ERBIL, Iraq — Despite efforts by northern Iraq’s Catholic bishops to ensure that Christians and other refugees can survive the winter, housing shortages and a significant lack of financial support continue to pose serious threats to their lives.
“The Church is pretty much alone in caring for them; so far the Iraqi government has not done anything for them. The tents of the refugees are set up on parish properties,” said Karin Maria Fenbert, an official with the international pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Fenbert assessed the situation in Erbil. With the start of the school year, many of the refugees who had been sheltered in schools have left quickly in order to avoid tensions with local Christians, she explained.
“Moreover winter is not far away and many refugees are still living in tents that are not waterproof, some of which are set up on the bare ground,” Fenbert said in an Oct. 14 statement.
More than 100,000 Iraqi Christian refugees have fled their homes in and near the northern city of Mosul following the seizure of territory by forces from the Islamic State terror group earlier this year. Many refugees have escaped to Iraqi Kurdistan. They are among the more than 30% of Iraqi Christians who are now refugees.
Northern Iraq’s bishops, Fenbert said, “are only reporting what they hear hundreds of people say: the Christians feel betrayed: betrayed by their central government in Baghdad; betrayed by their former Muslim neighbors; and betrayed also by the international community.”
“They feel that they are being perceived merely as collateral damage in geopolitical power plays. Add it all up, and the bishops feel quite helpless and powerless.”
Refugee housing conditions are cramped. One school that housed refugees had 22 people in a room smaller than 350 square feet.
“Under such conditions there is no privacy,” Fenbert said. “And the sanitary conditions are very poor. A person who comes from the outside to get a look at the degrading situation feels anything but well — the refugees must feel that they are trapped in a zoo.”
In one refugee camp, tents 10-feet by 30-feet in area house eight refugees each. The refugees bathe and address hygiene needs outside, using a bucket.
Fenbert said the region’s bishops hope to help the refugees survive the winter “as far as possible, with some dignity, although under these conditions it is difficult to give the refugees any kind of privacy.”
“The Church in Iraq is urgently in need of financial support from abroad—and it has to arrive very quickly,” she said.
Fenbert and Aid to the Church in Need are supporting a project to help refugees survive the winter with permanent housing and education for children.
The relief agency is helping to finish a village to house 4,000 people in residential container modules. The village is named “Father Werenfried Town,” after the agency’s founder, the German priest Father Werenfried von Straaten.
Priests and nuns among the refugees are also in need of housing. Aid to the Church in Need is supporting Iraq’s sole major seminary, which has 28 seminarians. The agency has also promised basic assistance to nuns in Erbil.
In Iraq’s Dohuk region, the agency will distribute food packages to about 8,000 families. It is preparing 15,000 Christmas packages for children, relying on support from donors.
Fenbert said the refugees see a future for themselves “only if a certain degree of security can be guaranteed. How that might happen, if it ever will, is far from obvious.”
Among the refugees, fathers of families need jobs and young people need to finish their education, she reported.
“Right now, most of the refugees remain in limbo, which keeps them – for now – from being able to make a free decision as to whether they want to remain in Iraq or would like to pursue s a chance at happiness abroad instead.”
Read also the Register’s investigative story “First ISIS, Now Winter Threatens Christians in Kurdistan” to learn more about the Christians’ dire situation and a list of groups actively providing them aid.