October 5th, 2015
In recent months, international attention has turned toward Europe’s place in the on-going refugee crises, which is now being described as the world’s worst since World War II. For Iraq’s Christians, a community nearly as old as the religion itself, exile from their homes has not taken them across the globe, but to another part of their own country. Unfortunately, their displacement may be no less permanent than that suffered by those fleeing the region entirely.
In mid-May 2015, we traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan. We spent a day in three cities: the Kurdish capital of Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah. On our first full day in the region, we visited a Christian refugee camp in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, where, accompanied by a translator, Qane’ Kakeiy, we attended a Catholic mass with the camp’s refugees.
Father Emanuel Adel Kalo was leading mass for more than a 100 refugees in the Christian camp of Ankawa 2. What separated the congregation from the sky was not a vaulted ceiling, but rather a thick white tarpaulin printed with the letters and emblem of UNHCR, the United Nation’s main refugee agency.
The Catholic ceremony was central to the camp’s unconventional administrative structure. Shortly after the Holy Communion, the priest stepped out of the tarp to chat with followers, as religious leaders and worshippers do all over the world (albeit under vastly different circumstances).
Father Emanuel also doubled as the camp’s manager. On the evening of Sunday, May 17, he wasted little time after mass returning to a small, portable structure a few dozen yards away, which served as the makeshirt meeting room where he would listen to and work to address the grievances of the displaced people living in the camp. At the meeting room, two Iraqis came to ask for a caravan; others wanted permits to enter and leave the camp more easily.
At Ankawa 2, 1200 families lived in nearly as many government-built container houses – or caravans – laid out on a grid. Father Emanuel told us there was a long waiting list of a thousand other families waiting to be admitted to the camp.
For the 4,500 people living at Ankawa 2, the camp was a relative improvement. All of them had fled from their homes in the Nineveh plain west of Erbil. Many had spent the previous winter in half-constructed buildings, including in an unfinished shopping mall in the Ankawa neighborhood.
Abraham Lalo, sixty-two, is Father Emanuel’s assistant. In the meeting room, Lalo sat beside the priest, as small glasses of chai, a Kurdish staple, were served. A French speaker from his time studying with Dominican priests in Mosul, Lalo was among the thousands who fled the area around the city, Iraq’s second largest, on August 6, 2014 in a desperate attempt to escape violence perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State.
“The road was full of thousands of people and cars,” he recalled in a later phone call, one year to the day after the exodus. “We took only our official papers, leaving everything else behind – our homes, some of our cars…”
It took Lalo eleven hours to travel the forty-five miles from his hometown of Bartella to Erbil.
Many refugees at Ankawa 2 criticized the local Catholic church for not doing more to help. “The church does not pay a penny to us,” said Sabah Shab Mansur, fifty-four, standing in the broad, sun-beaten paths between rows of housing units. His son tinkered with an air conditioner lodged in their window, an important asset in light of the region’s oppressive heat.
Hadi Hadi Shamon, fifty-five, had been in Ankawa 2 with his children for a few months, after spending six months in the abandoned shopping mall. At the mall, he received assistance from the UN, but that stopped as soon as he moved to Ankawa 2. He complained of regular electricity cuts at the camp.
Asked about the UN’s assistance (or lack thereof) to Ankawa 2, Father Emanuel said that “it is the other way around. We help the United Nations. We provide statistics, numbers, lists, but it’s all in vain.”
Other humanitarian organizations from around the world have stepped up to provide some help to Ankawa 2’s residents. Mona Malik, the Iraqi-born vice president of the Assyrian Aid Society, a California-based nonprofit that helps Assyrian communities on Iraq’s borers, visited Erbil in February, and says that UN tarps aren’t necessarily proof of the organization’s presence. Instead, the tarps may simply have become traded goods in a local market.
Ashraf Yacoub, an organizer at a Christian nonprofit called World Vision, explained the situation further, in an email: “in such dire circumstances, it’s not unusual to see some of these goods sold in local markets as families seek ways to earn money for food, medicine, and other needs.”
World Vision provides monthly food vouchers to refugees in Ankawa 2. Until May 2015, each voucher was worth 30,000 Iraqi dinars, or around $25. In order to continue helping the same number of families, World Vision had to cut voucher values to 19,000 Iraqi dinars a month, “which is a huge drop,” Yacoub said in a phone call.
He described the cuts as a result of the “funding reality,” and worried that the number of recipients would have to be pared down in the fall.
According to UNHCR spokesperson Ariane Rummery, the UN would be unlikely to make up for the shortfall. “From UNHCR’s point of view, there is support to the site by private charities and churches and so UNHCR is focusing on sites which don’t have so much support,” Rummery wrote in an email. “There are more than a million IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] in the Kurdistan region of Iraq (with more than 3 million across Iraq) and the needs are enormous.”
According to Jozef Merkx, a UNHCR coordinator in charge of Iraqi Kurdistan, the residents of Ankawa 2 are doing better than most.
“We see that people are doing fine there. People have water, electricity, they have access to education and health,” Merkx said. As for the repurposed tarps, “sometimes IDPs or refugees resell them for some income,” Merkx added in an email. “[T]his is the exception.”
Unlike Ankawa 2, most of the more than twenty IDP and refugee camps in northern Iraq are “what you could call mixed camp,” Merkx explained. This means residents come from various ethnic and/or religious backgrounds, which can sometimes create tensions. Because Ankawa 2 is part of Erbil, there are also more economic opportunities for its inhabitants. Many of the other camps are farther afield, making it harder for residents to survive without support from charitable and humanitarian organizations.
But, for those living in Ankawa 2, life is still far from easy. “We came to Ankawa thinking this would last a few days. Then a few months,” Lalo said. He feared the exile could go on for years still. “Many people are thinking of leaving Iraq, because it’s been so long – too long to think of returning home.”