6 August 2015
Iraqi refugees gather outside their temporary dwellings in Erbil. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
It was one year ago today that ISIS launched its greatest offensive through northern Iraq, displacing tens of thousands of Christians. Don Duncan writes about that displacement and a recent visit to Erbil in the Summer 2015 edition of ONE. He offers some personal impressions below.
On this, my second trip to Iraqi Kurdistan to cover the situation of displaced Christians there, I was struck by the dynamics of displacement and the ceaseless nature of human resilience.
During my first trip, last September, the Christians who had fled the sudden onslaught of ISIS through their villages and territory just weeks prior were all heaving in a sort of mass trauma. The harsh reality of homelessness and displacement was beginning to settle in in painful waves. All this was happening as people found themselves and their families sleeping in churchyards without shelter, and later in basements of unfinished buildings, separated only by sheets of tarpaulin.
Disease was rife. Anguish was rife. Panic was rife.
The usual pillars of society — church, school, hospital and childcare — had all vanished and providers of care such as nuns, priests, teachers, and medics were all scrambling to simply stanch the crisis enough so as to find more sustainable solutions for the overwrought population.
What I have found on my return this second time to Erbil is a soul-warming display of resilience. All the sites of hellish living conditions I saw in September lie empty. Most families are now either housed in rented houses or in emergency housing trailers, much like the ones used by FEMA in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck. While living conditions are less than ideal, the edge of panic and woe seems to have lifted somewhat. The population, less in shock than before, is able to go about making their lives better. Nowhere is this clearer than in the infrastructure of care that has developed around the population over the past year.
Whereas a very basic level of emergency healthcare had been established by September last, in the form of three CNEWA-donated pre-fab cabins, huge gaps lay in provision of basic services for a population badly in need.
Now, in big measure because of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena, the complex of schooling, healthcare, childcare and orphanage infrastructure that existed around these Christians at home, prior to their expulsion by ISIS, his being progressively restored. Temporary schools and clinics have been built and set running. An orphanage and kindergartens have been established. The community is beginning to display some of the daily rhythms of normality again: kids going off to school, mom cleaning the house or preparing dinner for when they come home.
These are the vital signs of survival, it seemed to me, of a community in peril. A community that is able to rebuild itself from the ashes is, in essence, a community that will endure and persist and this fact has brought a strong sense of hope to the displaced Christians that was simply not present last September, when so many of the people I interviewed saw the events unfurling as the last chapters in the story of Christians in Iraq.
I should stress that while the situation has improved and that this improvement is strength-giving, the overall situation is still far from ideal. The male population is still chronically under-employed, domestic tensions continue to flare in households, living conditions are still cramped and diseases are still rampant. While a vital measure of dignity has been restored, the displaced Christians are still in chronic need of yet more dignity in their living situations.
Now, it seems, the displaced Christians are getting hope and strength from the specter of the resurrection of the infrastructure of community. Many are emboldened to carry on, to move on if they have to. Or, they hope, to move back to their own towns one day and start the reconstruction of their lost homes and communities there.
A year into this crisis, the need remains great. To support those struggling to rebuild their lives in Iraq, visit our giving page. And please remember to keep these people in your prayers.