Local Chaldeans spearhead effort to help persecuted Iraqi Christians

by Joe Kohn of The Michigan Catholic
Fr. Clarence Burbey, SJ, blesses Esho Putus and his wife, a couple who fled their home in Iraq to seek safety in Jordan. The Chaldean Federation of America has started a program to give financial aid to Iraqis who have had to flee their homeland since the Iraq war.
Chances are, you’ve never had your church burned down by terrorists.
You haven’t seen your pastor, or a family member, killed for being a Christian.
You haven’t been forced under fear of death to leave your job, your home and everything familiar to seek protection for your family in a foreign country — where it’s illegal for you to be.
But if you’re a sponsor of the Chaldean Federation of America’s Adopt-a-Refugee-Family program, the chances are that you know someone in just such a situation, and you’re helping them to survive with the basic necessities of life. The program, run from Southfield, helps minorities — mostly Christians — who were forced out of their homes in Iraq by violence.
“We’re obligated to help,” says Zuher Qonja, a parishioner at St. Joseph Chaldean Parish in Shelby Township, who with his brother Jamal gives financial aid to three Iraqi refugee families. “They were persecuted and pushed out of their homes. There’s just a moral obligation for every Christian to help one another.”
The Adopt-a-Refugee-Family program helps Christian and other minority families who have fled Iraq during the war to seek safety in bordering Syria and Jordan.

The Catholic community has been a significant part of the effort on behalf of the Chaldean Federation of America. The Southfield-based Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle is the diocese for Chaldean Catholics living in the eastern portion of the United States. Of about 160,000 Chaldeans in the United States, about 110,000 of them live in metropolitan Detroit.
‘They don’t deserve it’
In the parking lot behind the Chaldean Federation of America’s Southfield headquarters, Basil Bacall flips through a series of photographs. There’s a kitchen in what looks like a long-abandoned home — crumbling walls, broken tiles, a rundown stove and counter.
There’s a child sitting on the floor in a vacant room, looking up from a modest meal.
There’s an elderly couple sitting on a bed in another almost-empty room, a decaying window in the background.

The photos were from a trip Bacall had taken to Syria and Jordan to meet the refugees. Chairman of the Adopt-a-Refugee-Family program, Bacall had heard the horror stories of families in Iraq having to cross the borders en masse to seek safety in neighboring countries.
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the subjects of the photographs were citizens of Iraq living in relative peace. They had their own homes, own jobs and sent their children to school with few worries.
The violent and largely unforeseen aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, however, changed all that. Christians became the targets of violence and kidnappings. Church leaders were singled out.
Fleeing the country — leaving their lives, and most of their possessions, behind — became the only option for many.
“It clicked with me when I saw these people with my own eyes,” says Bacall. “We need to get the word out and get these people more help.” Having grown up in Iraq and living there until the age of 17, Bacall says he felt all the more blessed at the life he’d been able to build in the United States — he runs a successful development firm in Southfield. He wanted to know what he and others from the United States could do to help.
His answer?
Not enough.
“I’m not a very emotional person,” says Bacall. “But when I saw this, I can’t tell you how many times I cried.
“They don’t deserve it.”
What they deserve, Bacall and others from the Chaldean Federation decided, is help. So they launched the Adopt-A-Refugee-Family Program in August 2007.

Photo courtesy of Basil Bacall
Fr. Clarence Burbey, SJ, blesses an Iraqi refugee as Basil Bacall (center) watches.
The program is similar to several popular programs through which donors can sponsor a child in impoverished countries. Those interested in helping a refugee family pledge a monthly donation, and are matched up with a family or families in Jordan or Syria.
One-time donations also are accepted.
All the peripheral costs of the program are paid for by the Chaldean Federation, so that 100 percent of any donation goes straight to the family in need, with no administrative costs. Having spread the word through Chaldean Catholic churches, publications, television programs and Catholic radio stations, the Adopt-a-Refugee-Family program has garnered enough support to send more than $25,000 in aid to refugee families each month.
By the end of 2008, Bacall says, they hope to be helping 3,500 families with about $100 each per month.
Sense of responsibility
Much of the Detroit-area’s Chaldean population hails from Iraq. Since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians have found themselves targets of terrorist groups.
“Christians in Iraq have paid the heaviest price for this war, unequivocally,” says Bacall. “They’re targeted for their beliefs because (those beliefs) are associated with their invaders.”

