Early winter delivers a new blow to Iraq’s Christians
The plight of Iraq’s Christians, forced to flee their homes after attacks by IS militants, could be about to get a lot worse after winter came early to their makeshift refugee camps.
A recent wintry deluge has destroyed tents, sweeping away the last possessions of people who had already lost so much.
Sr Habiba has been working with the refugees, and the first touch of winter has proved a breaking point for many. “The tents quickly filled with water and collapsed. They were engulfed in mud.
Some people had to be taken to the hospital. This happened at 3am,” said the nun, one of four Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena providing the displaced with shelter, food, hygiene and water.
They, along with a lone priest, serve about 1,500 displaced Catholics from Mosul, Qaraqosh and Bartella, Christian towns in northern Iraq overrun by the Islamist extremists in early August.
All were forced to flee rather than convert to Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.
Now they shelter both inside and outside a sports centre on the outskirts of Ainkawa, a mainly Christian enclave that is part of the Kurdistan regional government’s capital, Irbil. The conditions inside the centre are bad but they are a huge improvement on those facing the refugees outside.
“Our bishop has managed to get about 60 trailers, which are more stable, to shelter against rain and the snow we expect to get in January,” said Syriac Catholic Fr Bashar. The trailers can each hold seven family members and now house those whose tents were swept away.
“But we need far more trailers to house the people coming for aid,” he said. “They have run out of money and there is no safe place for them elsewhere.”
At the unfinished Ankawa Mall, some 2,500 Christians are housed on three levels of roughly hewn concrete floors. Catholic, Orthodox and the Assembly of God churches are providing food, carpets, blankets and other basics to the families.
Partitions have been installed to ward off rain, wind and cold as well as provide some privacy to the families in the unfinished building. The churches have also installed guard rails to prevent people from falling.
The UN has said that more than 800,000 Christians, Yezidis and other minorities displaced by IS attacks in Iraq are especially vulnerable as winter has begun. They need insulated mattresses, thermal blankets, warm clothes and food.
Zerene Haddad, Middle East and North Africa regional communication officer for Jesuit Refugee Service, said aid agencies had just started preparations for winter in the region, where families could face temperatures as low as five degrees Fahrenheit.
For those living in tents, she warned, “it could be a catastrophe there.”
By Dale Gavlak (CNS)