“It all started with the weekly prayer meeting I regularly attend. Only that time last August it wasn’t the usual stuff; the gathering hosted the social activist and former MP Nadia Henry who made a presentation on the plight of the displaced Christians of Iraq who had been forced by ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) to leave their homes once they refused to give up their faith.
“Their stories were all over the media, but the details cited by Ms Henry were even more horrifying. The Christians of Mosul had had to leave behind all their earthly belongings and march out of their hometowns and villages on foot till they found refuge in the Kurdish town of Erbil. We had seen entire families, old and young, children and elderly, sick and healthy, wearily trudging along driven by nothing but faith. The words of the Bible rang in my ears: ‘They left everything and followed Him’. It was goodbye to safe, prosperous lives and a march to where? To what? To the Unknown. My heart bled for the little children who couldn’t fathom what was going on, the elderly who were relinquishing everything that had been part of their lives and a source of comfort in their old age, the young persons who could see no future, and the parents who had no idea how they would support or feed the little ones that clung to their necks.” This is how Maher Asham, the 40-something CEO of the Cairo-based IT company EGID, described to Watani how he decided to join the relief mission that was to leave Cairo and head to Erbil.
The Egyptian relief mission was formed mainly by members of the Coptic Orthodox, Coptic Catholic, and Evangelical Church in Egypt.
Ms Henry, a member of the mission, told Watani that the visit of the Egyptian mission to the refugee camp in Erbil coincided with that of the French President François Hollande to the Ainkawa refugee camp. President Hollande pledged a ‘humanitarian bridge’ and that families who would like to shelter with relatives in France would be allowed to do so, but also insisted that: “Our first duty is to fight terrorism, not to give in to terrorism by drawing people out of their homeland”.
The Egyptian mission headed to Mar Elia church in Erbil, the courtyard and vicinity of which sheltered some 800 Iraqi Christian refugees. “We met Father Douglas Bazi of Mar Elia’s and the Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil,” Ms Henry says. “They welcomed us and gave us their blessings. We were told that hundreds of other Christian Iraqi refugees were sheltered by the nearby Mar Yusif and Mar Georges churches.
“The grounds around Mar Elia’s were dotted with rows upon rows of tents donated by various countries and relief foundations. These tents the refugees now called home.
“The aid from Egypt had not arrived at Erbil; it was still on the way and would have to be distributed by some other relief mission. Yet aid from the United Nations had arrived, and we helped distribute it. There were tents, blankets, medicines, and foodstuffs. And there was need for every single thing; the refugees had had to flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs—and the anguish in their hearts.”
“Work with joy”
“It’s funny,” Mr Asham told Watani, “but you know what was among the first thing the refugees greeted us with? They asked about [the top Egyptian comedian known all over the Arab world] Adel Imam! They said the mere thought of him made them laugh. I remember reflecting that no matter what, the will of life remains strong and can never be beaten.
“We were stunned by the strength these people showed under duress. They were hopeful and smiling, buoyed up by a confident faith that seemed almost unbelievable in our material times. And the Church made sure this faith remained alive and strong.”
“Fr Douglas”, Mr Asham says, “is the dynamo driving the work in the camp. He insists it is not a ‘camp’ but a ‘centre’ in which the inmates are more than welcome. He makes sure everyone, even the children, are tasked with specific jobs, to help them feel useful and capable of achieving.” Also, according to Mr Asham, to ward off depression and mischief. They wear tags that say: ‘We work with joy’.
The spotless camp testifies to the standard of cleanliness imposed by the women. “It was a joy to see,” Mr Asham says, “and a gentle rebuke for any of us who let things go amiss back home.”
“The refugees display such dignity,” he says. “Yet none of them owns a thing. There is a central depot in the camp, where all the supplies are stored and handed out day by day, but they are given no pocket money.”
The Church regularly celebrates Holy Mass, and holds services of prayer and praise. “We led several such events,” Ms Henry says. “We also held competitions and games for the children and adolescents. They revelled in these; it really helped lift up their spirits.” “And ours,”—that was Mr Asham.
Those who suffer most, according to Mr Asham, are the young men and women. The adults and elderly have faced difficult situations throughout their lives and are confident that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The children are happy enough with their parents around, and respond well to efforts to include them. But the young persons see no ‘future’. They tend to fall easily into depression, and there is no professional therapy available at that level. “So we decided that, instead of offering clothes to them, we’d take them shopping,” he said.
“Oh the joy of being able to choose their own apparel out of the big collection at the shop!” Ms Henry recalls. “Trying on the new clothes, having them packed in a bag, and going ‘home’ with them! Wow!”
The camp appears safe enough; only a guard sits at the entrance. “And this is not to keep out any assailant,” Mr Asham says, “it’s to make sure none of the little ones wander outside.” The Kurdish Peshmerga act as security forces and guard the safety of the whole town.
The refugees left their hometowns on foot; many of them still suffer sore feet and need help. And, as in all refugee camps, disease can spread wildly, Mr Asham says. “Which all underlines the need for more professional health care,” he stresses.
It’s already back-to-school time, and the children are all eagerly going back. Schools have been prepared and will operate three shifts a day to accommodate all the children. The problem, however, is that none of the children, or the refugees at large, have any official papers. This obviously complicates countless matters, and the problem has yet to be resolved.
“There are priorities,” Mr Asham says, “and the immediate priority now is survival. But the matter of identity documents will have to be resolved soon enough since the refugees cannot stay on in Iraq, not with ISIL and its threat so close on their heels. Many will have to immigrate to some western country where they can start new lives, a move they had resisted since Iraqi Christians became fair game for the Islamists in the wake of the Gulf War and fall of Saddam Hussein.”
As winter sets in, the camps will need more amenities. According to Mr Asham, there will be need for thermal rainproof tents, warm clothes and blankets. “And there’s not much time left; winter will be here before we know it.”
Ms Henry feels bitter about many institutions in Egypt that rushed to offer generous aid to Gaza residents yet appeared insensitive to the plight of the Iraq’s Christians. “Does relief stop at Muslim Gaza?” she says. “The misery afflicted on Iraqi Christians is beyond imagination. A mother had her three-month-old baby girl torn from her arms; another had to watch her husband and son killed. And it’s not only the Christians. The Yazidis went through equally gruesome experiences and are now refugees in camps in Dohuk close by.”
According to UN figures, more than a million and 250,000 persons have been displaced in Iraq. All Mosul churches have been destroyed.
“The honour is ours”
“As we said goodbye to the people we had come to love so much,” Ms Henry says, “they spoke of our President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and his brave move of overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood in response to the will of the masses. ‘If we had a Sisi in Iraq,’ they said, ‘we wouldn’t be where we are now. He was sufficiently wise to realise the danger they posed to the nation, and courageous enough to do what he had to do’.”
They also praised Pope Tawadros II for his efforts of rapprochement with all other Churches. “We heard how you in Egypt fasted and prayed for us,” they said, “and for that we are truly grateful.” But no, Mr Asham insists; “we are the ones who owe you gratitude. The few days we spent with you have given us a totally new vision, a perspective of life entirely different from that we had always seen. A new dimension of life has been added to our lives.”
24 September 2014