Photo courtesy of Basil Bacall | The Michigan Catholic
Fr. Clarence Burbey, SJ, blesses a child of a refugee family from Iraq. The family fled their home to seek refuge in Jordan.
Fr. Clarence Burby, SJ, is a first-hand witness to the results. Born in Baghdad and educated in the United States, he’s been stationed in Jordan since 1993. Part of his ministry is identifying the families most in need of aid from the Adopt-a-Refugee-Family program.
“They could not find security any more in their country,” Fr. Burby said in a phone interview from Jordan. “Some of them just had to leave. Some left their belongings and took off. For some, people were killed in the family. For some, people were kidnapped in the family.”
Unless the Iraqi refugees are wealthy, he explained, they stay in Jordan and Syria illegally. It’s illegal for them to hold jobs. Many, he say, become beggars.
In Syria, Fr. Burby says, the situation has gotten so bad that he’s even seen young ladies sell themselves in prostitution to support their families.
Fr. Burby says there are two ways in which the crisis of minority persecutions in Iraq needs to be addressed. The first is simply through Christianity.
“We cannot live our Christian faith if we have possibilities and we do nothing with them,” he said. “The good citizens in the richer countries need to reflect seriously and prayerfully and do something about it.”
In a broader sense, he said, that attitude has to reach into the public policy of countries such as the United States.
The Chaldean community locally and worldwide have increasingly implored President George W. Bush to do more to protect Christians in Iraq. Many say the United States is responsible for the persecution because, before the U.S.-led invasion, Christians and Muslims were living in Iraq in peace.
“As Americans, we have a moral responsibility for these people,” said Bacall of the refugees. “We started the war.”
The calls for more help from the U.S. military have grown louder in recent months, especially since the death of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho at the hands of kidnappers. The Mosul archbishop’s driver and two bodyguards were killed in an attack in late February, and the archbishop’s body was recovered March 13.
President Bush in an interview with EWTN in April said the U.S. military is committed to protecting minorities in Iraq, regardless of religious affiliation.
Help in the meantime
Though Pope Benedict XVI and other Church leaders have called for an end to the religious persecution in Iraq, few can imagine a quick resolution to the situation.

Photo courtesy of Basil Bacall
Basil Bacall (left) interviews a mother, with her two sons. She and her family benefit from the Adopt-A-Refugee-Family program run by the Chaldean Federation of America.
Still, through the Adopt-a-Refugee-Family program, month-to-month help can be given to those whose lives are in limbo as their homeland has become too dangerous.
Kurtis Zetouna, a member of St. Thomas Chaldean Church in West Bloomfield Township, came the United States in 1978. Though he doesn’t know of a family member who is directly impacted by the war, he feels a sense of family with all Iraqis.
“These are our own people that we’ve lived with for hundreds of years, going back to our ancestors,” says Zetouna, 41, who also volunteers with the Chaldean Federation. “I feel they’re my family. If you can’t help your own family, then who can you help?
“I feel like we’re saving people’s lives by doing this,” he adds. “I can’t think of a more important project to work on.”
Bacall says the Chaldean Federation has received help for Iraqi refugees from beyond just the Chaldean community. The program even received a donation of $50 from a man who is in prison — where he earns just $25 per month for his labor.
For many of the donors, knowing that the entirety of their donation is reaching its intended recipient is an important point.
“It’s a good feeling to know you’re helping someone,” says Zuher Qonja. “And there’s no money going toward any administrative costs, and that’s a great thing.”
In Jordan and Syria, which have seen tens of thousands of refugees cross the border since 2003, the aid appears to help answer an ongoing prayer.
“I pray for it very much,” says Fr. Burby, “that God will help us to continue our work for the poor people of Iraq, and we pray that God will enlighten people who are in power to change.”