I would rather take refuge in you, God, than rely on people. (Psalm 118:8)
“If you cannot open your doors to my people, help my people stay here,” Father Douglas Bazi tells us.
Father Douglas provides oversight and leadership to Mar Elia, just one of the 14 refugee camps, or what he calls “centers,” in the Chaldean Catholic diocese of Erbil, Iraq. He says four Catholic and other church dioceses disappeared overnight when ISIS swept through the nearby Ninewah Plain in August 2014. Over 11,000 Christian families fled the Mosul region for Erbil and the surrounding area.
The Christians are a small part, perhaps about 10 per cent, of the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Christians and other minority religious groups who suddenly found themselves homeless because of the war in the northern Kurdish region of the country.
The rise of ISIS is only the latest misery suffered by the people of Iraq in a long line of wars, economic sanctions and repression, and then, the American-led invasion. MCC evacuated Baghdad in 2005 during the war and then reestablished its work in Iraq in Erbil 2007 where one of its primary partners, the Chaldean Catholic Church, also relocated a number of its institutions.
Bishop Bashar says his people have been deeply affected by trauma. He remembers the recent time when displaced families from the Mosul region were living in tents in the church yard. Two years later, the church is still paying many thousands of dollars each month for rent assistance and food for these families. More than 5,000 families have already left Erbil for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
MCC is assisting the church and other partners with trauma training and relief aid in several of the camps. MCC’s work in the Kurdish region and elsewhere in Iraq in humanitarian assistance, agricultural and livelihoods development, education and peace building is among both Muslim and Christian groups.
In the northeastern city of Suleimaniyah, MCC works with REACH, a local organization assisting displaced communities and vulnerable Iraqis. The attention of many larger NGOs is already beginning to move on to more recent global humanitarian disasters, but MCC continues to support its long-term partner’s work with water access and other rural livelihoods projects, as well as more recent work assisting displaced communities.
In Erbil, one of MCC’s partners is Kid’s House Kindergarten where their early childhood education now reaches out to 375 children, about double in size since the influx of displaced families two years ago. The Mar Elia refugee center is adjacent to Kid’s House.
People want to stay in Iraq and not leave the country, Father Douglas tells me, but they also want to know their families can have a meaningful life here. Many of the 1,200 families in the center are fearful of moving back to their original homes because they say it was their neighbors who betrayed them and they don’t trust anyone anymore.
An MCC worker says it is too easy, though, to simply call this conflict a religious or ethnic one. The truth is more nuanced than that. By imposing sectarian solutions on the conflict, she says the United States and the West are encouraging the very reality they fear. Each of the groups is fractured and each has many different perspectives among them.
“They took our land, our soul and our history,” Father Douglas says of the ISIS invaders. But he also blames America for the war that began the destruction of his country. “Tell your country to stop sending weapons because we’ve already had enough of them,” he tells me. And he rightly suggests that the money that was spent on one day of the war could underwrite the safety and security for all of the people in the refugee centers in Erbil.
Father Douglas wonders, in the future, will anybody be helping them? I am hoping that they can learn to rely on each other once again, as well as God, and that MCC’s work will continue to be strong here as a sign of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this war weary region of the world.
Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.