Iraqi Christians Need a Sign of Hope

Last time I was in Amman, Jordan, I met a lovely 12-year-old girl with a beautiful smile. Her father used to be a taxi driver in Baghdad — until a gang of criminals or jihadists or both threatened his life and his family if they didn’t leave Iraq immediately.

The little girl’s family wasn’t rich. When she, her brother and parents fled their home, they left with just three suitcases.

They became refugees because they are Christian.

As Iraq veers once again towards civil war, the idea that there’s no place in the country for its Christians — a community that received the faith from the Apostle Thomas — has become commonplace. Resented, despised and scapegoated, Christians flee the extremists and criminals who have advanced their murderous culture that divides much of the region — in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.

There are many ways the Middle East can break your heart. That little girl in Amman broke mine with her smile. She smiles, she plays, but she does not talk. In more than six months since she fled with her family, the traumatized girl has not said a word.

Chances are she and her family will never make it to Canada as refugees. Thousands of Iraqi Christian families live in Jordan and Lebanon, all looking for a way out, for a stable home and an opportunity to make a life for their families. No one knows how many Iraqi Christian refugees remain in Syria; they are keeping their heads down in the midst of that nation’s vicious civil war.

Last year, the Canadian government shuttered its embassy in Damascus — which once processed hundreds of asylum applications for refugee families — slowing the flow of refugees to Canada. But even if refugees were coming to Canada, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Emptying the region of its Christians, crippling the most ancient churches in the Christian tradition, is exactly what the jihadists and some Iraqi politicians want.

It’s not what Christians want. This is their land, too, the patrimony of their ancestors who embraced the faith during the time of the Apostles.

A visit to Za Aytiryya in Beirut — the main drag that runs through the poor neighborhood where Christians are huddled in stateless limbo — reveals who remains behind. The elderly, the infirm, the disabled and the poor are not the first to make it through the hoops of the refugee system. They can’t go back to Iraq nor will they ever be citizens in Lebanon, Syria or Jordan.

But there is hope. Next month, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who oversees the Pope’s personal charity, will convene a meeting of Catholic groups working with refugees in the Middle East — including Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) — that work with Middle East refugees to coordinate current efforts and discuss immediate prospects for these families.

It has been 10 years since the American-led invasion of Iraq triggered this crisis. CNEWA’s response continues to be timely, targeted and merciful. We leave it to the large agencies to set-up and staff refugee camps while we work through local church networks to identify needs and deliver aid quickly, efficiently and tactfully.

Our network includes the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, the Dominican and Good Shepherd Sisters, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, the Jesuit and Paulist Fathers, and the committees of the Chaldean, Latin, Maronite, Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches. Through them we ensure children go to school, the sick and the infirm receive health care and the traumatized have psychological counseling. We nudge their lives toward some sort of normalcy.

We also ensure that the central pillar of their identity and community — the church — is there with them. We support the churches where they pray, where they encounter the mercy of God, where they meet and know each other.

It is a tough life to be a refugee. But I left Jordan with a sense of hope. That little girl was in good hands. She received counselling and her family had basic supplies thanks to Canadian Catholic donors. Her father told me that, thanks to God and to you, he and his family will get out of this. “We aren’t alone.”

CNEWA cannot solve the problems of the Middle East. But our Christian faith compels us to help the refugee, the poor, the abandoned, the helpless. Together, we must be that leaven that can help transform the societies that for now make no room for them.

Carl Hétu is the Canada national director of CNEWA.

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