AsiaNews collected testimonies from Syria, Jordan and Turkey describing the conditions facing Iraqi refugees and the hardships of the Christian diaspora. A Chaldean bishop from Aleppo: “Solitude and poverty are the worst ills. But at least the refugees find security and consolation in church.”
Aleppo (AsiaNews) – From Syria, through Jordan and up to Turkey, members of the Iraqi Christian community abroad have echoed Sunday’s appeal by the Pope to “individuals, international organizations and governments”, to commit themselves “to meeting the most urgent needs” of refugees from Iraq. Through testimonies and the voice of Catholics who are accompanying and serving thousands of Iraqis who have fled their country, AsiaNews has traced a picture of their daily psychological and material hardships.
During the Angelus of 17 December, the pope recalled especially Iraqi refugees in Syria, “forced to leave their country because of the tragic situation they are experiencing”. After northern Iraq, the first destination for those who flee is Syria. Here, according to the most recent statistics of the Syrian Internal Affairs Minister, 750,000 Iraqis have been admitted to the country since 2003. Of these, around 40,000 are Christians who are either in Damascus or Aleppo. They choose Syria because they do not need a visa to go there, children are accepted in schools and compared to other states, the government operates an open-door policy.
A Syrian of Iraqi origin, Mgr Atoine Aoudo has been tending to Christians who fled from Iraq since 1991. He promotes and coordinates assistance programmes for immigrants from his diocese in Aleppo. He told AsiaNews: “Iraqi Christians face very hard conditions here, especially from a psychological point of view. Solitude and a sense of neglect make them very fragile and when you consider their extreme financial problems too, it is easy to understand why the Church is the only place where these people feel safe and protected.”
Thus, the bishop says the first form of assistance offered is “listening and understanding”. To make matters worse, refugee families have no hope for the future: “They are not guaranteed work or the right to health care, only the right to stay in the anticipation of their return to Iraq or resettlement elsewhere.” While in previous years it was the wealthier classes of people that left Iraq, now the poorest people are leaving, with little in their pockets, so that before long they are practically destitute. “The women suffer most,” said the bishop. “Widows in particular end up by prostituting themselves in a bid to earn a living for them and their children. This is a very widespread phenomenon in Damascus.”
The Chaldean Church has set up a committee of six people – three Iraqis and three Syrians – in Damascus to run aid programmes. “Every to or three months, we launch programmes for around 1000 families.” Assistance offered includes food distribution as well as health and pastoral care, with catechism courses for children. “In Damascus alone, 600 children are being prepared to receive their first Holy Communion.”
Mgr Aoudo said: “Iraqi Muslims cannot be assisted in a planned way because the government forbids it”. But he added: “If we are asked, we never refuse to help anyone.”
Caritas in Damascus is also doing something, said the bishop, but the organization faces many logistical problems. The Chaldean Church projects are rendered possible thanks to donations from abroad, from individuals and some Catholic organizations like Aid to the Church in Need. “The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is chiefly involved in facilitating movements and procedures to apply for asylum in a third country,” said the bishop. “But often people must wait even up to four years before they can leave.”
UNHCR said there are around 500,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan and in recent months the daily influx has reached 1000. In 2006 alone, 45,000 Christians from Iraq entered the country. From Amman, where he runs the parish of St Joseph, Fr Raymond Mousalli recently appealed to international and humanitarian organizations to help the Iraqi Christian population in Jordan that is rising steadily in number. The priest said some 8,000 Chaldeans were waiting for an expatriate visa or for recognition of their asylum status. He appealed to the Red Cross and Amnesty International “to put pressure for more haste in the granting of visas for those who want to migrate.” Amman has started to refuse entry to Iraqi men aged between 18 and 35 years, giving preference to women, elderly and children.
Much the same problems face Iraqi Christians in Turkey. Speaking to the Turkish Daily News, an English-language newspaper, Mgr François Yakan, Chaldean bishop in Istanbul, and Mgr Yusuf Sağ, Patriarchal Vicar of the Syro-Catholic Church in Turkey, depicted a disastrous situation. The two Christian leaders appealed to the European community “to take in families of Iraqi Christian refugees”. Such families have been living in Turkey for years, waiting and hoping to be able to migrate to other countries. They have no right to work and are forced to live wherever they are placed by the Turkish government, often in places where they have no access to pastoral care.
Mgr Yakon said: “Such refugees stay here for anything between from one to 11 years and they have no health care, neither work permits nor the right to study. Europeans are not interested in such people yet they speak about human rights and profess to be Christians.”
Arrivals in Turkey must by law report to police stations within 10 days of arrival and file an application for refugee status with UNHCR. Until their claim is met, they are considered as “asylum seekers” while those who do not register or file an asylum request are held to be undocumented migrants. After the war started in 2003, UNHCR suspended normal application procedures for Iraqi asylum seekers. Getting a permit to migrate to another state has never been easy, even before 2003, but now chances have become more remote than ever except in the most extreme cases or in cases when humanitarian programmes of countries like the USA, Canada and Australia allow for family reunification.
Mgr Yusuf Sağ said that in Turkey, the UN directed refugees towards Isparta or
Kastamonu, where no one spoke Arabic and where there were no Christian communities. He added: “The Turkish government does not distinguish between Christian and Muslim refugees: both receive inhumane treatment. There is little that we can do and it is a humanitarian tragedy.”