©Aid to the Church in Need
Christian refugee children of Iraq have lost everything. Thanks to ACN they are being remembered this Christmas.
By Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
The Sisters and their helpers work tirelessly, opening cardboard boxes that are stacked, head high, around them. They lift out items of clothing, the plastic packaging rustling loudly as they do so. Piles of clothing lie around them on the floor. Along with the other Sisters and volunteers, Sister Angela, of the Chaldean order of the Daughters of Mary fastens parcels for Christian children. Preparations for this campaign aimed at children aged between two and twelve have been ongoing for weeks and been funded by the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
“The children have an extremely traumatic year behind them. In the summer they were forced to flee from IS and ended up as refugees. We want to bring back a little joy into their lives and so we are putting together a Christmas parcel for each of them,” explains one of the younger Sisters’ who was also forced to flee.
“We had an orphanage in Karamles. Last August, we had to flee for our lives in the middle of the night – eight of us crammed together into a small car. We were terrified.” Now the Sisters are putting together 15,000 Christmas parcels destined foremost for Christian refugee children from Mosul and the Niniveh Plain region, to brighten up their Christmas.
“As well as clothing, such as a tracksuit, the children will receive a small ACN Child‘s Bible and, needless to say, some sweets as well. There will also be a little Christmas crib,” explains Sister Angela, opening another packing case as she speaks. “Each parcel costs around 25 dollars and also contains a Christmas card from our benefactors, in English and in Arabic,” adds Father Andrzej Halemba, ACN’s section head in charge of the projects for Iraq. “In this way it makes it a more personal gift for the children, so that they can see that other people around the world are thinking about them, and so understand that Christian love transcends all frontiers.”
Often it is the children who are hardest-hit by the trauma of flight and expulsion, as Father Douglas Bazi knows all too well. This Chaldean priest runs the Mar Elia Centre in Ankawa, a mainly Christian suburb of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where since August, hundreds of people from the Niniveh plains have sought refuge and are now living in tents. “They arrived here with us, utterly devastated. Many of them have suffered nightmares,” he explains.
“Right at the beginning we gave out some toys, because we wanted to make the children happy – for they had absolutely nothing. But afterwards my colleague came back, quite shaken, and told me that the children had destroyed all the toys. Everyone wanted something for himself and thought he was being left out. As a result it all ended in chaos. It made us realize just what fear and insecurity the children were suffering and just how much aggression there was within them. Since then things have changed greatly. Thank God, they have become much calmer.”
In Shaklava, in the Kurdistan mountains, many children are living in a large hall where once great weddings and family festivities hosted by large Christian families used to be held. There are now hundreds of people living in this one hall. “It is not easy. There is absolutely no privacy, and it is also very noisy. At night the lights are put out at 11 PM, but that doesn‘t mean that things get quieter then. But what else can we do? We are trying to make the best of it.”
Hanna is the mother of four children; the youngest of them is just six months old. A Syrian Catholic Christian, she fled here with her husband and children in August from the town of Karakosh. “We have nothing left; we left everything behind us there.” She goes on to tell us how, in the Christian villages of the plain of Niniveh, Christmas was traditionally a great feast, with people visiting one another‘s houses. “We used to fast on Christmas Eve, making the joy of our Christmas meal was always all the greater for it. We women prepared special meals and sweets. But this year we couldn’t do that. We had no ingredients and, to be honest, we no longer had the heart for it.”
Nonetheless, for her and her family, Christmas has still not been forgotten. “The local Christians here in Shaklava have brought us pastries and sweets. And the Church has organized a big feast for us refugees. The children are looking forward to it.” But her 10-year-old daughter Tamara says she has just one wish above everything: “My biggest wish this Christmas is that I can go back home one day, and play with my friends again. I want to go home. That is the most important thing of all.”