Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is committed to ensuring that the Iraqi children from the Nineveh plains will not be without Christmas presents this year.
It is a large warehouse with white and grey walls. Dozens of boxes are piled up on the floor. It might seem to be a somewhat gloomy-looking building, but in fact it is a warehouse of dreams. Beneath the concrete beams and among the wooden pallets, dozens of pairs of hands work industriously and happy faces smile. In the last few days O’Neal, Santa, Reben and many other volunteers from the Chaldean Catholic parish of Erbil in Iraq have become Santa’s little helpers here in the warehouse.
Christmas is coming of course, and the Iraqi children of the Nineveh plains – like children all over the world – are looking forward with excitement and expectation to these very special days. For many of them this Christmas will be different, because it will be the first one they have celebrated in their own homes. For they had to spend the last three Christmases homeless, as refugees in their own country, following the invasion of their homes by the Islamist fighters of IS in August 2014. Just like the Child Jesus himself, who was born in a stable and had no place to call his home, the children of the Christian villages and towns of Nineveh spent the last few Christmases in refugee camps or in other accommodation rented with support from the diocese of Ankawa.
After immense effort on their part and thanks to the financial support of friends and benefactors from all over the world, over 6.330 families have now been able to return to the various different Christian towns and villages in this area and start to try and rebuild their lives. Many other families are still waiting their opportunity, however.
Christmas is the great gift of God to mankind and for this reason it is a message of hope for them all. The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is committed to ensuring that the Iraqi children from the Nineveh plains – not only those who have been able to return to those homes but also those who are still waiting to be able to do so – will not be without Christmas presents this year. And as a result the warehouse in Ankawa has been transformed into a sort of “Santa’s workshop” and the 20 or so young people who are helping the Chaldean religious sisters of the community of the Daughters of Mary are like those little helpers working furiously to bring joy and hope to the children. They are aiming to wrap up a total of 15,000 Christmas parcels which will then be distributed to the children of the different Christian rites in Qaraqosh, Karamless, Bartella and Bashiqua, and likewise to the large number of children who are still living as refugees in Ankawa, which is the Christian quarter of Erbil.
In their Christmas wish lists and letters to Santa, these children often say that their first wish is to have a stable place where they can live in peace. A second wish is to be able to continue attending school, and their third wish to have a place where they can play. Wishes like these are not so easy to parcel up and give them, as these young volunteers well know. But they are in no doubt that the children will also be absolutely delighted with these “material gifts which carry with them the Good News of the presence of God among us and are stamped with the love of God the Father”, as Sister Ni’am puts it. She is the project coordinator. The parcels will include “an anorak – something very necessary, because winter in this part of Iraq can be very cold and the temperatures often fall below zero – plus chocolates and, in order not to overlook the profoundly religious meaning of this feast, a Bible or another spiritual book in every parcel, depending on the age of the child concerned”.
The helpers here in “Santa’s workshop” in Ankawa are profoundly grateful to ACN for having sponsored and funded this initiative of “love and solidarity with the Christians of Iraq”.
“It will be a joyful and a painful celebration at the same time: Joyful because of their return to their birthplaces and houses; and painful because of the state of the villages: destroyed, burned and looted houses; stolen, burned and destroyed churches; neglected streets, almost non-existent services, friends who left the country”, Sister Ni’am explains.
A Christmas very close to that first Christmas in Bethlehem, where joy and suffering were mingled together in the lives of Mary and Joseph as they prepared for the birth of the God Child.