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Other Stories from Kurdistan

The situation for refugees in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq is dire. I was pleased to be able to convey this perspective in a recent article for Lapido Media, highlighting the relief efforts of a local Cairo church, Kasr el-Dobara.

But there are other interesting stories to be told, more than could be honored in a reasonable word limit. Here then are a few other anecdotes that had to be cut in the editing:

KD Christian refugee

Coordinated with US airstrikes, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have begun to reclaim villages overrun by ISIS. But many displaced Christians in Erbil, the Kurdish Iraqi city which has received hundreds of thousands of refugees, have little confidence to return.

‘I don’t want to go back to the same neighbors who betrayed me,’ a roughly 60 year old blind man from Nineveh told Revd. Fawzi Khalil. ‘They surrendered me to the terrorists.’

Khalil is the director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara Church in Cairo, Egypt, and is part of the church’s efforts to deliver much needed aid. He has spoken to dozens of individuals with similar stories; names and faces begin to blend together.

The man in the photo above is the blind man, supplied by Rev. Khalil. It is amazing to have met so many with such terrible stories.

KD Erbil refugees

Khalil explained that the majority Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes roughly 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in their religious brethren.

As a consequence Erbil’s churches are packed, and the Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in a church itself, and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.

The photo above, also from Khalil, pictures what these campgrounds are like. People and their scant belongings sit around idly. I was surprised by how green the area is. But from another photo, not all refugees are so fortunate:

SAT7 refugee camp

This photo is from SAT-7, whose Ehab el-Kharrat was quoted extensively in the original article. Many campgrounds are located in the desert, and according to Eva Boutros, who was also interviewed, many have inadequate water supplies. Dozens of children gathered around a sole faucet, she witnessed, trying to get clean.

But Boutros also told a story of other children, who enjoyed with her relief team a special break from the agony of refugee life:

One of the Christian refugees is named Soha. Age 22, she graduated from university and was looking forward to her new job in Mosul before the ISIS onslaught. Now she must care for her brother’s three children who have been separated from their mother.

‘Now, all I have is a mattress, a donated plate of food, and two pairs of clothing,’ she told Eva Boutros. ‘This is the end of my youth.’

Boutros is the director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, but accompanied a joint Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant team organized by the Chaldean Church in Heliopolis, Cairo.

This team brought tents, medical supplies, blankets, and children’s underwear, all donated by Egyptian companies.

But Boutros recognized many of the refugees needed something more, and took 280 young women, including Soha, shopping at the local mall.

‘It was fun for us, and fun for them,’ she said, describing a moment of happiness amid a desperate situation.

Perhaps her woman’s touch gives her greater memory for personal detail, as opposed to Khalil. But she praises a different source.

‘I remember each person, their face and their story,’ she said. ‘The Lord sent us to tell them, we are suffering with you.

‘They need you to hug them, stay with them, and listen, listen, listen.’ Kasr el-Dobara’s team included a professional psychiatrist, who spent hours counseling women and children in their trauma. Childcare specialists did their best to entertain the kids each evening.

Finally, here is an amateur video made by the Kasr el-Dobara team, showing their team in action and giving thanks to those who have donated.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Church Relief Effort Highlights ‘1000s Left on Streets’ ahead of Iraqi Winter

Published September 23rd at Lapido Media:

Ehab el-Kharrat visiting refugee children in Erbil, Iraq (credit: SAT-7)
Ehab el-Kharrat visiting refugee children in Erbil, Iraq       (credit: SAT-7)

A former Egyptian member of parliament whose church is distributing aid to Iraqi refugees has spoken out about the gaps in humanitarian provision as the country heads into winter.

He expressed concern about underfunded UN campsites and thousands living on the streets.

Ehab el-Kharrat visited Erbil, a city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that has attracted thousands of people fleeing conflict in the region.

His church, Kasr el-Dobara church in Cairo, works among relief heavyweights such as the UNHCR, Caritas, and Samaritan’s Purse.

It has sent a delegation to Iraq every ten days for the past two months, trying to stem the humanitarian tide. The congregation, which is made up of the middle and upper classes, has donated $180,000 to the relief effort with a further $120,000 from a fundraising trip to the United States.

So far it has distributed 2,500 mattresses with pillows and blankets, and it supports a network of 2,200 families that receive a food basket every two weeks.

This network is run in coordination with churches of Ankawa, a Christian neighborhood in Erbil. Ninety per cent of recipients are non-Christian – either Sunni Muslims also fleeing Islamic State, or else from the Yazidi minority.

Revd Fawzi Khalil is director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara church.

He explained that the Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in fellow Christians.

As a consequence Erbil’s church grouds are packed. The Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in the church itself and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.

Kharrat, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, described a pecking order of beneficiaries. After refugees living in camps in church grounds, the next most fortunate group is those taken in by Kurdish families, he said, followed by those in unfinished buildings but under the sponsorship of church groups. Kasr el-Dobara’s efforts are toward this group, primarily.

Underfunded

But thousands of Iraqis remain on the streets and in underfunded UN campsites in the desert. Kharrat noticed most tents were recycled from an earlier Syrian refugee camp, and are of deteriorating quality.

Erbil has a permanent population of 1.5m people, and UN figures show there are 1.8m displaced Iraqis. But according to UN-Iraq, the three established UN camps can host only eight per cent of the refugees.

Local families and churches take in the rest, but thousands sleep on the streets, under bridges, or in partially completed buildings, said Khalil.

In speaking to Kurdish officials, he related their complaint that under the Maliki government, Baghdad ‘failed’ to send Erbil its constitutionally guaranteed share of the budget. The new government, formed on 8 September, has promised to do so ‘but not yet delivered’, he said.

This has left the Kurdish regional government in a bind, as the UNHCR is a refugee agency, but those fleeing are technically considered internally displaced persons. With no agency possessing a clear mandate, the UN looks toward the government to lead.

Even so, UN documents detail over 346,000 people who have been reached to some degree, with Saudi Arabia touted as a particularly generous donor.

Grateful

But this effort has not impressed the Kurds, says Kharrat.

‘Kurds are grateful to the US in particular and the West in general,’ he said, ‘but are wondering why the Arabs are so slow – in both humanitarian and military aid.’

Khalil and Kharrat stated they were busy with their own work in the area but neither recalled seeing any Muslim groups among the refugees.

Islamic Relief, however, has been working in the Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. It also distributed food parcels to 1,500 Christian families displaced in Nineveh.

According to Eva Boutros, director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, the fact that Egyptian Christians have been present has made an impression on many.

‘Muslims and Yazidis appreciate very much that they are cared for,’ she said. ‘They know it is the church that is doing this in Iraq.’

But whether Christians, Muslims, or the UN, no one is doing enough. By December if no solution is found, the already tragic situation will turn catastrophic.

‘Hundreds of thousands are unprepared for winter,’ Kharrat said, anticipating average lows of three degrees Celsius.

‘Conditions are horrible. They survived the summer – the heat did not kill, but the freezing snow might.’