Against all odds, Christmas cheer for the homeless children of Iraq
The Christian refugee children of Iraq have lost everything. Now they are being remembered at Christmas, thanks to the donors of Aid to the Church in Need.
ERBIL, Kurdistan—The nuns and their helpers work tirelessly, opening cardboard boxes that are stacked, head high, all around them. They take out items of clothing, the plastic packaging rustling loudly. Piles of clothing lie around them on the floor. Together with the other Sisters and volunteers, Sister Angela, of the Chaldean order of the Daughters of Mary, is readying parcels for Christian children who will celebrate Christmas exiled from their homes. Preparations have been ongoing for weeks for this initiative, which is aimed at children ages 2-12; it has been made possible by donors to Aid to the Church in Need.
"The children have an extremely traumatic year behind them. In the summer they were forced to flee from ISIS and ended up as refugees. We want to bring back a little joy into their lives and so we are putting together a Christmas parcel for each of them,“ explains one of the younger sisters, who was also forced to flee herself.
"We had an orphanage in Karamles. Last August we had to flee for our lives, in the middle of the night – eight of us crammed together into a small car. We were terrified.“ Tonight, the Sisters are preparing no fewer than 15,000 Christmas parcels. They are destined above all for the Christian refugee children from Mosul and the region of the Nineveh Plane, to brighten up their Christmas.
Through their generosity and prayers, the donors of Aid to the Church in Need have answered the call of Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako I that the Christians chased out of northern Iraq be given“signs that they are not alone.” For the text of the Patriarch’s Christmas message, please click here.
Often it is the children above all who are hardest-hit by the trauma of flight and expulsion, as Father Douglas Bazi knows all too well. This Chaldean priest runs the Mar Elia Centre in Ankawa, a mainly Christian suburb of Erbil, where since August thousands of people from the region of the Niniveh plain have sought refuge and are now living in tents.
"They arrived here with us, utterly devastated. Many of them have suffered nightmares,“ he explains. ”Right at the beginning we gave out some toys, because we wanted to make the children happy. For they had absolutely nothing. But afterwards a colleague came running, quite shaken, and told me that the children had destroyed all the toys. Everyone wanted something for himself and thought he was being left out. As a result it all ended in chaos. It made us realize just what fear and insecurity the children were suffering and just how much aggression there was within them. Since then things have changed greatly. Thank God, they have become much calmer.“
In Shaklava, in the mountains of Kurdistan, many of the children are living in a large hall. In a place where once the weddings and family festivities of the large local Christian families used to be held, there are now hundreds of people living in this one hall. "It is not easy. There is absolutely no privacy, and it is also very noisy. At night the lights are put out at 11 PM, but that doesn‘t mean that things get quieter then. But what else can we do? We are trying to make the best of it,“ Father Bazi explains.
Hanna is the mother of four children; the youngest of them is just six months old. A Syriac Catholic Christian, she fled here together with her husband and children in August, abandoning her home in the town of Karakosh. “We have nothing left; we left everything behind us there,“ she recounts.
She goes on to tell us how, in the Christian villages on the Nineveh Plane, Christmas has traditionally been great feast, with people visiting one another‘s houses. “We used to fast on Christmas Eve. And so the joy of our Christmas meal was always all the greater for it. We womenfolk prepared special meals and sweets. But this year we couldn‘t do that. We had no ingredients and, to be honest, we no longer had the heart for it.“
Nonetheless, for Hanna and her family Christmas has still not been forgotten. “The local Christians here in Shaklava have brought us pastries and sweets. And the Church has organized a big feast for us refugees. The children are looking forward to it.“ Her 10-year-old daughter Tamara has just one wish above everything:
“My biggest wish this Christmas is that I can one day go back home and play together with my friends again. I want to go home. That is the most important thing of all.“
ACN Photo: Little Girl Worships in Iraq