Aid groups scramble to assist influx of Iraqi refugees

At least 20 new families arriving every week since October, when Christians began fleeing Mosul amid a wave of killings, death threats
By Agence France Presse (AFP)
 Jocelyne Zablit

Agence France Presse

BEIRUT: Aid groups are scrambling to deal with an influx of Iraqi Christians who have been pouring into Lebanon to escape a wave of killings against their community back home.

“The number of Christian Iraqis who are coming to us for help has dramatically increased in the last few months,” said Isabelle Saade Feghali of the aid organization Caritas.

“Every week since June we have had about five families on average arriving here and seeking help,” she said. “The problem is huge and the aid is never enough.” The number of refugees has risen even more since October when more than 2,000 Christian families fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul after a wave of killings.

“I have been helping at least 20 new families a week since the start of October,” said Rania Chehab as she distributed blankets, medicine and other aid this week at a Lebanese Chaldean church on the outskirts of Beirut.

The church is one of six venues throughout the country where Caritas has set up a center to help the refugees.

“We have a lot of families arriving now without the men because they were either killed or kidnapped,” Chehab added. “Some of them escape with only the shirts on their back.” “Each has a sad story and you can tell that they have lost much.”

Overall there are between 40,000 and 50,000 Iraqi refugees – both Christian and Muslim – living in Lebanon, which is considered a transit country for most as they seek to resettle in other countries, mainly the United States. The majority are smuggled in from Syria and as such face arrest or deportation since Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

“From a Lebanese perspective they are perceived as illegal foreigners even though we register them and give them refugee certificates,” said Laure Chedrawi, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Beirut.

She said that on average it takes between seven months to a year to resettle new refugees, with the pace picking up this year. “Last year around 470 travelled from Lebanon but this year we expect more than 2,500 to depart, with the majority heading to the United States,” Chedrawi said.

One of those yearning to find a new home in the United States or Australia is Amal Georgis Boutros, 48, who arrived in Lebanon in early November from the Mosul region.

“My husband was shot dead in March by gunmen as he was working in his store,” the mother of three recounted, her voice breaking. “I am now reduced to sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a two-room apartment near Beirut that I share with seven other family members.

“I am in such a state that my hands shake all the time.”

At a small roadside cafe in an eastern Beirut suburb, about two dozen Iraqi Christian men were gathered on Thursday, playing cards, discussing current events and sipping tea.

“I arrived here four days ago with my wife and two kids and I’m willing to go to any country that will take me,” said Saad Youssef Aziz, 45, as he fingered a string of worry beads. “I just want to go to a safe place where I can start over again.” Like many others interviewed, he said he was facing an uphill battle finding decent housing in Lebanon where some landlords are taking advantage of the newcomers by raising prices.

“No one will give me a job here so I sit all day and wait,” said Kamal Hammou, 50, who arrived in Lebanon eight months ago and is hoping to join his four siblings in the United States.

“None of us want to go back to Iraq,” he added.

“We would rather sleep on the streets than go back to a place where the only thing waiting for us is bloodshed.”

At a meeting in Brussels on Thursday, EU nations agreed to try and accept 10,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from Iraq, with Germany – which has focused mainly on Christians – ready to take a quarter of them.

The United States has said it expects to meet the “tall order” of admitting a total of 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of this fiscal year.