Christian IDPs in the Erbil region depend on assistance while hoping to return to their villages in the next months.
Interview with Mons. Bashar Matti WARDA CSsR, Chaldean Archbishop of ERBIL to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need regarding the current living situation of the Christian families in Erbil, expelled from IS in Summer 2014 from Mosul and the Nineveh Plane. By Maria Lozano
Aid to the Church in Need: Could you please describe the context and the general situation of the Christian IDPs in Erbil now.
Archbishop Bashar Matti WARDA: At present there are still over 10,000 Christian IDP families in the greater Erbil region. While many still hold a hope to return to their homes in Nineveh, for the majority of them this remains a very uncertain time due to the continuing conflict in the region and lack of any stable security plan from the central government in Baghdad or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). There is at present no meaningful plan or support for reconstruction in these towns from either the KRG or the Central Government in Baghdad. As such the IDPs currently in the greater Erbil region face the two main obstacles of lack of security and lack of civil infrastructure. In this environment, the majority of the IDPs are not willing to return yet to their former homes, especially in the Iraqi controlled sector of Nineveh, which includes Qaraqosh.
The situation in the Kurdish controlled sector, which includes the towns of Teleskof, Batnaya and Baqofa, is somewhat clearer as it pertains to security, and returns to those towns are beginning. However, these returns are completely dependent on private efforts for reconstruction, and the paces of returns there have been affected accordingly.
ACN: Regarding the economical situations of the families, how are their living conditions? What do people lack most?
Archbishop Warda: The IDP families are nearly all unemployed, or employed on the books of the government but without any meaningful pay being received. Such employment as does exist is largely in the form of self-employment, selling various items on the street, in most cases without proper permits. Those with savings at the outset of the crisis have in most cases had these funds greatly depleted over the past three years. As such we expect to see a rise over the coming months in terms of the need for financial and humanitarian assistance. The three most critical areas of need continue to be housing, food and medicine.
Why they are jobless? If they find a job: What kind of living people can afford from their salary, if they have one?
The majority the IDPs are without official work due to both the economic crisis brought on by the war, and the discrimination against hiring IDPs. While some IDPs have retained their government employment from their former locations, this is largely on paper only and without any meaningful compensation due to the ongoing economic crisis and dysfunction in the central government in Baghdad. Such people as are able to secure employment generally receive salaries of less than USD $1,000 per month, which is well below the level required by a family to rent homes and pay for food and medicine and other necessities.
Could you please describe the situation of the children and of the youngsters?
Because of the heavy involvement of church related support, schools have been built to handle the needs of the IDP children at the early ages and elementary school. Greater assistance in terms of both teachers and facilities still exist at the High School level. College level access for the IDPs remains a crisis and many students have been forced to delay their college years. This problem is a specific issue for the IDPs as the universities in the KRG are generally using the Kurdish language for instruction, a language in which very few of the IDP students are fluent. The recently established Catholic University in Erbil, which has English as its language of instruction, has sought to address this issue by focusing on IDP student scholarships, but additional funding is still needed to support this effort.
What is the situation of the elderly people?
The situation for elderly people is a true crisis. In many cases elderly IDPs have been left behind by their children who have sought to leave the country. In nearly all these cases the only support group for the elderly is the church. The Archdiocese of Erbil has made repeated efforts to established basic living facilities and proper care for the elderly, but meaningful support has not been found due to the emphasis being placed on the basic needs of the broader population. As many of these elderly individuals are now without family to support them, this crisis is expected to continue even after any return to Nineveh by the general population.
How many persons/families will benefit from the food aid? Among these, how many are children, elderly/sick?
The situation regarding IDPs remains fluid, but current estimates are that at least 10,000 IDP families remain in the greater Erbil region that are in need of food assistance, with well over half of these individuals being women, children, and the elderly. Reliable statistics are not available regarding the numbers of sick due to lack of coordination between medical facilities, but anecdotal evidence from the clinics run by the Archdiocese of Erbil indicates high levels of chronic diseases being encountered, especially among the elderly, which are in most cases related to the stress and physical conditions surrounding their IDP status.
How would you describe the typical situation of a family, who need this kind of help?
In general, the IDP families are unemployed or without meaningful regular income. They are typically parents with children and in many cases with grandparents living with them as well. As noted above, there are an increasing number of elderly IDPs who have found themselves without family members to support them. In general, IDPs are living either in the one remaining IDP camp (Ashti 2) or in group homes, typically 2-4 families in one residential unit, with rental assistance being provided through the Archdiocese rental assistance program.
How are the IDPs in Erbil feeling at the moment, after the villages in the Nineveh-plains have been liberated. What is their mood and their feelings, what are their hopes and questions?
The feelings and disposition of the IDPs varies according to the town they are from and their economic condition. Those IDPs from the towns in the Kurdish sector have greater optimism due to the progress being made for their return and the clarity of church leadership and security structure that exists there. Those IDPs whose homes are in the Iraqi sector, which represents 70% of the total Christian IDP population, are generally in a very uncertain and fearful state of mind. While their towns have technically been “liberated”, the political and security situations remain very dangerous and unclear. They have real concerns regarding the long-term viability of returning to these towns and reclaiming their former lives. At the same time, they do not see any help coming to help, they fully restart a new life anywhere else, whether inside the KRG or abroad.
It should be understood here that the church, especially the Archdiocese of Erbil, is very close to these IDPs, regardless of which particular church they belong to. This is because the Archdiocese has managed all the housing, food and medical programs since the outset of the crisis. These IDPs are at the doorstep of the Archdiocese every day. Overall, there is an abiding sense of fear regarding the uncertainty that still surrounds everything in the entire region. They know that the church is there for them in this uncertainty, but they also know that there are limits to what the church is able to do. As it pertains to their faith, this is strong in the midst of the persecution that surrounds them, but other than the aid provided to them through the church organizations, the Christian IDPs continue to feel abandoned by governments (both within Iraq and abroad) and major international aid organizations.
How do you see the general mental condition of the IDPs? Are there many people traumatized? What does it mean for the families?
The mental condition and traumatization of the IDPs is a crisis of its own. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is clearly evident in those that faced violence first hand. Depression and anxiety are at extremely high levels among adults. Treatment for those suffering in this regard faces not only the obstacle of lack of suitable capability for medical and psychological treatment, but also from the cultural hesitancy to admit to any sort of mental weakness. The ongoing nature of the crisis has only made this situation worse, and we have great concern of the long term harm being done to the IDPs.
On the other side, their Faith remained very strong in the hard despite of the suffering, right? What about their hopes and dreams in this situation?
Regarding their Christian faith, without question the persecution which the IDPs have faced has made their faith stronger. We see this every day. Having had the very existence of their faith threatened with extinction, the people have come to value its importance in their lives in a much deeper way. As such their Faith remains strong, and even strengthened.
Regarding their hopes, they are mainly for the welfare of their children, and are the same as any people anywhere in the world. Will they be safe? Will they have a good education? Can they find work? Will they have a community they can be a part of? For most of the remaining IDPs they hope that this will still be a possibility in Iraq, but for the present their concerns are on staying safe and surviving until the situation becomes clear.