will be equipped with the basic needed equipment. The dispensary will be located in the front yard of the displacement center of the Syriac Catholic Church. Martha Shmouny will provide services all over the day and the doctors will be shifting to cover the needs of all patients.

    Regarding the second major problem that they have which is the provision of proper shelter for the displaced people, Archbishop Moshe informed us that a commercial building called Ain Kawa Mall was put by the owner under the disposition of the refugees, to be partitioned to shelter 100 families on each of three large unfinished floors. We visited the location and met with the contractor who was assigned by UNHCR to prepare the first floor.

    The cost of each floor is estimated at U.S. $150,000 — or an average of $1,500 to shelter one family — including a collective sanitary bloc and a common cooking area.

    The total cost of partitioning the two floors to accommodate 200 additional families is estimated at $300,000.

  2. Then we visited the Redemptorist Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Wardah of Erbil and Chaldean Archbishop Emile Shimoun Nona of Mosul at the Chaldean Archbishopric of Erbil, also located in Ain Kawa. Archbishop Bashar of Erbil informed us that the food rations, water tanks and mobile toilets will be ensured through the donation of the central government of Baghdad. He is in charge of communicating with the government on behalf of all the refugees.

    He also emphasized on the urgent need to provide primary health care and to find shelter for families living in the backyards of churches. The families without shelter are estimated at around 1,500 families.

    Archbishop Bashar also informed us that, through his connections with the Kurdish government, two large storage hangars have been made available to the refugees. We visited the location with the archbishops and inspected the potential shelter. Each hangar can be partitioned into 25 private rooms, and each room is large enough to accommodate two families, the sanitary block could be ensured through the mobile toilets and showers provided by the government of Baghdad. The cost of partitioning of each warehouse is estimated at around $45,000 to $50,000.

  3. We then visited a number of religious congregations working with the refugees in their convents. We visited the Chaldean Daughters of Mary, the Chaldean Sacred Heart Sisters and the Syriac Catholic Ephremite Sisters. The next day, at the patriarchal Chaldean seminary in Ain Kawa, we met all 32 sisters and priests who were displaced with their people. They are presently very active in reaching out for the refugees in all the settlements. The meeting was the first of its kind and every sister and father was pointing out the different difficulties facing their daily work with the refugees. This meeting was very important and gave us the broader vision for the needs assessment and the priorities.

Sister Maria Goretti Hanna, O.P., and Good Shepherd Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf meet refugees in Erbil, Iraq, during a visit earlier this month. (photo: CNEWA)

Needs Assessment

First of all, it is very important to mention that the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena are providing a real witness of accompanying the poor in their daily sufferings and remaining with them through every step of their walk on this unprecedented crisis.

Among all the sad stories and the uncertainty of all the refugee families, I saw a shining light through the common life of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, and all the sisters living among the families. It was really a remarkable situation, where the poor help the poor and refugee reaches out to refugee. The solidarity among the different congregations is so strong that the superior general of the congregation has prepared in the backyard of the convent a place to install prefab rooms to accommodate all the refugee sisters, regardless of congregation. And in the morning the sisters, along with the brothers from the Congregation of Jesus the Redeemer, would leave two by two — like the apostles — to serve in the displacement centers.

As for the needs of the refugees, it is very difficult to prioritize the needs as they are living on the streets and are practically in need of everything.

Following are the needs by sector:

  1. Capacity building and coordination efforts: Despite all the good intentions, we felt that both the people and the churches are still dealing with the situation as a temporary one. They are still in shock, waiting for a miracle to happen or to wake up from the nightmare and to resume their lives as though nothing had happened. During the meeting, we shared with them our experiences in Syria and advised them that as long as time passes, the difficulties will increase and the needs and the sufferings will be greater. For all these reasons it is very important to coordinate the efforts, and to come up with a plan for the needs of the refugees and to address the world accordingly.

  2. Shelter: The majority of the displaced Christian families are currently living either in schools or in tents outside the church properties of Ain Kawa and Erbil. This situation cannot continue indefinitely; by mid-September, the great majority of the families living in the schools will have to evacuate. The Kurdish Authority has already sent warning notes, and some schools were evacuated during our visit.

    In the absence of any statistical effort, we estimate the number of families living in tents and in schools at around 2,500 to 3,000 families in Erbil only. Archbishop Emile of Mosul informed us that the worst refugee conditions are in Erbil, since in the northern cities of Duhok and Zakho and in Suleimaniyah most of the refugees are either living with their relatives or have rented small apartments and are sharing them with other families.

    It is to be mentioned that the rent cost in Erbil, and especially in the Christian neighborhood of Ain Kawa, is very high and is estimated at an average of $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.

  3. Health: The issue of health care is very important, as a good proportion of refugees used to rely on a public insurance system provided by the central government of Baghdad, especially for public employees. This system is not applicable in the Kurdish territories, and private medical care is extremely expensive. Therefore the local dispensaries that provide primary health care and on-site medical services are extremely important for the lives of the refugees.

  4. Education: The problem with the education issue goes beyond the scarcity of enrollment openings in the Kurdish schools. There are also cultural barriers, since the curriculum taught in the Kurdish schools relies on the Kurdish language, while all Christian students used to rely on the Arabic as the first language in their curriculum.

  5. Employment: A good proportion of Christian refugees used to work for the government, either as teachers, doctors, engineers, or workers in the oil sector or industries owned by the Iraqi government. All these employees used to get their salaries from the central bank branch of Mosul. Since the invasion of Mosul in June 2014,employees could not retrieve their salaries. Even at present in Erbil, the lack of trust between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, and the lack of any mechanism to transfer the salaries to Erbil, has left refugees without any source of income.

    Moreover, because of the crisis in Syria and the displacement of large numbers of Syrian Kurds to Erbil, Syrian Kurds became the priority in private and public employment at the expense of the Christian Iraqis.

  6. Food and essentials: At present, food and other critical supplies are provided through local donations and the Christian funds available by the central government and the Ministries of Religious Affairs and the Emigration. Archbishop Bashar Wardah is leading the efforts and has been successful.

  7. Winter items: The weather in Kurdistan is dry and arid desert weather, where the temperature in summer reaches around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and in winter falls drops to freezing from November until early March. Therefore, enduring the winter will require wool blankets in addition to winter clothing — especially for children — in addition to heating fuel and heaters.

  8. Spiritual and trauma healing support: Many of the families found themselves, in a blink of an eye, losing everything. Many who were well off in their homelands found themselves on the streets. In order to maintain their hope and their faith, huge efforts must be exerted to support all the local churches and religious people to maintain their activities and to provide the families with psychological support. This holds especially for mothers, on an individual and collective basis, to help them accept their new situation while waiting for a solution and end to their problems.

Recommendations

  1. Start with establishing a good, well-equipped dispensary in Erbil that could enhance the efforts of the volunteer staff and improve the quality of the services provided to the displaced families. The tent currently used as a dispensary suffers insufficient sanitation and ventilation, especially in Iraq under the extreme weather conditions.

  2. Help Archbishop Moshe to establish a small center for people with special needs in the multipurpose hall.

  3. Help the sisters in their efforts to provide basic necessities for newborn children — a need not yet covered by any donors — and to purchase some underwear items for children as well as some basic urgent needs.

CNEWA has already started implementing this phase in coordination with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena and Syriac Catholic Father Behnam Benoka. For this purpose, CNEWA has allocated the amount of $75,000. A first payment has been already transferred to the sisters’ account as of 9 September.

As for later phases, they will be elaborated during further visits and through continuous consultation with our church partners.



Tags: Iraq Iraqi Christians Iraqi Refugees Relief





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