The National Catholic Reporter’s Tom Gallagher is traveling with the CNEWA team and Cardinal Timothy Dolan to Iraq. Late Friday, he filed this report for NCR on some of what he saw in the camps that are now home for displaced Iraqi Christians:
Our small delegation visited two camps, Ashty 1 and Ashty 2, located in Ainkawa, as well as a nearby health care clinic initially established by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).
More than 5,500 people, mostly Christian, reside at Ashty 1 camp. The camp has more men than women, more than 2,000 children, 107 widows, 75 orphans and 185 disabled people.
A grade school serves 750 students. The camp has a workshop where women create small handcrafted mosaics and it has a small factory where sesame seeds are ground to make pastes and dips. A basketball court and soccer field provide space for recreation.
The camp’s church, located under a large tent a year ago, is now located at a newly constructed building that seats 800.
Some enterprising camp residents have created small businesses fixing shoes, selling food and drink items, and selling snow cones.
The camp’s director described the daily challenges people face. The main problem is potable water. Gas generators and chlorination are used to create clean water. For every 10 families, a septic tank is installed. The Kurdish government removes trash.
The homes are converted shipping containers, sitting on cinderblocks. They are cramped, airless spaces with two windows and a front door. One window contains a boxy air conditioner. The camp’s streets are made of hard-packed mud and stone and dust is constant. Families hang their washed clothing to dry on lines tied to their buildings.
Another challenge for the camp is new marriages. Since there is no more living space available, young couples are forced to live with their parents after marriage, which leads to inevitable conflict.
Some families add space by attaching a thin frame with fencing or tarps to the containers. After two years, the camp’s temporary housing is taking on the feel of permanent housing. There is no place to go, no home to return to, as the Islamic State group either continues to occupy their towns or has booby-trapped the towns with explosives, or the region otherwise remains too dangerous to return.
“If we did not believe in Jesus, half of us would commit suicide,” said the camp director when asked to describe the mental health of those in camp.
As we meandered through the streets of Ashty 1, Msgr. John Kozar, president of the New York City-based CNEWA, greeted people warmly and reassured them that they are not forgotten, that they are loved and that, as Christians, they are our brothers and sisters.