ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

‘God Wants Me Here’

Christians keep hope alive in Iraq

When the mobile clinic rolls into Sharafiya, patients come from all over the village to wait their turn. Men line up on the left side, women on the right, of a social hall belonging to the parish of the Church of the East. A portrait of Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Addai II overlooks the room, where a portable divider separates the two lines and physicians attend to each side. Outside, two pharmacists dispense medicines out of a converted van.

The health team’s monthly visit to this Assyro-Chaldean village in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq treats the common aches and pains of residents, including the hundreds of displaced families who arrived after ISIS swept across the Nineveh Plain in 2014. The health professionals admit, however, that their treatment often falls short.

“Our patients are displaced, and so psychological problems are the most common thing we deal with. They tell us about back pain, for example, or neuralgia. But they are often suffering from psychological problems, and healing won’t come as long as they are displaced,” says Dr. Sally Mekha, a team member who herself fled Mosul when ISIS attacked.

“What pill can I give them that will solve their problems? There isn’t one. We can listen to them and encourage them, but if there is no security for them to return home, there’s not much we can do.”

Ahlam Ibrahim, a displaced Chaldean Catholic, fled from Tesqopa in 2014. Although ISIS was driven from her home late last year, she continues to rent a small apartment in Sharafiya.

“If the mobile clinic didn’t come here, we wouldn’t have medicines, because none of us can afford to buy them from a pharmacy,” Ms. Ibrahim says. “We are far from the fields where we can earn our living, and most of what we have goes into paying the rent every month.

“There’s little for us here, but we’re not ready to go back yet, either. I can rebuild my house, but I can’t do it without some sense of security that ISIS won’t return.”

The mobile clinic, a lifeline to many, is one of many initiatives of the Christian Aid Program Nohadra-Iraq (CAPNI), an organization based in Dohuk. Since 2014, CAPNI — which CNEWA helps suppport with funds — has focused on responding to the humanitarian crisis generated by ISIS.

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana is an archimandrite of the Church of the East and the executive director of CAPNI. He previously served congregations in the Dohuk area destroyed by the government of President Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s — including many displaced members. When Kurds of the region rose against the government in 1991, Abuna Emanuel became a spokesperson for the local Christian population, helping journalists and church leaders from abroad to understand the plight of religious minorities. As a result, President Hussein blacklisted him, and in 1994 a grenade was thrown into his family’s home. No one was injured, but Abuna Emanuel responded by moving his family to Germany.

For most of the year, however, he remains in Iraq.

“God wants me here,” he says. “I am a priest, so I must be present in order to be a voice for the voiceless, and a bridge between the persecuted church here and the sister church in Europe and beyond.”

Abuna Emanuel helped found CAPNI in 1993, including in the organization’s name the word Nohadra — the Assyro-Chaldean name for Dohuk. CAPNI focused initially on helping Christians in the region return home and rebuild their churches and villages, but it also assisted other religious minorities, including Yazidis, at a time when separate international embargoes harmed both Iraq and the autonomy-seeking Kurdish region. The archimandrite and his colleagues secured sponsorships for Iraqi families and students from churches abroad; helped rebuild churches, schools and irrigation canals; and helped farmers restart their harvests.

Beyond material aid, CAPNI supported the promotion of Assyro-Chaldean culture and identity.

“Whether in stable times or times of crisis, we have always supported the catechism of the native churches, whether they are Catholic or Orthodox or Church of the East. We ask the priests how we can help,” Abuna Emanuel explains.

“We promote our Assyrian identity. We are not just Christians; we are an ethnic community with our own native language and heritage. We provide resources to keep our ethnic identity as Assyrians alive, whether it’s by printing books or training teachers of the Assyrian language.”

While CAPNI serves as a bridge between Iraq’s vulnerable Christians and the international Christian community, he adds, this relationship goes beyond financial support.

“Moral support is just as important as material support,” he says. “When you are isolated in a very remote village in the mountains of Kurdistan, and a delegation from the Lutheran Church in Germany comes to visit you, to listen to your story and support rebuilding your church and community, the people realize they are not alone.

“They may speak different languages, but the fact that others travel so far to accompany them and pray with them, that gives a lot of moral encouragement.”

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, amid the social and political disintegration that quickly followed, CAPNI gained access to villages in the Nineveh Plain. Although the region had been under government control, Abuna Emanuel says the administration had invested little in maintaining the infrastructure of a region with a non-Arab and non-Muslim majority. CAPNI helped villagers to rebuild — work that coincided with the arrival of Christians fleeing sectarian violence in places like Baghdad and Basra. The newly displaced found safety in the small villages that stretch across the Nineveh Plain, where CAPNI provided income-generating projects and cultural promotion.

But in 2014, ISIS swept across the region. “Almost overnight, the population of Dohuk went from 1.3 million to 2 million,” Abuna Emanuel explains. “Many of the displaced arrived with just the clothes on their backs.

“We diverted all our resources to helping the displaced — Christians and Yazidis, as well as Muslims — with food, shelter, clothing and other life-saving resources. The dimensions of the disaster went beyond anyone’s ability to respond adequately, but thanks be to God for the agencies and churches around the world that immediately supported our work.”

As the region tried to absorb the displaced, CAPNI sought out niches of solidarity where its resources could do the most good, satisfying the greatest needs. Its initiatives include administering a hospital in Sinoni, a Yazidi enclave in the Sinjar region.

“We are a Christian organization, supported by Christian funds from Christian churches, but most of our work there is with Yazidis, simply because they are the most vulnerable. This response stems from our Christian faith, not from sectarian values,” Abuna Emanuel says.

