“We Aim to Treat the Refugees As Guests”
The so-far ‘safe’ city of Erbil in Kurdish-governed northeastern Iraq has seen thousands of Christian refugees arrive over the last few months, with many relying on the church for refuge.
In the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church, in the suburb of Ankawa, Father Douglas manages to carry on church life amidst an ocean of refugee tents. The church hall is still a sanctuary; daily prayers are held at 10am, weddings and funerals still take place on a regular basis. But surrounding the church building is an ocean of grey, brown, white and green. The tents have become home to over 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; we enjoy sharing life and want to create a place where they feel safe and relaxed.”
The center has ‘guests’ from varying 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.”
The sentiment is shared by host Father Douglas, whose personal story of living in Baghdad, surviving explosions, car bombs, church attacks and even kidnappings has taught him how to accept hardship, receive God’s grace and 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.”
Father Douglas adds, “Christians are the salt of any society. We are few, but we can make an impact. We can make a difference. As long as we invest in our children, there is a future for Christians in Iraq.”
Sister Azhar, the Director of Kids’ House, which is located in the church, has not had time to think. “During the last three weeks, we have been incredibly busy. When the refugees came to Ankawa during the night on Aug 7 and 8, they knocked on the doors of all the schools and the churches in the city. They arrived with nothing. We took them in and are trying to take care of them.”
In the beginning, only 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 helping. They share three cramped rooms in the convent.
It is not the first time that Sister Azhar has had to make more space. “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 now 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.”
It is a difficult decision for Sister 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 a third of my teachers just this summer to emigration, and I simply don’t have enough classrooms.”
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.”
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, hearing almost daily of the sorrow and suffering of Your people, this story brings us hope and joy to know that Your saints are busy at work, helping, loving and sharing what little that they have with one another. As we hear of the unity among the different denominations, we are acutely aware that sometimes this can only be accomplished through trials. Father, today we ask specifically for provision, wisdom, creativity and energy to those who are providing relief. Father, in a quiet whisper, let them know that the entire global Body of Christ is praying for them and standing united with them. And Father, when needed, give them rest. Jesus, You are the Prince of Peace… may Your presence and power shine in Your people, bringing peace and hope to a struggling world, Amen.