Being a Christian refugee from Iraq in Istanbul • Bishop: I cannot resolve all the situations

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By Sébastien de Courtois, Istanbul (Turkey)

The Middle East is a small place. Turkey’s Eastern frontier rubs shoulders with those of Syria, Iraq and Iran. Since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, and since the eruption of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Turkey has found itself to be – willy-nilly – an obligatory land of passage for hundreds of thousands of refugees. Many of these are Christians from Iraq – Chaldeans and Syrian Christians from Mosul and the plain of Nineveh. Some want to travel on directly to Europe and are willing to do anything to cross the forbidden frontiers. These are usually young single people, willing to take any risk, even that of losing their lives. Only at the beginning of November a boatload of illegal migrants capsized just after coming through the Straits of the Bosporus, on their way to Bulgaria. There are so many broken lives, so many hopes in pieces, so many families destroyed. Others travel as families through Turkey and above all through Istanbul, where the immense metropolis draws in and absorbs people from all over the world.

In the Harbiye quarter, if you go to Mass in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on a Sunday morning, you will see all the different layers of emigration by the Eastern Christians at the 8 o’clock Mass. The church is packed. There are hundreds of Arabic speaking Christians who have ended up living in Turkey for months, and even years in the case of the more unlucky ones. They come from Iraq and Syria. Those who are actually at the Mass are no more than the tip of a much larger iceberg. “ It is difficult to know exactly how many Christians there are, since neither the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) nor indeed our own association makes any sort of head count according to religious affiliation. We welcome all those who are in need and come to us”, explains Bishop François Yakan, the patriarchal vicar for the Chaldeans of Turkey. First and foremost Abuna François as he is respectfully called by his faithful, is the founder of a special association which provides humanitarian aid and welcomes the refugees. His organisation, KASDER was set up as long as 10 years ago. “During those years we took in and helped almost 55,000 people; that is to say, they succeeded in leaving Turkey and obtaining an entry visa for a foreign country. But that is by no means always the case; there is plenty of waiting and plenty of setbacks also…”. The sad reality is the life lived by the thousands of people still waiting here in hopes of eventually finding the magic open sesame for Europe or America. In Turkey they have no official right to work. “Sometimes they have to wait for years, and it is terrible for families who have been scattered and dispersed to the four corners of the earth. I cannot resolve all the situations…”. He works in close collaboration with the UN, the Turkish government and other humanitarian associations abroad who are helping him to supply the most immediate necessities.

His office is on the top floor of a small apartment block on the edge of the Tarlaba?? quarter, opposite the British Consulate and overlooking the Chaldean church. The reception office is on the ground floor. Sixteen volunteers, one interpreter and three full-time paid staff take it in turns to attend to the refugees. There is a queue of young people waiting. It is essential to have a passport in order to be recognised as a political refugee in Turkey. They are so well behaved, so humble. “On average we have around 70 visitors each day. I personally welcome as many as I can, particularly the urgent cases”, the bishop continues, rolling up his sleeves. “All the people coming from Iraq have health problems – malnutrition, no vaccinations, heart problems, nervous tensions, chronic depression… We have a special psychological counselling service for the women who have been assaulted”. The main countries offering visas are the United States, Canada and Australia. Europe has closed its doors, except in very exceptional circumstances, as happened this summer (2014) when France and Germany opened their doors to Christians and Yazidis forced out by the Islamists of ISIS from Mosul, Qaraqosh and Sindjar.

(Bishop François Yakan, the patriarchal vicar for the Chaldeans of Turkey with two refugees at the TC Chaldean Catholic Community Center in Istanbul © Aid to the Church in Need)

Amer Bahnan has come here from Mosul with his family. His story is a tragic one. He has been living in Istanbul for a year and a half now. “Life became impossible for my family in Iraq. I went to Syria first of all, then to Lebanon and finally came to Turkey. I have had four operations on my heart…”. He falls silent, and his wife bursts into tears: “We have been living on the road since 2008… We no longer know where to go now. In Iraq everything was taken from us, stolen; we no longer have a house; no money, no dignity, nothing”.
The refugees live in the suburbs, outside the centre, crowded into rented apartment blocks shared by many families, and often in unhygienic conditions. There are no official structures intended for them.

Shortly afterwards, a mother comes in, together with her daughter: “I am a widow, with my five children. We left Duhok 16 months ago. My application has just been rejected by the American embassy…”. She wants to go to Canada, where her brothers are already living. “There is nobody in our family still living in Iraq”, she tells me before getting up to go. Her daughter is being taught by the Salesian Sisters in Istanbul at the Don Bosco school where almost 350 refugee children are being given an education. As for Hassan, aged 27, his story is worthy of a novel. After Baghdad, where he originally came from, he went to Jordan, then to Thailand for two years to try his luck. “I had to leave when my visa expired, because I did not want to try out prison life there… I was working with Arab tourists who needed a guide. I was managing to get by, but here in Istanbul I can’t do anything worthwhile. And yet I don’t have the choice; I need to get to Europe…”.

This living in exile en masse is the fate of the Christians of the Middle East. The land that was the cradle of Christianity is being emptied little by little. “I never imagined that I would witness such a disaster”, says Father Sabah, an émigré priest, originally from northern Iraq. It looks as though, following the dramatic events of the month of August and the occupation of the Christian villages on the plain of Nineveh, the very future of these communities is now gravely at risk. They are now living abroad, in Turkey, in Istanbul, and also elsewhere, scattered right across the whole world. A new wave of refugees is expected in Istanbul. We need to sit up and take note, to learn how to listen to them, to understand their origins, in order to be able to give them a better welcome. Many are deeply traumatised.


Even though Turkey´s Christian population is barely 0.3%, the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has supported 100 projects in Turkey in the last twenty years. A significant amount of ACN´s help has gone towards Iraqi and Syrian Refugees in the Eastern part of the country. Since 2010 ACN donated a total of $190.000,- to the Iraqi refugees, mainly via the Chaldean Church and the Salesian Fathers in Istanbul. The Salesians look after families and are particularly concerned to ensure that the children continue to receive a school education.

ACN has also helped Syrian refugees in Eastern Turkey, since the Crisis in Syria began. From 2013 to 2014 ACN has donated a total of $68,000 – towards their needs.

Editor’s Notes

Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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