Iraqi refugees working to help each other survive
Christian refugees take refuge in Erbil, Iraq on August 9, 2014. Credit: Fr. Firas Benham Benoka.
Christian refugees take refuge in Erbil, Iraq on August 9, 2014. Credit: Fr. Firas Benham Benoka.
By Hillary Mast
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.- Christians and other religious minorities who have fled areas in Iraq that have fallen under Islamic State control are now helping one another to survive as refugees, an aid worker said.

“They themselves have been displaced and they’re going around caring for those who are in need, who are in situations like they are,” Todd Daniels, International Christian Concern regional manager for the Middle East, told CNA Aug. 27.

Last week, Daniels was in Iraq, where it is estimated that more than 1 million people have fled from their homes amid the invasion of the radical Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The militant group has taken control of numerous cities and ordered Christians and other religious minorities to convert, pay a tax known as a jizya, or be killed.

The fleeing Iraqis – including Christians and other religious minorities – have sought refuge in other areas, such as the northern city of Erbil.

Daniels said that while the situation is desperate, there is much hope in the way religious communities and refugees are working to improve life there.

“Probably one of the most striking impressions was just the activeness of the local churches,” he said. “From morning to night they’re out there providing aid, providing relief and actually, a lot of the man power, for the groups we were working with by people who themselves have been displaced.”

Aid groups and local churches are working to provide support, but humanitarian needs are “still very, very great.”

Some refugees hope that international security forces will help create a safe haven for Christians and other religious minorities, while others are just trying to grasp the reality that they will most likely never return to their homes.

“There’s really a feeling of not knowing what to do,” Daniels said.

Schools, parks and even unfinished shopping centers have been transformed into temporary housing, sometimes sheltering as many as 700 people. In what used to be a single kindergarten classroom, 25 families – roughly 100 people – have taken up residence, he said.

In one of the make-shift homes in an old school, Daniels described how he met a mother and her 15-day-old baby on one floor and a 95-year-old woman who fled with three generations of her family on another.

“That was just a really striking portrait of the level of people who have been affected by this that have now left their homes and really been forced to leave with basically nothing more, in many cases, than the clothes on their backs,” he said. “Their lives have been turned upside down by this.”

The most immediate need for the refugees in Erbil is basic humanitarian aid, which International Christian Concern and other groups have been giving in the form of food, clean drinking water, mattresses and medical attention. However, with so many refugees, much more aid is needed than is being provided at this time.

“You treat a few and there’s a dozen more that you just don’t have time or resources to get to,” Daniels said.

He also noted that the refugees will soon face a new challenge. Temperatures in Erbil have been averaging 110°F, but with winter just a few months away, the cold will pose a large threat for those living outside.

Those who are able to help can do so by donating to humanitarian aid groups and charities as well as contacting their governments to encourage them to address the situation.

“It seems obvious that the Kurdish government (and) the Baghdad government on their own are not going to be able to deal with the security threat posed by ISIS as well as the humanitarian response,” he said. “So they are going to need very clear leadership from outside governments.”

Tags: Persecuted Christians, Refugees, Iraq, ISIS

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