“There are 800,000 refugees in Dohuk,” Hani Andrews, a UNHCR officer told us, “and last year half of their tents blew down during a massive windstorm.”
But big tent cities are not the only place that refugees are housed. Every possible cubby hole in Dohuk has its share of refugees: in an abandoned shopping mall, in wedding halls, in school dormitories and in other buildings scattered around the city and its suburbs.
We visited one of those sites, a wedding/reception center of the Assyrian
Church of the East that houses three floors of refugees, with each family living behind a stack of boxes that separates them from the other.
As an aside, one of our group of pilgrims to Irag, Greg Rhodes, a very competent photographer, has been posting pictures on Facebook over the past week. You’ll find a link to his Facebook Page in the Links: Traveling Team Facebook Updates page of this website.
Unfortunately, the refugees in this building will be obliged to move very shortly. However, the Assyrian Aid Society is preparing an air-conditioned tent city for them (courtesy of the Division of Untouched War Surplus Equipment of the British Army.)
This tent city—The Barnabas Project—is built to withstand high winds, desert heat and winter cold. It has a shared industrial kitchen, a large dining area, central washing machine facility and all the comforts that the British Army would take on the road.
Each tent has a a couple of garden patches laid out in proper regimental form, which would be another fine location to plant seeds of hope.
In other News about Seeds, we also found out, in our discussion with the Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhanna, of the Assyrian Church of the East (and also chief of CAPNI, a Christian human rights organization) that good quality seeds are available from the Kurdish government’s warehouse.
That’s very fortunate for us, given the now eight-mile line of trucks parked on the Highway 430 prior to the Turkish border with Iraq, with delays imposed by Turkish customs inspectors, as part of a generalized harass-the-Kurds effort.
With seeds to be had in Dohuk, Fr. Dale plans to return next week and make his initial large purchases for the project there.
A Brief Interlude about Christians in the Nineveh Plain. The Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq is where the biblical Assyrian capital of Nineveh was located. This area is known as the “Assyrian Triangle.”
The Assyrians are an indigenous Pre-Arab and Pre-Kurdish Christian people, with most following the Assyrian Church of the East and its modern offshoots; the Chaldean Catholic Church and Ancient Church of the East, as well as the Syriac Orthodox Church, Assyrian Pentecostal Church and Assyrian Evangelical Church. They speak, read and write dialects of Eastern Aramaic which evolved in Assyria from the 8th century BCE onwards, and use the Syriac language which also evolved in Assyria from the 5th century BCE, which was the common language in Judea at the time of Jesus.
A Long History of Persecution and Diaspora. In 2003, there were 1.5 million Christians on the Nineveh Plain. After Iraq War II (2003-2014) and the ISIS Onslaught, only 300,000 Assyrian Christians remain. The rest have fled to Jordan, as well as to the United States and Sweden. (from Wikipedia)
This refugee crisis is the last in a long history of persecution. Arabs and Kurds have massacred Christians and destroyed churches for a long time.
As the Archimandrite Emanuel told us: “We Christians in the Assyrian Plain have been under ISIS for 14 centuries!”
The fear expressed to us by many today is that even if ISIS were to be kicked out, they will have destroyed all the infrastructure they’ve left behind, and it will be years before anyone can attempt to rebuild.
At the same time, we were told that there has been many promises of assistance for the Christians in Iraq from Russia, Europe and the USA, but that aid never reached Christians in Assyria. Instead, the only support for them has come from churches, non-governmental agencies, and political parties.
The Christian Militia. We also received the Firehose Treatment, a rapid-fire presentation from Fareed Yacoob Elya, the Chairman of the Dohuk Assyrian Democratic Movement, the Christian Militia.
“After 2014,” Chairman Fareed informed us, “the Kurds did allow the Christians to take up arms and fight ISIS. We now have two battalions in Dohuk and one battalion in Sulaymaniyah, which is coordinating their activities with the Peshmerga government. These forces are only allowed small arms (Kalishnakov rifles). They are a local force to protect the villages, but they have no offensive capability.”
I think that perhaps this may be why we don’t hear much about Christian prosecution in the news. The focus seems to be on the Kurds, and I believe that the newspapers are focused on those who have the guns. It’s easy to report on battles, strategic movements, air strikes because the story is easy to capture…just like a football game. On the other hand, Christian refugees, lacking heavy artillery, are apparently only bystanders to the action and are not worth covering in the news.
The Last Visit. The last refugee site we visited was in a former school dormitory owned by the Assyrian Aid Society. Fifty six families resided in
Return to Diyarbakir. We made it through customs at the border (seven stops again) and out of the region before Turkish troops declared their 7:00PM curfew. (To enforce that curfew we saw lots of tanks, armored personnel carriers and soldiers along the roadway near the border.)
We pulled into Diyarbakir around 9:00 PM and found out that for the previous two nights the Turkish army had imposed an evening curfew as well. Our arrival marked the first time that the curfew had been lifted.
As we sat at the hotel’s outdoor bar, we heard repeated rifle fire in town (which reminded me of the usual evenings in Sanaa in Yemen), and, with that, as we were loading our bags the following morning, a Turkish Police car drove by announcing by loudspeaker that the curfew was to be imposed again that evening.
It was definitely time to get our of town, and, to tell the truth, we felt safer in Kurdistan than we did in southeast Turkey.
A Final Picture from Dohuk. As we drove out of town, we caught a glimpse of the construction site of the new American University. “The Eastern White House,” as it’s known in town…I offer this without comment.