So far, an estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have been forced to leave their homes. Many have fled in fear for their lives from Islamic State (IS) militants.
Since January 2014, Iraq has seen a dramatic increase in the number of internally displaced people (IDP), with violence pushing people and especially ethnic minorities — including Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims — out of their communities and forcing them into other areas, predominantly in the Dohuk and Anbar Governorates.
This large-scale rapid forced migration is due to the movements of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters and other armed opposition groups who have launched an offensive against Iraq — and particularly against the previous government — for marginalization of the dominant Sunni population. These fighters are capturing areas in the west and displacing people from these areas as they push east and north, trying to create a homogeneous Sunni state through execution of Shia Muslims and forced conversion of other religious minorities.
The brutality of ISIS militants and the marketing of this brutality over social media succeeded in creating the shock and terror among all minorities of northern Iraq. On 6 August, the Christian presence in Mosul and Nineveh plain faded completely, along with their trust in the international community. The government of Baghdad and the Kurdish government withdrew their forces from the Christian towns overnight, leaving more than 130,000 Christians without any kind of protection and leaving them subject to the brutality of unmerciful militants.
II. General observations of CNEWA/Pontifical Mission representatives during their second visit to Iraq — 10-14 November 2014
After 100 days away from their homes, churches, and lands, more than 20,000 Christian families find themselves in dire situations where they have to fight everyday to cover their basic needs.
In our second visit to northern Iraq, the CNEWA delegation — comprised of Michel Constantin and Imad Abou Jaoude, from the Beirut office, and Raed Bahou from the Amman, Jordan office — was not able to meet with the local bishops and the Iraqi church hierarchy as they were all outside the country.
Consequently, we focused on meeting with the Iraqi displaced families in their settlements; the local religious congregations who are deeply involved with the displaced population in different centers; the parish priests from different rites who are actively working to help these families; and finally a number of Catholic local and international NGO’s who are also providing aid and responding to the needs of struggling families.
- The first observation following our visit was that it is true that theoretically the Christian families and others displaced from their hometowns and villages can find refuge in other parts of Iraq, and they are considered by the international organizations as internally displaced people (IDP’S) and are supported on this basis. Yet in reality those displaced families have very little rights and access to public services within Kurdistan. Many families informed us that they feel they would have more rights and it would be easier for them to cope in a strange country, such as Jordan or Lebanon, rather than in Kurdistan.
- The second important observation is related to the hope of getting back to their villages and homes in case of liberation. Many families and religious sisters informed us that the experience of liberating Tel Eskof village following the air raids of the coalition against ISIS was a real disappointment; the few families who decided to return back to that village found that their homes were seriously destroyed by the raids and the houses that escaped destruction were mined by the fanatic militants before their withdrawal. A week ago, a 16-year-old boy died when he tried to enter his house, which had been mined. This situation made the return to their homes almost impossible in the short or even medium terms.
III. Needs Assessment
It is estimated that today more than 1.8 million people are displaced in the country, mostly in Kurdistan and Anbar provinces, where about 390,000 are estimated to be in need of shelter and currently living in schools, under bridges or out in the open, in very bad conditions. Over 860,000 internally displaced persons have arrived from Anbar, Mosul and Sinjar in the last several months as the situation has deteriorated in all those regions. In August alone, 650,000 people arrived in Kurdistan seeking shelter, security and safety. Many of them have been staying with friends and relatives. The IDPs are also dispersed, with about 400,000 of them in Anbar Province, which is not controlled by Iraqi Government forces.
Presently, there are 120,000 Christian refugees in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil and other parts of Kurdistan.
As the needs continue to rise, the humanitarian conditions of the IDPs are deteriorating. Children, being fragile, are the most affected in this crisis.
During our visit we tried to evaluate the needs and to find the best areas where the intervention of CNEWA would be most efficient and would make a difference in the lives of the displaced.
For this purpose, together with the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Sienna, we visited more than five large settlements where displaced Christian families have been moved temporarily. We talked to the families, listening to their concerns and their prospects for the future.
