“I am impressed by the people’s strength”
Andrzej Halemba, ACN’s Middle East projects coordinator, on the situation of Christians in Iraq two years after their flight from IS
By Oliver Maksan
Father Halemba, you visited the country shortly after the flight of the Christians from the Nineveh Plain in Iraq. What did you see at that time?
Naturally it was an appalling situation. In the first days, the people slept on the bare ground. The temperatures in Iraq in August were merciless. Around 50 degrees. The people were also very aggressive and traumatised. There was the added fact that they felt betrayed, and not only by their Muslim neighbours who collaborated with IS and looted their homes. They had trusted that the Kurdish Peshmerga troops would defend their villages. But when the Peshmerga withdrew, surprisingly and contrary to all assurances, they were left without protection and were forced to flee, sometimes in dramatic circumstances. One could read this in their faces.
ACN then started to provide aid very quickly.
Yes. At that time is was a question of emergency humanitarian aid for as many as over 120,000 Christians alone. Initially the local Church was totally overburdened.
But with the help of international donors and organisations like ACN, the situation stabilised relatively quickly. But I would not have imagined that the people would still have to be living away from their homes even today. The political and military situation in Iraq has simply not yet permitted the liberation of the Christian areas that are occupied by IS. Naturally this bugs the people. Many had already at that time lost their belief in a future in Iraq and just wanted to get away. I was very often asked for dollars and visas for emigration.
There are now reports that an attempt to liberate Mosul and its surroundings by military means is only a matter of time.
That is correct. And the people are hoping for this. However this could lead to new difficulties. One must bear in mind that Mosul is a city with a million inhabitants. If an assault were launched, hundreds of thousands would flee from the fighting. And where would they go? Probably to Kurdistan, which is already bursting at the seams. But it is also likely that many Sunnis from Mosul and its surroundings would enter the empty Christian villages and seek shelter there. This could create new and unforeseen difficulties; would they be prepared to leave the villages again?
Right now, this is still only a possibility. But this scenario causes the bishops in Iraq real concern. The Christians have already suffered many bad experiences with land occupation.
What is the situation of the refugees today?
Overall I would say that the people are no longer so lost and aggressive. The Church is doing a great deal for them, both spiritually and psychologically. The priests, and especially the sisters, are close to the people. The people are living with the situation. I am not saying that they want to live with it permanently. Of course not. But they have seen that they are not abandoned. We have set up schools. Soon, secondary schools will also be able to open.
The aim is to prevent a lost generation from growing up here, like in Syria.
Furthermore, most people are no longer living in tents or caravans but in rented apartments and houses. This has restored their dignity and the feeling of having a home again. Our subsidies for food and their own labour ensure that they are provided with the basic necessities. But naturally it cannot go on like this forever. The longer this exile lasts, the more people will leave. And many Christians have already left Iraq.
Do you have figures?
Not exact numbers. But of the approximately 120,000 Christians who originally fled, many have left. At the beginning we helped some 13,500 families. Today there are some 4 to 5,000 families fewer. They have gone. That is painful. But without aid it would have been even more. I am impressed over and again by the great inner strength of the people. If they were helped, many would return to their liberated villages.
Information: Since the summer of 2014, ACN has made more than 19 million Euros available for aid in Iraq. With the additional aid projects that have now been agreed, it will reach some 21 million by the end of the year. Alongside humanitarian aid, it will also support the pastoral mission of the Church in the region. As well as the training and maintenance of priests and religious sisters, there will also be catechetic initiatives such as summer camps for young people. With ACN’s aid, more than 225 young Iraqis were also enabled to attend the World Youth Day in Krakow.