ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — The church bells ring, and the cross can be seen once more lifted high on the Nineveh Plain. But as Iraqi and Kurdish forces bear down on Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Mosul, the Church is also moving into position behind them — to shelter and protect vulnerable civilians fleeing the battle.
The Church, through the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, is playing a key role in helping the local Church in Iraq prepare for potentially tens of thousands of people pouring out of Mosul, Iraq, which has experienced two years of brutal rule under ISIS, since the terrorist army captured it during its blitz across Iraq in summer 2014. According to the United Nations, Iraq already has 3.3 million internally displaced persons, and 7.3 million of its population is in need of humanitarian assistance.
In this Oct. 28 interview with the Register, Kevin Hartigan, CRS’ regional director for Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, describes how the agency and the local Church are caring for tens of thousands of people driven from their homes by the ongoing fighting for Iraq’s liberation, bracing for tens of thousands more from Mosul, and the importance of U.S. Catholics’ solidarity at this critical time.
How is CRS working with Caritas Iraq and the local Church to prepare for populations fleeing the battle for Mosul?
We have trained teams of people — 30 teams of four additional staff, actually — so there’s 120 extra staff up in the northern Nineveh Plain area, in different spots, ready to work on distributions, assessments and protection of the vulnerable, displaced and all. And then we have all of the rest of our staff and the Caritas staff, so we have a couple hundred people ready.
So we’re ready for an influx of people into the Nineveh area, but, in the meantime, we are actually very busy working with the displaced from the previous offensive against ISIS in Fallujah and another less publicized current offensive against ISIS in the town of Hawija, which is to the east of Mosul. It is the only other major town left in ISIS’ hands in Iraq. … We do have thousands of people fleeing from that battle into Kirkuk.
We’re working the checkpoints where people are coming up into Kirkuk out of Hawija. And from Fallujah, there are some roughly 80,000 people who fled that battle who are being housed in very inadequate camp conditions outside of Baghdad. We also have an office in Baghdad together with Caritas Iraq, and we’re providing assistance, shelter, water and sanitation to those people. So while we wait for people from Mosul, we have plenty of work with people who are fleeing from the other regions from the offensive against ISIS.
How many people do you expect to flee from Mosul?
Honestly, we have no idea what is going to happen in Mosul. It could be that people will stay in the greater Mosul urban area. They will just be able to eventually take refuge in different neighborhoods of the city to escape fighting, because it is such a vast city. So they may not come out of the city — we really have no idea. But they will probably still end up displaced, or homeless, even if they don’t leave the metropolitan area of the city.
What do you imagine will be the biggest challenges from these upcoming waves of displaced persons?
In Iraq, our main concern is how we are going to adequately shelter these people for the winter, because of the timing of this crisis. It is still warm in Iraq, but the winter will be upon us soon, and it is quite harsh in the north of the country, particularly, as you can imagine, for elderly, for small children, for pregnant women. We need to get people into some kind of warm shelter, and it is a huge challenge. Camps are not ready, and there is not much in terms of alternative plans right now. We are clearly, as a community, going to be scrambling to adequately shelter any large number of displaced people — that is what we are looking at in the next couple of months.
How do you plan to deal with the reality that these populations have been heavily traumatized by two years of ISIS rule?
We will be [doing that] once we have taken care of the immediate relief needs. We are going to be focusing, as we have in Jordan, on children [of Iraqi and Syrian refugees]. We are going to be focused as soon as we can on the psycho-social needs of the children and education. We have tried to do what we can as well for the adults, but our focus will be on the children.
We have recently really expanded our formal education programs for the displaced populations from 2014 in northern Iraq. We have hundreds of thousands of children who have already lost a year or two of school in northern Iraq from the previous waves of displacement. As you can imagine, the children who have been living under ISIS rule in Mosul have also not been educated and will be traumatized by that experience, and possibly by the violence that they’re going to be experiencing with this conflagration that is coming to Mosul.
What has the Church in Iraq’s role been in this effort?
What I think a lot of American Catholics don’t understand is that the Catholic parishes and dioceses in northern Iraq — the Archdiocese of Erbil, the Diocese of Dohuk and the Diocese of Kirkuk — are extremely active. And the parishes are extremely active, and they have hosted thousands and thousands of displaced since, well, the early 2000s, but particularly since 2014. They’ve got a lot of volunteers whom we work with.
People misunderstand the role of the Catholic Church in the region as being just kind of a helpless victim, whereas the Church is really disproportionately active in the response, taking care of Christians, Yazidis, Shias, Sunnis, Turkmen — everybody.
Any particular stories that you can share?
I remember that there was a Catholic businessman who would volunteer to drive us around at the beginning of the crisis in 2014. And the guy — this was a few months after the fall of Mosul — had 96 people from Mosul staying at his house.
I mean, this guy was a businessman, so he had a big house. These Iraqis have big house compounds, but that’s a lot of people to house for three, four months. So I think is it important that people not just see [Iraqi] Catholics as the victims, but to understand and be proud of the role that the Church and the communities are playing in taking care of everybody.
What can we, as Catholics here in America, do to help the work of the Church supporting these refugees from Syria and Iraq at this time?
Frankly, we need all the support we can get, particularly for the assistance in Iraq. … We are getting good assistance from the U.S. government, from the Office for Disaster Assistance, and we get a lot of assistance through our confederation partners in Canada and Holland, and other places, through their Churches. We also have support for our work in Iraq from the Latter-Day Saints, from the Mormons. We get grants from Islamic Relief — there’s lots of interfaith and ecumenical support coming to CRS, and it’s an indication of how much they respect the Catholic Church’s role in the region and the integrity of the local Church’s work.
But we always need and prize the support from the American Catholic Church, honestly, and from the special collection that was done now a couple of years ago and from others we get from American Catholics, which allows us to build the capacity of the local Church and allows us to do the child-focused work. Because, for us to engage and commit to the longer-term work of education and psycho-social work for children in Iraq, we need to be able to commit to longer-term funding, which is not possible with the government grants. It is only possible with our private bonds, such as the work we’re doing [with children] in Jordan, which was funded with private funds.
We’ve got the grant now for this in Jordan, and we’ve got funds from the Knights of Columbus now, which is very positive for us, but we still definitely need support from the Church. The local Church in Iraq — and in the whole region — needs support. The other thing to keep in mind is that the local Catholic communities and all the local communities have exhausted their resources in hosting and assisting people now for a couple years, and we need to really keep holding them up.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.