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Iraqi Erbil priest: “We aim to treat our refugees as guests”

September 15, 2014 by Open Doors in

The so-far ‘safe’ city of Erbil in Kurdish-governed north-eastern Iraq has seen thousands of Christian refugees arrive over the last few months with many relying on the church for sanctuary. But how are local churches bearing up to the influx?

In the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic church in the suburb of Ankawa the priest Father Douglas manages to carry on his working life amidst a sea of refugee tents. He knows what it’s like to experience trauma, having himself survived being kidnapped (click here for video interview).

Father Douglas’s church hall is a still a sanctuary: morning prayers are held every day at 10.00am and church life continues with mass, weddings and funerals. But around Mar Elia is a collection of grey, brown, white and green tents – donated by an array of different organizations. The tents have become home to 700 families from Mosul, Karamlesh, Qarakosh, and other Christian villages on the Nineveh plain.

“We don’t call this a camp, we call it a center”, explains Douglas. “We wanted to be sure that people who have left their homes and come here feel welcome. We treat them like guests, where we enjoy sharing life and where they can feel safe and relaxed.”

It seems his approach is working. Visitors to the center are greeted by the guard, one of the 14 volunteers who have been tasked to help maintain order and safety. The guard, smiling broadly, proudly shows off the cross on his chest and the badge showing his role as a ‘servant’ at the center.

As Father Douglas walks further into the center he is greeted by children coming towards the entrance dragging big black bags into the street. “I promised the kids they would earn treats for collecting rubbish and you can see how much they love doing this. It is so important to give them something to do. Everybody enjoys having purpose and a task rather than sitting around doing nothing.”

The center has collected ‘guests’ from all different kinds of church backgrounds: Chaldean Catholic refugees are camping next to their Assyrian Church of the East neighbors. The affairs of the church, as well as attending to the needs of the refugees, are now shared between Father Douglas and his new colleague, Father Daniel.

Father Daniel points out that in these circumstances the church must, for practical reasons, be unified. “Right now our differences don’t matter too much. We are united in Christ and our shared beliefs.”

Further into the camp youths are dressed in blue T-shirts to show they are working as volunteers at the camp. They do many different jobs – clean, sweep, door duty and child care. They host fun and games in the most colorful tent in the middle of the camp. It was provided by a local NGO, to create a child-friendly space where children could play and dance to music. Father Daniel joins them in dancing to the song, Happy by Pharrell Williams.

“These kids love it when we give them space to have fun, laugh and enjoy their lives”, says Father Daniel. Please tell others that our life continues.”

The sentiment is shared by host Father Douglas, whose personal story of living in Baghdad, surviving explosions, car bombs, church attacks and even kidnapping has taught him how to accept hardship, receive God’s grace and to forgive. Now this inner strength is something he is eager to pass on: “Although we don’t know what the future will hold, we especially want to teach the children to never give up, to not just relive the pain of the older generations, but to grow strong, to be leaders in society and to have the courage to believe that they can make an impact.”

He adds: “Christians are the salt of any society. We are few, but we can make an impact. We can make a difference.”

Click here see Father Douglas talking about how he dealt with the trauma of being kidnapped (6’13”).

“As long as we invest in our children, there is a future for Christians in Iraq”

Sister Azhar, director of Kids’ House next door to the church, has not had time to think about all the preparations she usually makes before the beginning of the school year: “During the last three weeks we have been incredibly busy. When the refugees came to Ankawa during the nights of the 7th and 8th August, they knocked on the doors of all the schools and the churches. They were afraid and arrived with nothing but we took them in and are trying to take care of them”.

In the beginning just six nuns were serving 2,200 people. “It was an impossible job,” said Sister Azhar, “but we now have almost everybody settled in halls, tents and places where they will be a little bit stable.”

There are now 21 nuns after more arrived as refugees from Mosul. They share three cramped rooms in the convent.

About 700 of the families are living in a refugee center in the court yard of Mar Elia church, next door to the kindergarten. Others are at refugee centers in the nearby churches of Mar Yousif and Mar Girgis.

It is not the first time that Sister Azhar has had to make more space at the kindergarten.

“Kids’ House has always been open to them,” she said. “Refugees from Baghdad, people returning from Syria, now people from the Nineveh plains – we have always had a growing number of children. Last year we had 380 kids and 31 teachers.”

But Kids’ House is overwhelmed and the nuns feel they will have to turn children away. Four of the eight classrooms are tents. “We never wanted to stay in the tents – it’s cold in the winter and with the rain everything is damp and unhealthy. The children have not really been able to learn in this environment. This year we decided that we just cannot continue this way.”

It is a difficult decision for Azhar. She receives calls every day from parents who beg her to accept their children. She would love to help but feels it is too big a job: “We want to invest in the children, this is important. But how can I do it? I lost one third of my teachers just this summer to emigration, and I simply don’t have enough class rooms.”

Azhar’s parents and family moved to the US many years ago. Does she ever feel like following them?

“I have taken vows to serve Christ and his Church and believe it is my place to stay here. It is our job to teach the children and help those who have experienced violence and displacement. We are all one family and when difficult times come, we need to stick together”.

The nuns have built a wealth of experience from working with refugees that helps them understand how children react when they are displaced: “It is different from adults, they adjust easier. Children are full of energy and love life. We can learn from them. To live in the moment and love life – as long as we can continue to live this way and to invest into our children and educate them there is a future for Christians in Iraq.” 

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