The children of Mosul and the future: the “five-star” refugee camp

de Bernardo Cervellera
In the garden of the parish of Mar Elia beside the tents there are containers that serve as classrooms for the children and as a library. Another serves as a room for sewing. A children’s choir. Fr. Douglas: “Taking care of refugees does not just mean thinking about eating, drinking, medicines, injections, vaccinations … The displaced persons need to do something and to cultivate hope.”

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Erbil (AsiaNews) – Before lunch we visit the refugee camp of the parish of Mar Elias, which is not Elijah the prophet, but a Christian martyr of the Ottoman Empire. There happened to him what has happened to the Christians in Mosul in recent months: the Sultan asked him to recant his Christian faith, becoming a Muslim, or pay the jiziya, the fee for living as a “protected person” of the Islamic empire. He refused both and was killed. The church is used by three communities: the Chaldean, the Syrian Orthodox and the Latin. All three communities have swelled with the arrival of refugees from the different rites. Somehow the persecution has made them even more united: it is the ecumenism of blood of which Pope Francis always speaks.

Fr. Dinkha, who accompanies me on my visits, defines this place of tents and containers as “a five-star refugee camp.” The entire area is clean and tidy; above all, the refugees seem very active. In front of the church we are surrounded by children who are setting in a circle dozens of multicolored plastic chairs for a concert.  Then they start singing Christmas songs, and even Christmas carols in English! Everything happens in a composed manner, without a hitch: everyone is attentive, no words are spoken behind the back, no one gets distracted or is bored.

Once the camp was a beautiful garden with plants and trees that surrounded the church. Now there have remained the stone walkways and a few trees here and there, but most of the space is occupied by tents. At first the refugees, who had just fled from Mosul and Qaraqosh, were hosted in gray-green military tents. Now there has remained only one of them, where Fr. Douglas, the parish priest of Mar Elias and head of the camp, has chosen to set up the nativity set. “A sign of faith,” he says, “but also a sign of memory, to remember how we lived until a few months ago.”

Fr. Douglas explains the idea that gave birth to this style of camp: “When they had just arrived here, the traumatized children were selfish, confused, aggressive: they did not want to do anything and did not share their toys with anyone. They preferred instead to destroy them. Then we decided to involve them in the school and things improved. Maybe they do not like to study much, but they sure have the desire to learn and to know things.

Now all attend a two hour lesson in the morning: mathematics, physics, English, computer, music. In the afternoon, there are other activities: songs (you saw the concert), handicrafts, painting, sculpture with clay. Twice a week they go to the playground and twice a week to the sports center. Children now feel proud and empowered and the aggression is much diminished.”

Before, all these activities were carried out in the tents. But now Fr. Douglas has asked some Chaldean communities in Iraq and abroad to finance container-like sheds, real classrooms, soundproofed, isolated from heat and cold, in which the young people can get together and prepare their future.

In one container, there is a library with books in several languages, where anyone who wants can go to read and browse in silence (as in all decent libraries). In another there are a dozen workstations to teach the use of computers; in another music is taught and how to play musical instruments: at the perimeter of the room and on the walls there are player pianos, guitars, drums and some traditional instruments of the place, similar to the lute or mandolin, but with a longer neck. Another container-room serves for embroidery and is a meeting point for women, “so that,” says Fr. Douglas, “they can pass the time chatting and not be alone in their grief.”

The priest explains more fully his philosophy: “It is the third time that I have faced the problems of refugees: in 1991 [with the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the country was bombed for months -ed.] and in 2004 [after the invasion and the multinational war of Sunnis in Baghdad -ed.] and now.”

“I understood,” he continues, “that taking care of refugees does not just mean thinking about eating, drinking, medicines, injections, vaccinations … The displaced persons need to do something and to cultivate hope. We need not only to feed and care for the body, but also the soul, the desire to be happy, the desire to deal with the adversities.”

There are people who criticize him because they think it is necessary to fight politically or militarily. He instead has decided to focus on the children and the young people: “They are the future of this country. We must nurture and cultivate their creativity.”

In reality, the priest is also very interested in the fate of the families and for the adults he is about to open a counseling center in order, with the help of psychologists, to overcome the traumas and violence they have suffered. He is mainly concerned to hold women in high esteem. “Many of our Christians,” he says, “treat their women under the influence of the Muslims, as their property and leaving them a little to the side. We do everything to give them education, aid, responsibility.”

Close to the container-classrooms stands the village of white and blue tents, semi-cylindrical, halfway between a hobbit house and nursery coverings. In each, separated by a plastic wall or a blanket, live two families, usually related.

We visit some of them: no one speaks of their pain, of what they went through. They all tell of how they live in the camp and invite us to lunch to eat with them. A 19-year-old girl proudly shows her son in swaddling clothes (pictured): he is wrapped in a red and white wool blanket, lying on the ground on a kind of carpet that covers the floor of the tent. The little one, Imad, was born just before Christmas and is the third child born in the camp, in this very nursery-tent.

At some distance from the tents there is the shower area, with separate toilets for men and women. Another container serves as a laundry room: a row of washing machines and dryers for laundry, brand new. The young women know how to use them, but the elderly still prefer to wash by hand: “We are accustomed to it,” they say, “and then it passes the time.”


The older people are the most affected victims in the flight from Mosul: to lose everything and change their lives at 60 or 70 years of age; to live and sleep in tents, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter; the lack of medicine or appropriate care, weakens them; several elderly people have died in recent months. “Some old women,” tells Fr. Douglas, “find much comfort in prayer and in the evening, when the nostalgia becomes more acute, they gather in front of the grotto of Lourdes to pray the rosary. There is one elderly woman that every night passes several hours in silence in front of the statue of the Madonna.”

Leaving the camp, I point out to Fr.  Douglas the cleanliness of the streets and around the tents. He explains that in order to instill a sense of cleanliness, for a time he proposed to the children to collect the garbage and he would “pay with a drink” for a sackful of waste. They all got to work. “Sometimes, just to have a drink, the children went to collect a sackful of waste from outside the camp and brought it to me. I knew it, but I paid them the drink all the same: in the end, in any case, they had cleaned somewhere”.

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