– 120,000 baptized are still living as refugees after a year of the invasion of their peoples Daesh (Islamic State)
Behnam Benoka is a young Syrian Catholic priest of Ankawa, the Christian Quarter of Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. On the night of 6 to 7 August last year he was in the church of Mar Shmony when refugees began arriving by the thousands. Daesh had begun the invasion of the Christian peoples of the plain of Nineveh, which was mortar hit. Many people, plus room and board, needed medical attention. He was a simple priest, but with some Dominican Sisters and the help of volunteers he stood a small medical clinic. Now he coordinates the help of various organizations to address two clinics. He now shares his testimony with Aid to the Church in Need on what occurred on that tragic day, and calls for a solution for the lack of dignity to the Christians living in Iraq.
How is the current situation of the 120,000 Christian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan?
It has been a year full of suffering, now people are getting used to living in a situation of begging. Parents are busy all day running after NGOs with open hands to ask them for ‘what falls from the tables of the rich westerners’. Many people have lost confidence in the national and international forces to end their situation.
What is the church doing to help?
The Church, both locally and internationally, has tried to provide food and accommodation. Not only that, it also gives spiritual support and is trying to improve their lives looking for work, education, and economic stability. Satiating the stomach is important, but not the solution. Any solution should serve the dignity of these thousands and thousands of Christian families. Christians have lost their dignity because of the economic and social conditions they face. People were questioning about daily bread, not only for the great need that these people have but because they have become accustomed to a form of miserable life, which is not easy to leave.
Are people expected to return to their homes?
If someone in our situation would have the same desire to return home, a stable, orderly and safe life. Worries about the future make us think that leaving everything and starting from scratch somewhere else would be for the best. When we think about the release of the plain of Nineveh, we wonder if there will be someone who can protect the lives of our children, who can guarantee the Christians of Iraq a safe and dignified life from now on. We wonder what the hopeless future of our people is, are we under Kurdish domination, Sunni or Shiite? Will we have Christian leaders? This is a big problem that leads us to think in the demographic change of the Christian peoples of the plain of Nineveh, that Shiites exercised by government especially in the last 12years. At this time they have favored Sabak, Shia Muslims of Nineveh. So, what can we do? Wait again for another political and military conflict?
What is your work with refugees?
With God’s help, this year, along with the Dominican Sister Diana, we have founded a clinic for refugees. We inaugurated the clinic this August 8, 2014, just two days after our escape from the hands of Daesh. This has been the first clinic for refugees, at first it was a tent. Now we are located in a building that belongs to the Archbishop of Erbil. Besides this, I am giving spiritual support and attending to the pastoral’s various works in the parish, resembling the other priests.
How did you start the task of health care for refugees?
One day before starting the clinic, I was in the church of Mar Shmony in Ankawa, serving people who came fleeing from the Jihadists. Thousands had reached this church. Then a lady came up to me and said: “My son is sick, what do I do?” I did not know what to do, everything was blocked, and hospitals were too far from the church and had no money to buy medicine. At that time appeared another woman beside me, who said she was a doctor and could examine the child. We had nowhere to examine the child. I put a chair on the street and with the light of a mobile phone, she took to examining the child. When she finished examining, the doctor turned to me and gave me instruction for what medicine I needed. The Dominican nuns, several young and I took to the streets searching for Ankawa pharmacies that had that specific medicine. Then I encountered other mothers asking for help as they too had sick relatives. So that day I thought we should put a tent and bring several volunteer doctors to care for the refugees. We call this tent “The Dispensary Shmony-Mart.” And after a year, thanks to God and the help of organizations, we were able to ensure the distribution of more than 90,000 prescriptions. In addition to this clinic, in February we opened another in Kasnazan, just outside Erbil, where thousands of refugee families are located.
How does the support offered by Aid to the Church in Need? Surely without the support of Aid to the Church in Need and other Christian organizations our situation would be even worse. Even in bad circumstances, Christians have schools, clinics, markets and have improved conditions for accommodation because we no longer live in tents. This certainly helps push our lives forward. We thank all ACN and Christian organizations. However, the real problem is not yet resolved. The refugees continue to live without human dignity.