Other needs take a variety of forms. For instance, many Arabic-speaking families with school-age children have taken refuge in villages where instruction is in Kurdish or Assyro-Chaldean. Through a network of 80 small buses, weaving through camps and villages, CAPNI helped more than 3,100 students to attend classes in Arabic in 2016 — often in newly established schools, such as one in Dohuk run by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena.

The transportation is free, says Nelson Toma, CAPNI’s director of student transportation, but other costs — particularly schoolbooks — remain too high for some families. Coupled with the slow but steady emigration of Christian families from the region, student numbers are slowly declining.

CAPNI also opened seven “Child-Friendly Spaces” around the region, with more planned for 2017. These offer children an escape from their cramped homes and an opportunity to play games, sing and practice basic Assyro-Chaldean language skills. The mobile clinic and a social worker make frequent visits to check on the children.

In each location, about one in five children served come from the host community. Robena Eshaya, CAPNI’s officer in charge of programs serving women and children, says this shared environment helps build friendships and eases tensions in crowded neighborhoods. Nevertheless, she says, there remains a great deal of trauma among the displaced children.

“Children are very sensitive, and from the beginning their drawings were all about the guns and dark skies. They told stories about how they saw the ISIS fighters when they fled their homes. But now if you look at their faces they are smiling and happy. And today their drawings are hopeful, very different from before,” Ms. Eshaya says.

Aber Yussef sends her children to the nearby Child-Friendly Space. The former resident of Tesqopa now lives in a modular housing unit in the village of Bakhtme. She speaks highly of the program.

“It’s great. Before the space opened up, the children were spending all their time in our one small room or playing in the street. But now they are learning everything — math and English and Arabic,” Mrs. Yussef says.

“Tomorrow my daughter has an exam at school in the Assyrian language, and the tutors in the Child-Friendly Space have helped her prepare, because I don’t know how to write in Assyrian.”

As ever it has, CAPNI also provides livelihood assistance, helping the displaced learn new skills so they can better support themselves.

Saeed Elyas Seno, a Yazidi displaced from Bashiqa, is currently learning how to fabricate windows and doors from Kheralla Mohammed Hussain, a Muslim displaced from Mosul and a trainer in the program. There’s no tension between the two men.

Both agree there will be no shortage of work when ISIS is finally cleared out and reconstruction begins.

Seham Sarih, CAPNI’s community development officer, echoes this sentiment. “We’re hoping to expand this training soon. Many of the houses and much of the infrastructure in the villages is damaged, so these skills will be widely needed.”

Ms. Sarih delights in the fact that a Christian organization is supporting a Muslim and a Yazidi working together. “It’s not usual for here,” she says.

“The trainer has a good heart and is very tolerant. He’s really engaged in a kind of peace building in his shop.”

CAPNI also sponsors classes on the Kurdish language — so the displaced can negotiate better in the markets of Dohuk — and provides training for farmers who fled their lands as ISIS approached. Some are ready to return, but their worries about renewed sectarian violence are joined with fears of what they might unwittingly harvest from the soil.

“Our fields became a war zone between ISIS and the Peshmerga,” says Sabah Ibrahim, referring to the Kurdish fighters who helped drive out ISIS. “There are still landmines there. We need help in removing them. Otherwise, the land is ready and we’re eager to work it.”

Michel Constantin, the Beirut-based regional director for Catholic Near East Welfare Association — a partner of CAPNI — says Christians in Iraq face tough choices.

“They are proud of their culture and roots, but at same time they feel they are doomed because of whom they are,” he says. “It’s hard to tell them they must stay in order to preserve a Christian presence in the Middle East.

“They are desperate. They believe that leaving for the West has become too slow or even impossible, so the only choice left to them is to make their life in Iraq viable. That’s a big task, and it means we’re talking about not just short-term emergency assistance, but long-term ways of making quality education and medical services available.”

CAPNI’s motto from the very beginning has been “to keep hope alive,” and Abuna Emanuel says this remains the principal goal of the organization.

“Every Sunday we continue preaching sermons of hope, telling people not to give up, and in our gatherings we try to explain that our identity as Eastern Christians cannot survive in the Diaspora. But in the end those are just words,” he says.

“As long as people were in their caravans and their homes were under control of ISIS, they were okay. All they could do was wait. But now their homes in the Nineveh Plain have been liberated, and so they are asking me about their chances to go back. Have we been talking about real hope, or was it just an illusion?”

After more than two years of waiting, Abuna Emanuel says people are willing to wait another year or so to see what happens. Once ISIS is completely gone, he says, the Gulf States will help Arab Sunni areas to rebuild. But he predicts it will be up to the international community to help the Nineveh Plain, as there will be little interest in Baghdad in funding work in non-Arab, non-Muslim communities. He says the church must be present, not just because it’s where Christians are, but because the Christians and Yazidis and other minorities remain the most vulnerable.

In a landscape where Sunni-Shiite tensions may continue to produce violence that affects other groups in turn, Abuna Emanuel says it’s more important than ever for Christians to remain.

“For 2,000 years we have played a positive role toward the communities around us, building bridges when others want to build walls. In a time when hate speech is common, we can build peace,” he concludes.

“As a native church with deep roots in the community and the land, with good relations with all our neighbors, we will continue to serve the whole community, being witnesses to the Lord.”

Paul Jeffrey (no relation to James) is a U.S. photojournalist who covers humanitarian crises around the world. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, the Washington Post, America, and the Guardian, among other places.

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