Fr Samir describes an atmosphere of joy and hope, despite the lack of resources and less aid. The struggle for survival has boosted the bond between Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis. About 150 refugee families are still living at the centre, 70 per cent depending on resources provided by the Church. Hundreds of young people attend the prayer meeting in preparation for Christmas.
Erbil (AsiaNews) – Despite hardships, "a climate of joy and hope" can be felt among the refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, still hosted at the reception centre of the parish of Enishke, in Iraqi Kurdistan, said Fr Samir Youssef, a priest in the diocese of Amadiya (Kurdistan).
Speaking to AsiaNews, he said that the daily chores and daily struggle for survival "have in fact boosted the bond and solidarity among Christians", which ends up embracing "even Muslim families" as well.
Over the years, the clergyman has helped thousands of families of Christian, Muslim, and Yazidi refugees who fled their homes in 2014 to escape the Islamic State group.
The fight against the jihadist movement might be over, as Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi announced last week, but displaced people still face huge problems without the means to deal with them.
Still, the families "do not let sadness and fatigue overwhelm them even if they live in difficult situations," Fr Samir noted. On the contrary, they seem "to be sustained by a force that goes beyond the material sphere."
There is a "common feeling of belonging among people" who often try to "help each other, buying food and basic necessities, clothes". All this "really helps to create a Christmas atmosphere, a feeling and sense of caring that make us feel truly loved."
About 150 Christian, Muslim and Yazidi families still live at the centre, refugees from Batnaya, Qaraqosh, Telkief, and Mosul. They cannot return yet as their homes are still unsafe.
About 20 to 30 per cent of them receive support from abroad or have some financial independence because they earn some money from trading or making crafts but the remaining 70 per cent rely mostly on aid without which they would not be able to survive.
The economic situation is still tough because the Iraqi and Kurdish governments have not agreed on the payment of salaries for teachers and public servants. So far, there have been only vague promises by the central authorities, but nothing concrete.
Some families from surrounding villages and towns continue to turn to Enishke parish for help or small contributions to survive. They have nothing except terrible stories that are repeated every week.
Fr Samir is one of the main beneficiaries of AsiaNews’s campaign Adopt a Christian from Mosul.
He noted that at Christmas time, families used to shop for groceries and clothing. Now however, the situation of crisis "has drastically reduced the resources available. Very few people are earning enough money to buy what they need.”
“The Kurdistan government recently announced that it has no money to pay salaries, already in arrears of two months, until the new year."
Hence, the local Church has renewed its efforts to meet the needs of the population, whether they are refugee families or long-term residents in the area. Such solidarity has been extended as far as possible, to Christians, Muslims and Yazidis alike, the priest said.
"For a week, the parish organised a Christmas market (pictured) with food, milk, basic necessities, clothing and shoes,” Fr Samir said. “We sold items at a lower price than in the city.”
“Previously, as a Church, we handed out vouchers worth a hundred dollars to 120 needy families. Others bought items at a discount. Although our resources are fewer, we try to help those in difficulty."
This has also attracted the attention of Muslim families, who have asked if they could benefit from lower prices as Christians and Yazidis do.
"Unfortunately, we did not have enough for everyone, so we could not help them directly. But I know of Christian families who bought food and clothes and then given them to Muslim families. Even Christmas trees, to get them involved in the festivity."
The community realises that the resources "are no not like before, so we give up something and share more goods and resources. For example, a Christian woman yesterday used 80 of the 100 dollars voucher without asking for the difference, which she left to buy food for those who are poorer.”
“Such grassroots solidarity has also involved the Muslim owner of a mini-market near the parish, who gives us good prices and sells on credit, waiting without haste for the time when we can pay him back."
As the weeks of Advent unfold, the community is getting ready for the birth of Jesus through meetings and prayer, like the one last week that brought together 850 boys and girls from middle and high school.
The meeting was held at the John Paul II Cultural Centre under the supervision of ten priests and nuns. It included seminars, testimonies, the recitation of the rosary, and Masses. Next Wednesday, there will be confessions for the whole community, then the solemn Mass on Christmas Eve.
"In all of Iraq, Christians are trying to be a source of joy and reconciliation,” Fr Samir explained, “but do not leave us alone: we need your prayers, your closeness and solidarity, so that this land can become a land of peace. And it is in this that the strength of the Christmas message can be found." (DS)