Benata (AsiaNews) - Early in the morning, Msgr. Rabban al-Qas, the Chaldean bishop of Duhoc, leads us to Benata, the mountains of Kurdistan, to meet new refugees.
The arrival of refugees in the region of Duhoc has doubled the number of Christians: from 15,000 to 30,000. But here many Yazidis have come as well, who fled to the mountains of Syria and then returned to Iraq. Most of the Christians come from Mosul and the surrounding villages. Some of them managed to escape immediately, the night of Friday, June 6, after the loudspeakers of mosques had issued the ultimatum to Christians. In a sense, they are among the lucky ones: they were able to leave with the car, taking some goods with them. The day after the Islamic Army (IA) set up roadblocks and plundered Christians who wanted to leave. Matteo, 50, a government employee, had to start walking in the night, along with his wife, his disabled sister-in-law and their three children: Martin, 15, and twelve-years-old twins, Alan and Albert (pictured). To flee to Qaraqosh - when it was still free - he had to carry his sister-in-law on his back and walk for miles.
Thanks to the acquaintances of friends, he arrived in Duhoc and then Benata. Fr. Samir, the parish priest who in those days organized as could the arrival of streams of refugees, has found a place for them in the parish, in the catechism hall. The room is full of mattresses; in a corner there are stacked suitcases, boxes, buckets. All six people live in that room. The kitchen is in another room for catechism; the bathroom is a closet with no windows to the outside.
From there one hears the two sisters talk: with snow on the ground and cold weather, the disabled woman, helped by her sister, takes a bath with freezing cold water. The sister brings the woman into the common room all wrapped in a blanket, and lays her on a mat and places a gas space heater near her to warm her up. Fr. Samir spreads his arms helplessly: there is no hot water.
Almost in front of them are hosted two other families: a mother, daughter, brother-in-law and friend. The rooms were about to be demolished to build a new rectory, but the bulldozer that arrived for the demolition did not work. Three days later the emergency broke out and the building - rather old - became the home of all of them.
The Christians who fled in June found decent accommodation. Those who escaped in August found themselves having to find more precarious solutions. Many Yazidis, for example, who arrived here after fleeing, sieges on Mount Sinjar, and then more fleeing, have found hospitality in an old tourist village abandoned for decades, with doors and windows smashed. The parish has put doors and windows on the houses and now dozens of Yazidi families live there. Yazidis have large families. But they have lost many children during this exodus: young children because they died of thirst and hunger; daughters because they were abducted by the IA and forced to marry militiamen. There are girls who have preferred suicide rather than to fall into the hands of their spouse-butcherers. Curiously, the church of this area is dedicated to the Mother of the seven Maccabbee sons, who urged her offspring to remain firm in the faith, even at the cost of martyrdom.
"The biggest problem," explains Fr. Samir, "is that all these people have little to do during the day. Especially the youth and the girls do not have school or work."
At first glance Kurdistan seems to be in full development. But the war is sucking away many funds and the budget of the region is creaking: it is necessary to pay for the soldiers, the weapons, the police checks on the roads. In addition, the government in Baghdad, which should cover 17% of the region's budget, for years has not paid a single dinar to the coffers of the autonomous region. To this is added the fall in oil prices. Between war and new economic and social problems (oil prices, new refugees) it risks a crisis. And the young people, refugees and non-refugees, are struggling to find work.
Then there is the problem of school: those in the region of Mosul speak Arabic; here the schools use the Kurdish language and not everyone can speak it. Added to this are other tensions.
Matteo's twin sons, who are very good at school, were happy when they were accepted to middle school (their third year). To save their father the cost of transport by bus, they decided to make every day a half hour walk one way and half an hour to return. Unfortunately, at their school, someone burned a Kurdish flag and then, all of the "Arabs", as they call those of Mosul, were expelled from school. Now these two smart boys are forced to stay home and not to study, even though they were even learning English well.
Another refugee center is close to a kindergarten and a school. Here, too, there are families from Mosul. The school has been adapted to accommodate one family per classroom. Among them are also two sisters. One of them challenged an Isis militiaman that wanted to force her to become a Muslim. But she said: I was born a Christian and I will die a Christian. And the militiaman let her go. She is a joyful woman, lively and determined.
The people who evoke the most compassion are the elderly: nothing to do all day, a different climate from that to which they were accustomed, their existence turned upside down ... Those visited all seem a bit lost.
Fr. Samir tells the of the frenzy in the first days of June and that grew until August: "Every day there were dozens and dozens of people. The kindergarten of the parish had become the sorting center. We had whole families show up and sometimes only children, brought by some good person. They were given directions on where to go. If the place indicated was already occupied, they were shown another. From place to place, one family came to the border with Turkey, in the high mountains. For a week they had to live in their car: they had run out of petrol, and the place was deserted."
The priest is full of gratitude: "All were generous: many Christians of Duhoc have hosted whole families ("you are Christians, and so are our brothers"). Many have offered cars, goods, mattresses, chairs or have offered the money to buy them. Much aid has come from the Chaldeans abroad: Austria, America, Australia. A lot of support has come from the European churches and particularly the Italian one, and also from you of AsiaNews. Thank you all".
(End of Part Three)