Many families have been forced to go back to tents because they cannot affor the rend for a house. Jobs are scarce, and even those who have one are often not paid. Going home to Mosul and the Nineveh Plain is increasingly remote. Lent celebrations bring a sense of community. Little Miriam’s story and the value of forgiveness offer important lessons. Fr Jalal Yako, who runs a refugee camp near Erbil, talks about his work.
Erbil (AsiaNews) – The situation for refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain is not good, this according to Fr Jalal Yako, a member of the Rogationists of the Heart of Jesus, who hails from Qaraqosh. He is involved with about a thousand refugees, mostly Christians, but also some Muslims, near Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.
Speaking about the situation of many Christian families, Fr Yako notes that since many are unable to pay the rent, they "must leave the houses" where they were living and go back to "tents and trailers." Jobs are also in "short supply," and most of those who have one are “not getting paid”. On top of that, “About 250 companies have also gone bankrupt or laid off workers". At the same time, there is “language discrimination". Those who cannot speak Kurdish have to “pay higher prices” and “are denied treatment in hospitals”.
A year and half ago, Christians in northern Iraq had to abandon their homes and property, fleeing the violence of the Islamic State (IS) group. After entertaining hope that they might soon return home, they found themselves forced to find an accommodation in the Kurdish region. However, the drop in oil prices and the rising cost of living has complicated matters and made daily life that much harder.
"To the indifference of the Middle East for this part of the world and its tragedies and conflicts, our people respond with faith, with the attachment to the land, with a desire to participate en masse to Lent services,” the clergyman told AsiaNews. “However, a feeling of distrust and disillusionment is also clearly visible. Most of the refugees, or at least those who have not fled abroad "no longer seem willing to believe that one day they will be able to return to their homes.”
Sadly, “Those who did find accommodation in a house, now cannot pay the rent because there is no more money. Many have lost their job,” Fr Jalal said. “Those who have work are not getting paid. Lately, I heard that 250 companies have gone bankrupt. Some construction sites have stopped, the work left unfinished."
For refugees, the problem of housing and work is compounded by language. "If you are not local, if you speak Arabic and not Kurdish, being accepted is hard,” the clergyman explained. “Language has become a factor of discrimination, higher prices, and refusal of medical care. This has also affected Christians. Even in my camp, Asthi One, home to families from Qaraqosh, Mosul, Bartella, the prevailing sentiment is one of fatigue."
To soothe the feelings of suspicion and neglect, there is faith, the desire to live Lenten celebrations and rituals together as a community. "We celebrate Masses every day,” Fr Jalal said. “People flock to church, devoutly observe Friday fasting, and participate in the Way of the Cross outdoors. We also recite the Angelus every day. Recently, with the help of an Italian parish, we built a bell tower to call the faithful to the services and give a visible sign of our presence, bearing witness to our faith."
"Another of the initiatives we undertook in recent weeks was to carry the statue of the Virgin among families so that they could feel Mary’s presence. It is a replica of Our Lady of Fatima, which we received from a French parish, on the outskirts of Paris. People make long queues to pray before the statue, and donations like this one, as well as the bell from Italy, are a nice gesture of communion among churches, a way for us not to feel neglected and forgotten."
The priest does not spare Western governments from criticism, blaming them for wars and for their indifference to the presence and permanence of the peoples, races, and minorities that enriched the history of the Middle East.
"Even Christians are a mosaic that adds to the beauty of the area,” he said. “We need to encourage the presence of these cultures and not impose divisions on the basis of ethnic and religious identities."
Of course, the value of coexistence has been undermined by the violence of recent months, he noted, "by neighbours who took advantage of the arrival of the Islamic State to plunder Christian houses. Often our Muslims neighbours were the first ones to turn on us."
Despite the difficulties and the suffering, forgiveness and reconciliation remain important values among Christians. They take on even a greater importance this year, the Year of Mercy Pope Francis proclaimed.
“Even after enduring pain, a wrong, an offence, Christians do not seek revenge, they do not kill, they do not take up arms,” the priest said. “Although the pain may be great, forgiveness is such an important value, as much as the desire to bear witness to the faith."
One example is Miriam, a ten-year-old girl who lives in Fr Jalal’s refugee camp. She is an example that “forgiving is the greatest thing. In the midst of so much suffering and so many difficulties, she is a real witness of joy. She sings, smiles, and never stops saying that she wants to give her life as gift to others. She is a strong girl, and is a constant reminder that we must be able to forgive because this is one of the most beautiful lessons of being a Christian.”