We also met with a good number of active organizations in Erbil, Dohuk and Zakho:
- The representative of the Jesuit refugees services (JRS), who are mainly involved in education programs,
- Local volunteers who are providing lots of services and collecting funds and in kind items from the local Iraqi community,
- Salt Foundation that is active in Erbil, and is providing many emergency items to the displaced people in collaboration with the church structure,
- Caritas Erbil representatives,
- Christian Aid Program Nohandra Iraq- (CAPNI) which is a local NGO headed by an Assyrian priest and which is very active in providing help to the displaced people in Dohuk and the surrounding areas.
We also met many Chaldean, Syrian Catholic, Assyrian, and Syrian Orthodox priests who are very active and dedicated to serving and responding to the needs of the displaced in Erbil, Dohuk, and Zakho governorates.
Despite of the efforts of many charity organizations to provide the IDP’s with emergency aid, massive efforts are still needed.
The needs of the displaced can be briefly summarized as follows:
It is true that the great majority of families have been removed from tents and outside camps to be sheltered in either rented apartments or prefabricated rooms. Others have been relocated to large unfinished commercial buildings. Yet all those dwellings have been rented by the Chaldean Bishop Bashar Warda, or the Syrian Catholic bishop Boutros Moushe, on temporary basis not to exceed three months. After that, ensuring proper housing for families will depend on continued funding from international organizations.
It is also important to mention that the habitats are not at the same standards:
- In some centers we visited, the dwellings were proper and decent to live in, but many had more than two or three families sharing the same space, with an average of at least 20 persons living in each apartment. The furniture is often limited to some mattresses and kitchen utensils distributed by NGO’s.
- In other large commercial facilities and prefab rooms, the situation is much worse and unsafe; most of the partitioning is made of flammable PVC panels with poor ventilation and lack of proper sanitation. Many families cook inside these cells, too, which is dangerous.
- In Ainkawa Mall?where 380 families are housed in the three-story building partitioned and prepared by UNHCR and other UN organizations?the families wait in lines to get hot water. Some stated that they have been without a shower for more than 10 days and the frequent electricity outages make the situation harder. Making matters worse, the owner of the mall claims that the lease will run out at the end of November, and the 2,000 persons living in those bad conditions could be out on the streets again.
2. Food and non food items:
During our visits to the settlements, we were informed that many NGO’s — in addition to international organizations and local volunteers — are providing food packages to families. The real problem is in the coordination and synchronization of all efforts to improve the efficiency of distribution among the displaced.
As for non-food items, the distributions are limited to some mattresses, blankets and kitchen utensils.
There is an overwhelming need in Iraq as winter approaches. Thousands of children and families do not have clothes; they left their homes with nothing other than the shirts on their backs. The situation of these refugees who fled from ISIS in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain will worsen as winter approaches as they will have to endure harsh weather conditions. The weather in Kurdistan is dry and arid, with a temperature that reaches around 50 degrees Celsius in summer and falls down to nearly freezing point or even below in winter from November until early March.
Currently around 1,922 displaced children are distributed over 13 centers in Ainkawa; in addition, more than 1,000 of them are distributed in rented houses all over Erbil out of which 1,095 children are in urgent need for winter clothing as per the last screening conducted by the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Sienna congregation. The sisters are very active on the ground and are serving in the 13 refugee centers, providing support for the families and to those living in rented houses in Erbil, and assisting in the newly established dispensary in Martha Shmouna center that serves most of the displaced community in Ainkawa.
The Dominican Sisters screened and identified 1,794 displaced Christian families who are living in 13 displacement centers in Erbil. They are considered the neediest among the displaced people, since the majority of them are living in tents or in large unfinished buildings with curtain partitioning.
These families are considered a priority, using the criteria of selection that is usually followed by almost all social workers in emergency cases:
- Families with large number of children.
- Families with infants below 2 years of age.
- Families with members with special needs (Handicapped).
- Families who are living in tents or refugee compounds with bad health conditions
- Families whose main wage earners are widows.
- Families with members injured because of the military actions in Iraq.
- Families who lost all sources of income due to displacement. (Mainly those working in the private sector).
CNEWA, through its international partners, has tried to fill the gaps and cover the unmet needs as identified by its local partners from the church — providing milk and diapers for new born infants and children up to 8 years old as such:
- 6 packs of milk per month for children between 0 and 3 years old
- 2 packs of milk per month for children between 4 and 8 years old
- 3 packs of diapers per month for children between 0 and 3 years old
This need has been identified and prioritized by the Dominican Sisters and it will reach in the first phase around 977 children in all the 13 displacement camps.
