ERBIL, Kurdistan — Hundreds of thousands of Christian, Yazidi and other minority refugees who escaped death from the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists now face another lethal foe: the Kurdistan winter. Time is running out, as the need is great, but the resources are few for the Christian-aid groups trying to save them.
Kurdistan’s hot and dry autumn is giving way to a coming season of cold, wet and snow, where average temperatures can range from 35 to 55 degrees. The parched earth turns to mud with the winter rains, while snow and freezing temperatures will come to more mountainous regions.
“Winter is upon them, and it is already cold at nights, but they don’t have anywhere to go,” said Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), an Illinois-based nonprofit raising awareness and funds for the relief of Iraqi Christians and other minorities driven from their homes by ISIS.
“This is a human tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes, and not enough is happening,” she said, adding that fever and disease already exist in the camps, and winter will make it worse. “Even the aid workers are getting sick.”
ISIS forces have overrun a third of Iraq since June, seizing Mosul, the plains of Nineveh (the ancestral Iraqi-Christian homeland), and they were close to Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil when U.S. airstrikes finally helped Kurdish Peshmerga security forces push back their advance. The United Nations estimates Kurdistan, once a population of 3.7 million, now hosts 850,000 Iraqi refugees — including an estimated 150,000 Christians — most of whom have absolutely nothing to call their own. They fled with the clothes on their backs or were robbed by ISIS fighters of their possessions in exchange for their lives.
“They are living under an open sky,” said Caroline Brennan, senior communications officer for Catholic Relief Services, just returned from Kurdistan. Many people unable to find even a tent are sheltering in buildings under construction, under trees and highway passes or completely out in the open on the rocky ground.
“Just weeks or months ago, they were middle-class; they had homes; they had careers: They were corporate professionals or barbers or teachers or college students. … Now, they are just living under extremely perilous conditions,” Brennan said.
One of these refugees she spoke with was a man wearing his business suit covered with dirt — his only outfit for the past two weeks.
“He told me, ‘I was a corporate professional and just had to sell my wedding ring to buy food. This is not life.’”
‘Terrible, and It’s Getting Worse’
How many people are affected is unclear in the absence of statistical data. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s on-the-ground investigation in early September found that the Catholic bishops are reporting at least 1,500 families have no shelter whatsoever, and between 2,000-3,000 families are living in tents in Erbil alone.
The homeless problem is about to get worse, as the Kurdish government has ordered an estimated 130,000 refugees taking shelter in its schools to find lodging elsewhere, so that school can begin.
“The situation is terrible, and it’s getting worse. … It gets cold up north, and people need shelter,” said Ashur Yoseph, president of the U.S. branch of the Assyrian Aid Society (AAS), which has on-the-ground operations delivering aid in Kurdistan to Christians, as well as to Yazidis, Shiite, Turkomen and other minorities displaced by ISIS’ occupation of Mosul and the Nineveh plains. The AAS first began in 1991 to help refugees fleeing then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing against Assyrians, Kurds and other non-Arab minorities.
Yoseph said AAS has been providing food, blankets, mattresses and pillows, cooking gas, stoves and medicines. It converted two school dormitories it had built for girls and boys into housing for 35 families.
“What we’re doing is minuscule compared to what is needed,” he said.
Yoseph said one project under consideration is replacing tents with winterized housing units that have one room, with a bathroom and kitchen. They’re built on concrete slabs with sandwich-board walls and cost close to $6,500 per unit per family.
“Even if we were to build a thousand of them — that’s $6.5 million — it’s just a drop in the bucket.”
Supporting the Ground Operations
The fight to save the surviving refugees from the onslaught of winter is beginning to take shape, as Christian groups funnel money and aid to institutions with manpower and expertise on the ground.
Brennan said Catholic Relief Services is immediately wiring donations to Caritas Iraq, the local Catholic Church’s social-service arm, which purchases goods primarily from the local market and works with parishes to distribute immediate supplies refugees need to survive.
She said that CRS advisers have arrived to plan out refugee sites and equip the camps with water, and they are discussing with local Caritas officials the long-term relief picture: providing winterized shelters to replace tents and restoring people’s livelihoods through job-skill training and other programs CRS has implemented in other refugee-crisis situations.
Taimoorazy said ICRC has funded Assyrian Aid Society’s relief projects and also given to the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena.
The nuns are refugees from ISIS themselves, having to flee the Christian town of Qaraqosh, but they have experience running hospitals and orphanages. Taimoorazy said 35 nuns have been charged with taking care of 40,000 persons.
“We’re sending $50,000 [on Sept. 24] to sustain them for a month, at least,” she said.
ICRC, she said, has been asking companies to donate sanitary products for 350,000 women “who have run out of the basic necessities for them.”
Aid to the Church in Need has channeled more than $500,000 to the local Catholic Church since the fall of Mosul, according to ACN spokesman Joop Koopman.
“We’re working closely with Patriarch Sako, Archbishop Warda [of Erbil] and Archbishop Nona of Mosul, in providing emergency aid to the refugees, depending on the needs the archbishops are asking for.”
Koopman said ACN is funding a campaign, through which it will provide $1 million to match other donations, that should help the Church find rentals for families, especially those who have to transfer from their current shelters in the Kurdistan schools.
But rents in Kurdistan are rising rapidly. Reuters reported that, in Erbil, rent has shot up to $500 for a small place to $2,500 for larger quarters. An on-the-ground investigation by CNEWA found rates in a Christian neighborhood for a two-bedroom apartment at about $1,500.
One project led by the Christian bishops to renovate a mall into living quarters for 200 families would cost $300,000.
CNEWA spokesman Michael La Civita told the Register that the CNEWA needs-assessment team noted a desperate need for medical clinics in three regions (Duhok, Zakho and Erbil), where Christian medical professionals had been working under tents to provide emergency care.
“The doctors, who are displaced themselves, began to treat some of the more chronic illnesses and conditions, on a volunteer basis, but they have no money, no medicines — nothing.”
The group then rushed funds to open one clinic and obtained an emergency grant from the Raskob foundation to open two more, funds for which were disbursed Tuesday to the Syriac and Chaldean Churches overseeing the project.
“These clinics will be administered by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena,” La Civita said.
La Civita recommended using the hashtags #IraqChristians or #HelpIraqiChristians as a way of combining social-media awareness with practical help.
“The generosity of North Americans, whether it is Americans or Canadians, knows no bounds,” he said. “It’s amazing that, despite all the things going on in the world, despite people’s own concerns about their personal economies, the generosity of Catholics in particular has just been tremendous.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.
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