01/05/2015, 00.00
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Way of the Cross: the refugees from Mosul beyond the emergency

by Bernardo Cervellera
There are at least half a million people who have taken refuge in Kurdistan to flee from ISIS. In the Shlama Mall at Erbil: 350 people living in the skeleton of a building under construction, with draped sheets and blankets serving as walls. The ordination of a young man, also a refugee, shows that with the flight, there is something that has not been destroyed: the faith, the traditions, the priesthood.

Erbil (AsiaNews) - A visit that is a kind of Stations of the Cross. This is the image that comes to mind as the plane lands at four in the morning in Erbin, in Kurdistan, in an almost spectral silence.

Already the decision to come to Iraq seems to have been a bit too hasty.  In reality, Kurdistan is perhaps the most tranquil zone of all Iraq, if compared to the area dominated by the Islamic Army (IA), from whence come ever more cruel news of executions and tortures, or to the area of Baghdad, where Sciite and Sunni blood are shed on alternating days.

The image of the Stations of the Cross comes to mind above all because we are here, Dario Salvi and I, to meet the refugees of Mosul, those we have been working for for months, and whom we support with the campaign "Adopt a Christian from Mosul".  They are the army of poor ones forced to abandon their houses and their life under the threat of the militants of the Islamic Army:  "Either convert to Islam, or pay the protection tax, or flee.  If you stay, there is a sword between you and us". Upon discovering the decapitations and the mass executions, at least a half a million people have fled in these months, above all in June (Mosul and the nearby villages) and in August (Qaraqosh and the nearby villages).

The avalanche of refugees - in particular Christians and Yazidis - has poured out above all onto Kurdistan, where for months they have been fighting for suvival.  But it is now time to think of the future and after all these months there are those who think it necessary to find ways to overcome the emergency.   Fr. Douglas, responsable for a refugee camp around his parish in Erbil, explains the situation well:  "At the beginning we thought that the Iraqi army would have taken back the plane of Nineveh soon.  But it didn't happen.  Then we hoped that the Americans would have done something to take back Mosul.  But instead nothing was done: the bombardments halted the advance of troops, but didn't oblige the IA to withdraw".

By now the buzzword is to look beyond the emergency, to afterwards, to how to live for at least two or three years outside the normality of daily life and of the certanties that these people had.

Not that the emergency is over: still today it is necessary to organize the at least weekly distribution of essential goods: food, medicine, and now that it is winter, blankets, stoves, heavy clothing.

Imagining the future is not easy: when projecting it, the fear experienced in the past always crops up.  It is evident that the refugees suffer a double wound: that of a future that is not there and that of a past that still bleeds.

A few hours after our arrival, Fr.  Dinkha, who has been a priest for only three months, but is already a professor in the seminary, accompanies me to visit a few groups of refugees.  We are accompanied by Martin, a seminarian, and we arrive at a building - or better: a skeleton of a building - where instead of glass windows there hang in the void blankets and sheets stretched out.

The building is called the Shlama Mall: it was supposed to become a shopping center (belonging to the diocese). At the arrival of the refugees - almost all from Qaraqosh - the building (in reality, just pillars and floors in cement) became their residence for all these months.  90 families are hosted here, around 350 people.

Martin himself is a refugee from Qaraqosh. He, too, fled with the other seminarians after the IA had occupied the city.  He is also a privileged interlocutor between the refugees and the Catholic Church, the priests and the bishop.  He knows everyone: he stops to greet the children, speaks with the mothers, chats with the fathers.

In the skeleton of the shopping mall on every floor there are areas (rather than rooms) where the families live.  On the ground floor there are some common areas, set up for the emergency.

There is a laundry area, with long plastic tubs that run along the wall of the room, where the women wash the clothes, carrying them away in plastic buckets.  Next to it is a kitchen area, with a series of stoves where the women, in turns, come to cook their things, carrying the smoking pot into the area reserved for them.

This lifestyle, a mixture between a kibbutz where everything is shared, and a Bedouin camp, with walls made of sheets, is unnerving.  Martin tells me: "The children play, but being close to the street they cannot go too far; inside the building there is not enough space.  There are those who look for work and some have found it.   But the mass of refugees is enormous, and there is not enough work for all.  The young people, if they don't find work, spend their time wandering around the streets of the city doing nothing".

To deal with this absence, next week some teachers - themselves also refugees - will begin a school, housed in the bishop's residence, to teach the children and youth a few subjects and a few technical skills that could help them find a job in the future.

The skeleton of the building and the walls made of sheets are however at the center of a heated argument, also linked to the transition from the emergency.  Various refugees say they prefer to stay in this place, in this Bedouin kibbutz, rather than going to live in the homes the diocese is building for them.  The problem is that the diocese, in the emergency, has found construction land far from the city: in reality they are new aglomerates where - the refugees tell me - there are no means of transportation, no shops, pharamcies or doctors.  For all these needs they would have to take a bus or taxi, spending time and money.

In the presence of Martin a strong argument has emerged between some men and women.   Martin defends the idea of having their own clean house, to begin a new life, even if it is far away; they defend the fact that some, having found work in the city, do not want to move far off.

Some of the elderly are silent and bow their heads.  At the end of the argument they comment, under their breath: it is not possible to be refugees and pretend so much.  The eldest, these men, have been refugees several times in life.

We go to visit a group of Syro-Catholic refugees that today are gathered in the Chaldean cathedral for an exceptional event: the priestly ordination of a young man, a refugee from Qaraqosh.  The young man, Majid Atallah, 30, had studied in Rome for his years of theology.  Then, a year ago he returned to Qaraqosh to prepare for the priesthood.  In August his city was conquered by the IA and he too, with his bishop, had to flee to Erbil. Though living in the misery of the camps, in the upheaval of their way of life, the bishop and he agreed to ordain him anyway.  For all it is a sign of continuity between before and after.  The ceremony affirms that with the flight, there is something that has not been destroyed: their faith, their traditions, the priesthood.

In the church hundreds of people participate.   With solemnity, the refugee bishop presides, celebrating in a church that is not his: Majid (in the photo) kneels down for a long time before the altar while the faithful sing powerfully the litanies and the hymns of this occasion.  The elegant attire of all the invitees is very striking.  Visiting the refugee camps one finds people with worn-out clothes, or in sweats, or with poor clothing.  Here for the occasion they are all dressed in elegant garments, almost luxurious: the women wear winter cerimonial dresses, clothed with a light veil of dark satin; the men are in suits and ties and there are even young people with tuxedoes and red bow ties.

My guide, Fr.  Dinkha, points out that at the ceremony there is present the general consul of the United Arab Emirates.  He explains to me that the Emirates are the only country that is helping the refugees of Mosul and Qaraqosh, without making distinctions between Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis.  And the consul never misses a solemn Christian ceremony.

(End of the first part)

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