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Iraqi Christian refugees in Kurdistan: 'Many people are starting to hope again'
"People could only think of visas, ready money and how they could manage to get out on Iraq as quickly as possible. Now things have settled and many people have come to terms with the situation and want to stay on in the country."
By Oliver Maksan
NEW YORK—"Many people are starting to hope again,“ said Father Andrzej Halemba, who heads the Middle East section of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). He just returned from a fact-finding mission to Erbil, to visit Iraqi Christian refugees there.
Last summer more than 120,000 Christians, most of them Chaldeans, were forced to flee ISIS and seek refuge in the autonomous Kurdish-controlled regions of Northern Iraq. Father Halemba reports: "The people no longer have the feeling of being on the very point of drowning. They now have a life jacket, so to speak. And even if the shore is still a long way off, they at least know that they are safe for now. The measures we have been able to take on the spot, in cooperation with the local Church, have stabilized the situation."
Just a few months ago, a sense of anger and despair was the predominant feeling among the refugees. Said Father Halemba: "People could only think of visas, ready money and how they could manage to get out on Iraq as quickly as possible. Now things have settled and many people have come to terms with the situation and want to stay on in the country.“
The rehousing of many of the refugees from their tents and containers into rented accommodation has had a huge stablizing effect. "This has given the people a new feeling of dignity and security once again. It has also reawakened a sense of personal initiative among many of them, something that was lacking before,“ the priest said.
A good number of Christians have found work. "It is true that their situation is often exploited by their employers, but fathers can at least contribute once again to the support of their families by working on building sites and the like,“ said Father Halemba. Another blessing are the schools for refugee children, funded partly with the help of ACN. "For the parents it is of decisive importance to know that their children can continue their education. This too gives a feeling of normality,“ said the priest.
The crucial factor during this phase, according to Father Halemba, is that the Church is sustaining the people in their hope. "The readiness to listen and the sympathy are psychologically decisive. The people have to have the feeling that they are not forgotten."
Gestures such as the Christmas gift campaign for 1500 refugee children have also been an expression of support and sympathy from the universal Church. Altogether, some 15,000 families are being supported in one way or another by ACN, Father Halemba explained, and the charity has already given over $5.6M since the beginning of the crisis.
ACN is also aiming to enable some of the religious sisters expelled by ISIS to be given a period of spiritual and psychological recovery, in Lebanon, for example. They too are often psychologically burdened and deeply affected by the events. "They urgently need our help, so that they can recover and then help themselves again. They are simply running on empty", Father Halemba explained. This is hardly surprising, he added, considering that they have lost everything they have built up over many years, such as schools, orphanages and retirement homes.
Building up the morale of both the priest and religious is of the utmost importance, Father Halemba said, because their support of the people is indispensable.
Father Halemba and young refugees in Erbil; ACN photo