The streets of Ain Kawa, Erbil’s Christian neighborhood, are filled with Christian families, children, elderly and youth staying in the halls and backyards of the churches and in empty schools and convents. Prior to the advance of ISIS fighters in June, Ain Kawa counted some 30,000 people, mostly Christians. It has now become a refuge to around 130,000 displaced Christians from Mosul, Qaraqosh and other neighboring villages.
Ned Colt, UNHCR Public Information Officer in Erbil, said: “The constant movement of displaced people is creating an extreme situation for aid agencies which are trying to keep up. We are distributing aid, but due to people constantly moving we are sometimes distributing multiple times to the same people, and many of those people have no means of carrying things. It is difficult to get accurate figures of how many people are on the move, but we say at least 1.2 million.”
It is not just Christians fleeing the militants, but many other Iraqis — including Yazidis, Shabaks (Shiite Kurds) and moderate Muslims, considered heretics — he added.
Father Anis Hanna explained in detail how life has now changed for the different minorities who once lived in peace for centuries under the reign of Islam in Iraq and Syria. In July, ISIS declared from different mosques in Mosul that, starting on 28 July 2014, new laws and rules would be applied to everyone living in the territories under the Islamic State. They also declared that after this date, the Islamic State’s forces will purify the Nineveh Plain and control all Christian villages.
The new Islamic laws consist of the following:
It is forbidden for any citizens (men, women and children) to wear Western-style clothes; all men should wear Afghan-style clothing and all women should be veiled from their heads to their toes
All men should have a long beard and should shave their heads and mustaches
All women are not allowed to work outside their homes and they are not allowed to go outside home to the market or elsewhere if they are not accompanied by a male member of the family
All liquor stores, barber and cosmetic shops were shut down and are not allowed to operate
The local TV and radio station are not allowed to broadcast any kind of entertainment and cultural or artistic programs; only religious songs and programs are allowed
All regular courts in the city were suspended and replaced by Islamic courts
All families are being forced to give their daughters as wives to the militants against the will of the parents and the young girls.
The director of a human rights organization in Iraqi Kurdistan working in Erbil, Dhyaa Boutros, told me that the estimated number of Christian refugees is around 130,000. Some 55,000 of them have no shelter and found refuge in settlements in the open air or inside the church halls and empty schools in Erbil. The rest have managed to stay either with relatives in Erbil and Duhoc or rented small apartments in the city.
The refugees in settlements are estimated at around 10,000 families — sleeping 30 to 40 in a room in temperatures that rise up to 45 degrees Celsius [about 113 degrees Farenheit] during the day. They basically need everything. The first obvious needs are shelter, water, food, security and other basic needs to save lives. Local parishes — priests, sisters and volunteers — are doing their best to respond to need.
A newly displaced person said to Mr. Boutros: “The pope has asked the Christians to pray and be patient. I’ve been displaced twice. What prayers shall I say now?”
Ain Kawa’s St. Joseph Church has suddenly become a homeless shelter, with clothes drying in the sun and pale blue U.N.-donated blankets hanging from trees. People everywhere are confused. Kids are eating crumbly stale bread; worried mothers are wiping their children’s faces or fanning them in the heat. There are too many thin mattresses stretched on the ground, too many bags stacked up with small children crouched nearby in the small scrap of shade provided.
The confusion, the overwhelming need and the huge number of refugees makes all efforts look insufficient and inefficient.
Please visit our giving page to learn how you can help our suffering brothers and sisters in Iraq.