From Iraq: “We will help the refugees get through the winter”

  • Written by:

Michael J. Miller
Interview with Karin Maria Fenbert, Business Manager of Kirche in Not (Aid to the Church in Need, Germany), by André Stiefenhofer
A displaced Iraqi child, who fled from violence by Islamic State militants in Mosul, sits with her family outside their tent at a camp in Irbil Sept. 14. (CNS photo/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters)

Munich (, October 9, 2014). For three and a half days in early October the business manager of the Catholic relief agency Kirche in Not (Aid to the Church in Need, Germany), Karin Maria Fenbert, traveled in Northern Iraq to learn about the current situation of the Christians who fled in August from Mosul and the predominantly Christian villages on the plain of Nineveh as the terror militia “Islamic State” advanced. In this interview with André Stiefenhofer she reports her impressions.

Aid to the Church in Need: Mrs. Fenbert, how are the refugees in Northern Iraq doing?

Karin Maria Fenbert: In the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, Erbil, which I visited, the situation is tense for the refugees: On October 10 school begins again after the long summer vacation. So as not to increase the tensions between the local population and the refugees, the schools in which many refugees are being housed absolutely must be vacated by then for the classes of the local children. Moreover winter is at the door, and many refugees are still living in tents that are not waterproof, some of which are set up on the bare ground. According to onsite reports, the Church alone is caring for these people. So far the State has done nothing for them. Therefore the Church is making every effort to register the refugees, and to issue food and clothing stamps. The tents of the refugees are set up on parish properties. The Church in Iraq is urgently in need of financial support from abroad—and it has to arrive very quickly.

ACN: What specifically do you plan to do?

Fenbert: For weeks, Aid to the Church in Need (Germany) has been in constant telephone contact with the local Church. Even before my trip we designed specific projects so that we could begin already to provide some assistance. Then on site we were able to get a picture of how things stand. Now that further details have been clarified, specific projects have been submitted and also approved. We will help the refugees get through the winter; they should have a permanent roof over their heads, and the refugee children should be able to go to school.

To give a concrete example: within the next two weeks we will finish building a village with houses made out of residential container modules. This settlement is already under construction and will be named “Father Werenfried Town” after the founder of Aid to the Church in Need. There around 4,000 people will find shelter for the winter. Likewise, starting in December, lodgings for the refugees in the vicinity of Erbil will be rented. In order to give parents hope for the future of their children in their own country, we will support the construction of four schools in Erbil and of four additional schools in Dohuk. These buildings too will be made out of weatherproof residential container modules. We were able to tour a model school of this type that is under construction and are convinced that this is a workable concept.

Among the refugees there are also priests and nuns; we will finance a roof over their heads. In addition we will support the one major seminary in Iraq, which now has 28 seminarians, as well as Babel College, currently the only institute in Iraq where theology and philosophy are taught.

For the region around Dohuk there will be food packages for around 8,000 families. Besides that we are preparing 15,000 Christmas packages for children. There are nuns in Erbil, too, to whom we have promised basic assistance, among other things.

With all these projects, of course, we are counting on the generous support of our benefactors in all the countries where Aid to the Church in Need has national offices, particularly in Germany. For after the Second World War we Germans had tremendous challenges in our own country because of the millions of displaced persons and were depending on support from abroad.

ACN: What institutions were you able to visit, and what specific impressions were you able to get about the current conditions of the refugees?

Fenbert: We visited a refugee camp made out of tents. One parish made its property available for this purpose. The local pastor rewards the refugee children for good deed, for example, collecting trash. Therefore it is spanking clean in this tent camp, even though the people there have had to endure the most primitive conditions since early August. For example, eight persons live together in a tent that is about 3 by 4 meters [10 x 13 ft.]. In front of the tent, bathing is done in a bucket, and other business too. The nearest showers are far away.

We also visited a school in which many refugees are housed. I deliberately use the expression “are housed”, because you can’t call that living. For instance twenty-two people were staying in one classroom that measured perhaps 5 by 6 meters [16.5 x 20 ft.]. During the day the thin mattresses are stacked up to the ceiling against one wall. We also saw people lying on their mattresses and sleeping throughout the day in that room. Under such conditions there is no privacy. And the sanitary conditions are poor. A person who comes from outside to get a look at the degrading situation feels anything but well. It must seem to the refugees that they are trapped in a zoo.

ACN: You spoke with the local bishops and the nuncio: what future do they see for Iraq?

Fenbert: The bishops are only reporting what they hear hundreds of people say: the Christians feel betrayed. Betrayed by their central government in Baghdad, betrayed by their former Muslim neighbors, and betrayed also by the international community—they feel that they are being perceived merely as collateral damage in geopolitical power plays. Add it all up, and the bishops feel quite helpless and powerless. Their main focus is on the immediate concern, namely, to do everything they can to make sure that the refugees can survive the winter—and, as far as possible, with some dignity, although under these conditions it is difficult to enable the refugees to have some privacy.

At the moment more than one third of the Christians in Iraq are living as refugees in their own country. They see a future for themselves only if a certain degree of security is created for these Christians in their own country, if fathers of families have a chance to get a job, and if a concerted effort is made to invest in education. The lack of education is one of the main causes for Islamic extremism. And it keeps Christians from making a free decision as to whether they want to remain in Iraq or instead would like to pursue happiness abroad.

(Translated by Michael J. Miller)