‘Persecuted, But Not Abandoned’ (2 Cor 4:9)
9/1/2015Dominican Brother Augustine Marogi
Editor’s Note: The last names of family members have been omitted to protect their safety.
Gardeners know that when a plant is uprooted and transplanted, its roots may have great difficulty receiving the water needed to remain alive. And as the plant adjusts to new soil, it may suffer “transplant shock” and never recover.
Uprooted human beings can suffer similar consequences as well. Forced to abandon their homes, refugees often experience their new surroundings as a vast, dark desert. Distraught and confused, fathers and mothers find themselves unable to provide loving care and security for their children. Despair becomes a real temptation. Such is the fate of displaced Christian families living in Iraq today.
After the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, overran the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and smaller towns in June 2014, they gave Christians three options: convert to Islam, pay jizya (a submission tax) or leave. Otherwise, they would be slain. With little more than the clothes on their back, nearly all the Christian families abandoned the cities and villages where their roots could be traced back thousands of years. They fled into Kurdish areas where many have faced deplorable living conditions — in tents, partially completed buildings or even out in the open.
In response to this humanitarian crisis, the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund was launched in August 2014. The initiative has helped to provide shelter and medical care for refugee families in need, mitigating their suffering and giving hope amid dire circumstances.
FORCED TO FLEE
In just over a decade, the number of Christians in Iraq has plummeted from more than 1 million to fewer than 300,000. Many who remain have been forced out of their homes, and displaced families are now scattered in temporary camps, living among tents or caravans. Some 125,000 refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains region are now in the Kurdish-controlled city of Erbil.
Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil is one site where some 200 Christian families have found some shelter.
Among them are a man named Badry and his wife, Bushra, together with their five sons and two daughters. Until last year, the family lived in Qaraqosh, also known as Baghdeda, a Christian city approximately 50 miles west of Erbil. The city was seized by ISIS on Aug. 6, 2014. The attack intensified, and the family was forced to flee at night when the Kurdish forces surrendered the town.
In Qaraqosh, Badry worked as a driver, but there is little work in Erbil. Some of the women earn money caring for children at the camp, but most of the men have no way to support their families.
Though the living conditions at this camp are better than many others, the families face countless hardships. Overcrowding removes any sense of privacy among the families, and it makes practical living very difficult.
“More than 130 families have to share four bathrooms with one another,” explained Bushra.
When the family first arrived in Erbil, they had to live in tents, she recalled. “Some of my sons had to sleep outside because there was not enough room for all of us inside the tent.”
There is no running water in the caravans, which means water has to be carried by buckets — a task that is especially burdensome during the hot summer months.
Father Douglas Bazi, 43, the pastor of Mar Elia Church, has worked very hard to maintain some sanity and order amid the chaos. An Iraqi priest whose church in Baghdad had served as a shelter from Islamic militant assaults in 2003, Father Bazi was later shot, kidnapped, tortured and beaten in 2006.
Since the panicked arrival of 18,000 displaced families in a single day last August, Father Bazi has established a school for the children in the refugee camp. He also organizes sporting events, provides music lessons and coordinates other activities to keep the children occupied.
“My people lost everything overnight,” Father Bazi said. “Even so, no one blamed God and they have not lost the faith.”
Nevertheless, he hopes the bleak conditions that the refugees have been enduring will improve soon, because the status quo is unsustainable.
“So far, we have had no suicides in the camp,” Father Bazi said. “But if the situation remains as it is, within one year, it may happen.”
The Church is not equipped to deal with the immense psychological trauma that displacement inflicts on families, he added. “We can offer some help, but we do not have the resources to take on this crisis.”
SHELTER AND HOPE
The Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund, which has also aided displaced families in countries such as Syria and Ukraine, has helped to answer some of the immediate needs of displaced Iraqi families.
The fund has already provided more than $2 million to the Archdiocese of Erbil’s efforts to help refugees, beginning with shelter for families who were driven from their homes.
In a letter of gratitude dated May 8, Redemptorist Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil explained, “The Knights of Columbus donation is being used to help create permanent low-cost housing for those Christian families (there will be many of them) who choose to stay in Iraq, but who will decide not to return to their original homes and who cannot afford to pay market prices for housing here in Erbil.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government has allocated land for the housing project, and the Iraqi Catholic Bishops’ Conference is in the process of building 1,000 units, at a cost of $30,000 each.
Funds have also gone to provide urgent medical services for the refugee community and the rehabilitation of a maternity and child care hospital. This summer, the Order donated an additional $150,000 for emergency care in Erbil.
The pressing need for both housing and health care is evident in the cases of traumatized refugee families. Haitham and ‘A’ida were also among the thousands who fled Qaraqosh last year. Together with their children, they fled their home shortly after midnight, and upon reaching Erbil, they initially lived in a small tent. ‘A’ida was pregnant with their ninth child, and faced with the summer heat, the situation was unbearable.
Haitham, who is in his mid-40s, has spent most of his life struggling to survive in a country ravaged by war. Finding himself evicted from his own house and dispossessed of all his belongings has left him feeling “destroyed.”
“After all these years working, we do not own a single brick in this country,” said Haitham, who believes that emigrating to the West may be the only way his children will have a life of dignity.
“Life is more than just eating and drinking,” Haitham said. “We are human beings, and like other human beings, we also want to make our kids happy.”
Still, many other displaced Christians would rather remain in their ancestral land in spite of having lost everything.
Last summer, a man named Dhargham fled with his wife and 10-year-old son from the village of Bartella, located 14 miles west of Mosul, narrowly escaping capture by ISIS. His wife is now pregnant with another child, and both of them are currently unemployed.
“But even now, if there is a way to return to my village, we are willing to return and remain in the country,” Dhargham said.
Archbishop Warda affirmed that both the spiritual and humanitarian support have given hope to his suffering people.
“We remain confident in Christ that there is a future for Iraqi Christians in Iraq,” he said.
For now, the Church in Erbil is doing what it can to make life easier for the families.
“Here at the Shrine of Mar Elia, they have not spared anything to offer us the help we need,” said Dhargham. “My son is heavily involved with the different activities Father Douglas has been setting up for the children at this camp. When I see my son happy, I am happy as well.”
The other families have likewise expressed their gratitude, especially for receiving basic necessities like food and shelter.
“Through the support of groups within and outside Kurdistan, my people feel that they are not alone or forgotten,” said Father Bazi. “It is a grace, and I ask the Knights of Columbus to continue to be in solidarity with us, for we belong not to land, but to Jesus.”
BROTHER AUGUSTINE MAROGI, O.P., was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and moved to Ontario, Canada, at age 15. Currently, he is a second-year student brother with the Dominican Friars of St. Joseph.