By Kathryn Jean Lopez
They are cold and losing hope of returning. They miss family pictures and albums. And their village church.
Winter is setting in for refugees who fled ISIS this summer in Iraq and Syria. Just last week, Chris Seiple was traveling in Lebanon, near the Syrian border, Erbil, and Dohuk, Iraq, and told some of the stories of people he met along the way.
In an abandoned building across from St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil, he finds families who can’t use kerosene heaters because the walls are flammable and whose donated electric heaters “short an electric system not designed for refugee families.”
An abandoned mall houses 413 families:
in such a small space, tensions run high within and among families who have nothing to do, with no schooling for their kids…When ISIS came, Ilias & Raghad fled Karaqosh with their two children, sleeping Mattias and Jovian, with nothing but the clothes they were wearing…now they try to keep hope.
Seiple is president of the Institute for Global Engagement and was traveling in conjunction with The Cradle Fund, an effort recently launched by husband and wife team Mark Burnett (of Survivor fame) and Roma Downey (known best from Touched by an Angel) to help. As Seiple writes:
To lose the presence of Christians in the birthplace/Cradle of Christianity is to accelerate instability in the Middle East. With the region on the brink, those who have fled persecution—including Christians, other religious minorities, and the majority Muslims—need a strategy that works to rescue, restore, and return them to a home where they can practice their faith free from fear. This approach is not only the right thing to do, it is in everyone’s interest to do so for the sake of a peaceful Middle East. To start, we are working to get immediate humanitarian aid to all those suffering.
Q: You were in Iraq last week. What did you see and hear?
A: I met with many folks who have fled ISIS: mostly Christians, but also other religious minorities and Muslims as well. Their story is all the same: they fled in the middle of a hot summer night as ISIS approached. But they can’t flee winter. Their situation is dire, and they need all the help possible to get through the winter. They have now been away from their homes for four months and they are losing hope about the possibility of returning. Their despair is compounded by this twofold fact: they are middle class refugees within an hour or two of their beloved homes. They all had respectable jobs and status in society. They are professors, lawyers, doctors, etc. They had homes and people over for the holidays, just as we do. Now they live in the corner of a basement, or in a 6×10 metal box provided by the U.N., just 30 miles, in some cases, from all that they cherish. The tantalizing tragedy of these folks hurts the most.
Q: What is life like for Christians who fled their homes on account of ISIS this summer?
A: They live in abandoned buildings, churches, and winterized boxes, called “caravans.” They are cold, and the electricity grid available to them was not designed to support this many people. Power goes out all the time. They have nothing to do, and their kids are not in school. Tensions run high within and among families in such situations. They have almost no opportunity to work; which is foremost about dignity. Most importantly, as I heard again and again, they can’t be in their home church. One man said to me, “If you made a church of gold, I would still want my village church.”
Q: Do you see a scenario where they go home?
A: For them to go home requires several factors. First, ISIS must be defeated. Second, there must be the political will from the international community to stand up to those funding the terrorists – which boils down to Shia and Sunnis sources fighting a proxy war in Iraq/Syria. Third, there must be international will – supported by military protection and monitoring – for their return. Fourth, the Iraqi government must allow for a religious minority defense force (e.g., the Kurdish Pesmerga, and/or the reported formation of Sunni militias). Already there is talk of a “Nineveh Plain Protection Unit” (NPU). Key is that these militias are trained according to the same standard – militarily, regarding human rights – such that they are accountable. Related, the Shia militia that have hurt the Sunni communities — producing great grievance that provides sympathy for ISIS, and/or recruits – must have the same standards. Fifth, the Nineveh Plain should probably be a semi-autonomous province under the Iraqi government. At this point, the religious minorities — Christian, Yazidi, etc. – don’t trust anyone. Meanwhile, such a province provides a “buffer” between and among a Shia majority government in Baghdad, the Sunni area, and the Kurdish area. As such, the Nineveh Plain would be the most integrated province in the Middle East.
Q: What on earth does Christmas look like for them?
A: While there is every reason for despair among the Christians, there is nevertheless hope. They have nothing but Christ this Christmas. For some, their faith will grow even stronger. Others, of course, will feel disheartened. In either case, the tangible expression of hope through physical support – e.g., clothing, blankets, winter clothes, money to spend on food, etc. – is a sign that they are not forgotten. And many do feel forgotten by the rest of the world.
Q: Why should we be worried about their winter?
A: It’s cold, and it’s going to get colder. People will die. If there is no help, not only does despair increase, it is also more likely that people will not want to return to their homes…and that is the worst thing possible for the Middle East. Christians as salt among their communities, loving their neighbors, is the kind of example that the Middle East, and the world, needs most.
Q: The president has his end-of-year press conference Friday and this never came up. What do you make of that?
A: There were many national-security issues that did not come up, all of which do not have simple answers. Meanwhile, the larger point of the press conference was to make the simple case that America is resurgent — something that might be clouded by the Middle East’s shades of grey. And thus the irony: If we were resurgent, we would be providing vision and leadership on what to do on many of these issues, or at least creating that space among our allies and friends such that a mutually owned vision could emerge. I was asked repeatedly about American leadership and policy, and I had no good answers. As far as I can see, only the U.S. can encourage and then enable the international will necessary for the near- and long-term.
Q: Why does ISIS hate Christians so much? What do you make of a movement that has no regard for history and beauty?
A: ISIS is an equal opportunity hater. They hate everyone – to include Muslims – who do not believe exactly as they do. They are practicing religious cleansing against the Christians, and genocide against the Yazidis. We are watching Kristallnacht over and over again, which, left undefeated, will lead to the extermination of everyone under their control who does not believe exactly as they do.
Q: Are you confident contributions made to the Cradle Fund help people and make a difference in lives?
A: Absolutely. Through our partners we are reaching the most marginalized people, the majority of whom are Christians. We cannot do enough.
Q: Is there anything else Americans can do to help?
A: Pray for those who have fled ISIS, that they survive the winter. Write your elected leaders: demand American leadership. Give to those organizations that are making a difference on the ground. Give to the Cradle Fund at www.cradlefund.org. Learn more about it and what we do here.