CNEWA has been granted the amount of euro 50,000 from Kindermissionswerk to fund this phase.
The second phase of the project should reach the remaining 945 children of the displaced camps and later the 1000 children of the displaced families in rented houses all over Erbil. Funding has already been secured from CNEWA’s donors in North America. Funding has already been secured from CNEWA’s donors in North America.
It is worth mentioning that there is still an overwhelming need for milk for infants and children, because so far most international relief agencies are not providing any milk within their food packages designated for Iraqi displaced.
Since the early days of displacement, CNEWA has been in continuous contact with the local church in Erbil and with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, showing solidarity and figuring out the best ways to accompany them and to help reduce the sufferings of the refugees.
Medical care is still an unmet need for the majority of displaced families, as most Christian families do not have access to any kind of insurance or to any public health facility in Kurdistan. And the private medical care in that region is extremely expensive.
In order to fill this gap, CNEWA has:
- Constructed and equipped a new dispensary in Martha Shmouna center in Erbil, which serves around 350 patients daily
This project has been completed and at present the dispensary is functioning very well. CNEWA also helped with logistics and, through its contacts with Misereor, the Dominican Sisters will receive additional funds in the amount of € 50,000 to purchase medicines and cover the administrative expenses of the dispensary (honorary fees for doctors and volunteers) for a period of 3 months
- Set up two dispensaries in the cities of Dohuk and Zakho. Based on the successful experience of the first dispensary in Erbil, we visited the two cities of Dohuk and Zakho and met with the local committees composed of parish priests. All members of these committees emphasized importance of constructing and equipping two dispensaries in the area.
The first dispensary will be constructed near the Assyrian parish church in Dohuk, where the distribution of emergency items takes place and where the coordination among churches and synchronization of different lists of names takes place.
The dispensary project will consist of constructing a prefab facility in the front yard of the church, which will be equipped by CNEWA and a group of 12 volunteer doctors and paramedical staff who will provide services.
At present the dispensary is already functioning in a small room in the basement of the church. It is visited by an average of 70 patients per day. This project is supported by all church representatives of Dohuk and an agreement was reached with the Kurdish Ministry of Health and other international donors to provide them with free medicine.
Moreover CNEWA will help the committee of Dohuk to get more funding from European donors to further improve the services and cover administrative costs.
The project is expected to be implemented within 40 days, including the installation of prefab rooms, the furniture and basic equipment. We hope to start receiving people in the new dispensary by Christmas.
- The second dispensary will be located in Zakho (around 36 miles away from Dohuk) and will be established near the Chaldean church in the town where also all emergency distribution programs take place. The dispensary in Zakho will serve (in addition to the displaced families in the city) more than 19 surrounding villages where Christian and Yazidi displaced families found refuge. A mobile clinic is also being discussed.
The dispensary in Zakho will also need a period of 45 days for implementation, We expect it to be completed and operational by February 2015.
Today, the great majority of displaced children find themselves forced to remain out of schools for the following reasons:
- The Kurdish public schools are full of students and cannot absorb refugees
- The curriculum taught in Kurdistan is completely different than the curriculum taught in Ninevah Plain and Mosul, and it is conducted in Kurdish, not Arabic.
During our visit, we observed that very few initiatives so far were taken to provide any kind of education to these children. We were informed that some emergency schools will be constructed in Erbil to absorb some children, but the need remains overwhelming.
The number displaced students under 18 years of age is estimated at around 12,000, scattered in Erbil and the remaining in Dohuk, Zakho and other parts of Kurdistan.
It is important to mention that in Qaraqosh alone, 16 elementary schools once enrolled an average of 300 students in each facility prior to the displacement. We contacted the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine in Erbil. They informed us that up to now, the displaced children are to a large extent still not enrolled in any educational activities.
At present, the local church is negotiating with the central government of Baghdad to recognize informal educational programs as official schools and to cover the salaries of the teachers and the administrative employees — the majority of teachers and students from Nineveh Plain and Mosul were displaced together, and the great majority of teachers were paid by the Ministry of Education.
The Chaldean Patriarchate has offered the use of land in Erbil to hold a school. The cost to open a school is estimated as follows: