The convent of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Qaraqosh sustained damage during the occupation. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Some Christian families have moved back to their home village of Tel Eskof. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Iraqis in a refugee camp in Erbil greet Msgr. Kozar on his pastoral visit. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Many of those living in Erbil’s settlement camps have been displaced from home, community and even family for years. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
A newly constructed church in Dohuk stands ready to accommodate Christians displaced by war. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Msgr. Kozar embraces Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena at the new school they administer in Dohuk. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Children gather in the Al Bishara School in Ain Kawa, a neighborhood of Erbil. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
Can you begin to imagine the terror of being set upon by soldiers who assault your town or city and demand that you either renounce your Christian faith and accept a perverted form of a Caliphate-based Islamic State, pay a ransom or flee for your life? This was the reality that confronted hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and many Muslims in Iraq in 2014.
Within a few days, more than 130,000 Christians in the Nineveh Plain of Iraq fled to what amounted to a “foreign” land in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. They became refugees in settlement camps. What has happened to those who settled in these camps and what does the future hold for the displaced?
Having visited Kurdistan recently, I have seen firsthand some of the liberated towns and cities previously held by ISIS. I can personally attest to the devastation of some towns and villages, the desecration of holy places and objects, the total theft of or destruction of all personal property. But the basic structures remain. However, I want to share with you an ongoing dilemma confronting Christians and other displaced people. It is the emotion-filled question: Should I return to my “liberated” town, village or city?
First of all, ISIS has been cleared from most of the towns of the Nineveh Plain and northern Iraq. There are still pockets of violence and occupation, but many cities and towns, including the city of Qaraqosh – which previously had a Christian population of about 55,000 souls — are free of ISIS. Approximately two-thirds of those displaced remain in camps. So why aren’t they hurrying back home?
Over the past 30 months, some have struck out for Jordan and settled there, while others have found their way to Australia, Europe or Canada. Some have met more horror, suffering and even death in other lands. In many cases, one or two family members have tried to settle in another country, which has left many remnant families living in the camps feeling broken and separated from those they love.
There are some who claim that they will never return to their native place because it “will never be the same” and they openly wonder whom they can trust, since many felt betrayed by neighbors when ISIS first assaulted them.
But the overwhelming need for those who are still considering returning home is the need for security at several levels. They seek assurances of a national government that guarantees them protection and their basic human and religious rights; they also seek local governance that will provide basic services; and they especially want freedom to maintain their faith and to worship as they please.
The insecurities are deep and the trust is lacking, so many have decided to wait and see before they make their final decision to return or to move on, whatever that might mean.
Despite the uncertainties and all the misery that accompanies those who are displaced, they find in the church a source of comfort and hope. Through Christ’s sacramental presence in the Eucharist and in many good works of charity and mercy, the church represents for them a beacon of the light of Christ and a reason to endure. Nothing is certain for the refugees, except the love of God for all, especially as Jesus has shared with them on the cross.
CNEWA is privileged to accompany those who have been traumatized by the terror of ISIS and who were forced to flee. They have never been orphaned, but have always been cradled in the hands of those who serve in the church — the hands of the bishops and priests celebrating the Eucharist, the hands of the sisters teaching the little ones and caring for the sick, the hands of those who minister in so many ways to help meet the material needs of the poor and displaced.
Whether these people return to their place of origin or move on to the unknown — or, perhaps, make a new life in their displacement areas — the church will be there to walk with them.
Thank you for your prayers and gifts of support. As long as we accompany them, these people are not really displaced. They are, instead, beloved members of our family.
May God bless you and may God bless all the victims in Iraq.