Today’s guest post is by Joe Ware, Christian Aid’s Church & Campaigns Journalist. This piece is taken from his recent interview with Father Jens. Joe tweets at @wareisjoe.
A Swiss monk working with Christian Aid in Northern Iraq has spoken of people fleeing the forces of Islamic State with nothing but their pyjamas.
Father Jens’ Church of the Virgin Mary in the city of Sulayminiyah in Kurdistan, is now home to 160 internally displaced people who have fled for their lives. The church, which normally is the home of just 15 people has had to refurbish three neighbouring homes to shelter the extra numbers.
Father Jens, who himself fled to Iraq from Syria two years ago, said people had been given no time to collect their possessions before being told they had to flee their homes. “Many were informed they had to leave late at night. They had 30 minutes to pack what they could and go. People came with just the clothes on their back, some arrived in their pyjamas. Many people didn’t have a change of clothes so we’ve had to provide basic clothing.”
Despite the hardships facing Christians Father Jens’ thoughts were also with those of other communities. He said: “I have to say that situation of the Yazidi and some of the Muslim refugees is much worse than for the Christians.
“We had three old houses around the monastery, from Christians who are not living there anymore. These houses have not been used for at least two years so you can imagine how they looked. In every house we have nearly 30 people and in one nearly 50 people.”
The church has been supplied with blankets, tents and mattresses from Christian Aid partner REACH. Christian Aid’s Emergency Iraq Appeal has received donations from all over the UK and abroad.
Father Jens said of the support provided by REACH: “You have been the first who have brought necessary food and you helped our people with their health problems. We immediately got tents. We gave some to the Yazidi.”
While new refugees are still entering Sulayminiyah the church is trying to plan for the future. Some Christians are keen to return to their villages to retrieve what belongings they can but it is dangerous as much of the area has been mined. For those that stay, work and more permanent support will need to be found.
Father Jens said: “If they stay there will be a need of apartments and of work. Even assuming they get apartments, many don’t have anything. They will need help to get the basic equipment for the houses and so on.
“The next big thing is probably the problem of education. The school year will start in October. It is very important that education is allowed to carry on. It is a big problem for young students because they have been in the middle of their exams and because of the conflict they couldn’t finish them.
“We have a young medical student here, she was getting ready for her final exams and two of the exams she couldn’t do [because the family had to leave] and now she can’t work because she hasn’t done the final exam. So the question of education will be a big practical problem.”
He added: “But again, the situation of the Christians is better than the Yazidis. Where we have families coming here together, for the Yazidis sometimes there are just kids or individuals on their own and they don’t know if relatives or parents survived.”
The church is doing what it can to create a sense of community and keep families together. Father Jens said: “Sulayminiyah is very safe and the church is protected by guards from the government. At least the children can play here in the alley.”
For more information about Christian Aid’s Emergency Iraq Appeal visit www.christian-aid.org/iraq.