Displaced Iraqis face daily struggle against desperation, boredom

By Simon Caldwell
MANCHESTER, England (CNS) — A typical day for many Iraqi Christians encamped at Ankawa, near Irbil, would probably involve another round of struggle against desperation, frustration, anxiety, boredom and fear.

In email exchanges with Catholic News Service, Sahar Mansour, 40, who lectured in chemistry at the University of Mosul until June, described life in the camp and surrounding settlements of Iraqis who fled advancing Islamic State fighters.

She said the day might begin by waking under the plastic cover of the makeshift tent that has become home.

Then it would be time to pluck the damp clothes, the only set the camp residents own, from a nearby hedge or tree where they were hung to dry after being washed the night before. Most people then join the long line to use a latrine.

Breakfast would follow. This is often prepared by young volunteers among the displaced. Humanitarian assistance from the international community means that food is at last reaching the more than 70,000 displaced Iraqis who live in at least six centers around Ankawa.

The displaced Iraqis appear to be living everywhere. One of the camps is in the frame of a huge building that is under construction, and others have grown up around the local churches — often the first places the new arrivals turn for help.

Many families are living in and around St. Joseph’s Chaldean Catholic Church, while about 650 families live within the boundaries of a Syriac Catholic church.

Mansour visited the Syriac Catholic church Aug. 12 and found that the priests and nuns there were “doing their best to respond to the needs of the people” amid a scene of overcrowding and distress.

“The situation is almost a tragedy,” she said in a mid-August email to Catholic News Service. “The place is too small to contain these families. You see people sleeping in the church, (the) hall, outside the church, under the trees. Others have set up tents to protect them from the heat of the sun and in the park in front of the church.”

“The thing that made me depressed is that diseases are spreading among kids,” she said. “The elderly people cannot cope with the heat, a lot of them were fainting, and deaths are being recorded.”

She said children were crying, while mothers were mourning for lost infants and fathers stood around helplessly.

“It is very painful … when a woman loses a child in front of her eyes,” Mansour added.

But she added the displaced know that they must not give in to the temptation to despair: They sustain themselves as much as possible by the hope that they will eventually be rescued from their awful plight.

Mansour said those in the camps were encouraged by the arrival of humanitarian assistance, including medicine. First aid stations have been set up to treat the weak, sick and injured. Cars also have been provided to take medicine and treatment to those too ill to walk.

Those in the camp must decide how to use their time productively while waiting for their land to be liberated from the Islamic State militants.

Many of the younger camp residents have volunteered for the work that needs to be done to make their camps inhabitable and to care for those who need help the most.

Latrines are being dug around the camps, and portable toilets are being transported in to help to halt the spread of diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

The authorities at St. Joseph’s Church are also building showers on adjacent land so that the camp residents can keep themselves clean.

The displaced Iraqis are making use of the professional skills they have. Barbers, for example, offer haircuts to all of the displaced and a chance for men to shave.

Some of the youths, meanwhile, have volunteered to arrange games and activities for the many children struggling to adapt to life inside the camp.

On one hot evening, paddling pools were filled so that younger children could both play and cool off.

St. Joseph’s priests continue to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments as well as tend to the needs of those camped there.

On Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Christians joined a Marian procession near a statue of Mary by the entrance of Ankawa camp. It was one of the few moments of festivity in the camp, with small reserves of chocolates and sweets shared among children while people prayed and sang hymns, and women “trilled” to express their devotion.

Mansour said the church workers’ main job has been “to help people to forget their grief and sorrow and to make them look forward to the future, hoping that one day God will change their lives and make it better.”