Many families fleeing the villages of Qaraqosh and Bartalla, find refuge in the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan. They do not lose hope.
After ISIS attacks in Syria and in Mosul (Iraq), grenade explosions woke up the residents of Qaraqosh a few weeks ago. Qaraqosh is located 30 kilometers from Mosul, a city in the Nineveh Plains, a biblical region where Christians and Muslims have lived alongside each other for centuries and where they have always shared the same reality: the children attended the same schools, the women did the shopping at the same market and the men had friendly relationships. But things have changed after the ISIS attacks. ISIS militants singled out homes belonging to Christians and marked them in red paint with the letter “N” for “Nazarat,” which means that Christians must convert or die, pay a special tax that non-Muslims under Islamic law must pay for protection, or leave Mosul. Muslims are fleeing their homes too. “No one knows when all this will end,” says 36 year-old Ziad Salem. He has abandoned his home, along with his wife, who is pregnant, and their two daughters.
They found temporary refuge in the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in Sulaymaniyah. They had previously gone to Erbil, then to Lebanon, where they stayed at the house of Ziad’s brother. When they were in Lebanon, they tried to apply for refugee status at the UN Refuge Agency, but one must reside for two consecutive years in the same place and be officially unemployed to be recognized as a refugee. Ziad tried in vain to find a job-opportunity on the black labour market. Deep inside, he still hoped to return home soon. He owned a small clothing store, a car and a house in Qaraqosh. “When I heard that the city was in the hands of ISIS militants, I realized that I had lost everything I had. Some relatives suggested that we find temporary refuge in the monastery of Sulaymaniyah”, says Ziad.
We meet Niveen, a student of medicine , in the courtyard of the monastery. She tells us her story, “It took us six hours to reach Erbil. It usually takes only an hour to get there. My family and I could see just chaos all around us, we were scared. People were running away with terror painted on their face, they did not know where to go.” Niveen now lives together with her family, which consists of ten people, in a room of the monastery.
Father Jens Petzold, who is of German origin, is in charge of the church dedicated to the Virgin in the district of Sabunkaran. Archbishop Sako of Kirkuk, the present Patriarch of the Chaldean-Catholic Church, invited him to come to Suleymaniye in 2011. He accepted. He could not imagine he would face an emergency of these proportions. After the ISIS attacks, people left their towns and many of them arrived in Sulaymaniyah and knocked at the door of the monastery. “The monastery is, at the moment, home to 240 refugees – says Father Jens – and there are many children among them”. A drop in the bucket. According to the United Nations, more than 300,000 people sought refuge in the territory of the autonomous Kurdistan in just one month.
Families occupy every single corner of the monastery, and the inside of the church itself has been divided by curtains to accommodate as many people as possible.
We have also organized educational and entertainment activities for children with the help of many people. “Housing, food and hygiene are among the most urgent needs, – says father Jens – however, in the longer term, we will have to deal with further needs such as the education of children and young people, as well as more decent accommodation for families. Now, given the large number of refugees already living in the monastery, and those who are expected to arrive, we can just provide the basic needs, in the hope that some Eastern Christians may stay in the land of their ancestors, the cradle of Christianity. ” Father Jens continues, “the inhabitants of Sulaymaniyah were extremely welcoming to refugees. Being a Kurd means knowing how it feels to be hated and refused. They have donated blankets, clothes and money.
The refugees at the monastery, look calm but their souls are tormented. Many have been here for several months. Most of them lived a comfortable life in their towns, now they have lost all their certainties . They wonder about their future, they do not know when and if they can go back home. In the last 30 years Iraq has gone through wars, revolts, terrorism. For many Iraqis, violence is still part of daily life. Many families are made up of young people who had recently built their home and now they know that everything they had, was destroyed or robbed. They were able to carry with them only some souvenir family photos. And on top of this they are terribly worried and anxious about the fate of those relatives who are still in the areas controlled by the Islamists.”
Father Jens is a friend and a spiritual guide to refugees. The consecratory thanksgiving in the Mass is a very important moment to the Catholics who live in the monastery. “If a child thanks God for letting his father arrive here safely”- underlines Father Jens – “it means that he can understand God’s will on earth. Muslims pray too. Let’s all pray for this troubled land. Let’s pray for our loved ones who are far away.” Father Jens encourages the refugees to think about the future. “We must give them hope”, Father Jens says, “they must hope they will be able to go back home someday”. Ziad is one of them and he hopes to be able to go back to Qaraqosh. (A.K.)