An Iraqi family is one of 35 currently with its own small living space in a church basement in Jordan.

PHOTO | CARL HÉTU

An Iraqi family is one of 35 currently with its own small living space in a church basement in Jordan.

February 23, 2015
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The current refugee crisis in Iraq and especially Syria is the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, says the national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).

Carl Hétu says that is the assessment of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees which is tracking the massive refugee crisis stemming from the wars in Iraq and Syria.

More than three million refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq have registered with the UNHCR, and likely another million have not registered because of fear, Hétu said in a Feb. 5 talk at Edmonton's Assumption Parish Hall.

Another seven to nine million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes during the last three years of civil war, but are not official refugees since they remain in their homeland.

In his talk to about 70 people on a stormy, snowy evening, Hétu spoke of the geopolitical background to the disputes and also put human faces on the refugees from his trip to the Middle East in January.

He recounted his conversation with a man and his family who fled their home in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, settling briefly in two locations before the war again forced them to move on. Finally, they arrived in Lebanon a year ago where there was "absolutely nothing" in terms of resources for refugees.

Safouan and Dalia twice fled the war in northern Iraq, ending up in Jordan where their daughter Mariana was born.

PHOTO | CARL HÉTU

Safouan and Dalia twice fled the war in northern Iraq, ending up in Jordan where their daughter Mariana was born.

"He said, 'All my life I lived a good life. I provided for my family. Now, the last two years before I came here, I felt like nothing because my family for the first time knew what it was to be hungry, and my kids could not go to school.'"

At the impromptu refugee camp, the family is now doing the best that it can, said Hétu.

FLIGHT FROM IRAQ

Then there was the family who fled first Mosul in northern Iraq and then Qaraqosh when Islamic State warriors arrived at the two cities. The man, Safouan, and his wife Dalia sold all their belongings and flew to Jordan. There, a daughter was born, Hétu related.

"They called her Mariana because they believed the Virgin Mary was accompanying them throughout this whole ordeal."

They told Hétu, "Our daughter was born in hell. If we follow our daughter, it can only get better from now on."

PAPAL MANDATE

Pope Pius XI established CNEWA in 1926 to work with Eastern Catholic churches, such as the Melkites, Maronites and many others.

Carl Hétu

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Carl Hétu

Today, as well as supporting the pastoral activities of Eastern churches, the association finds itself providing material support to Christians suffering persecution in many parts of Asia and Eastern Europe.

In the Lebanese camp at which fleeing Christians arrive after a perilous journey across the mountains, CNEWA is supporting schools, providing blankets, stoves and some food. When people arrived there en masse a year ago, there was only one washroom for 35 families. Now, there are water tanks, washrooms and showers.

CNEWA also supports the only orphanage in Gaza. The orphanage, run by an order of sisters, provides a home for babies abandoned by Muslim girls who have become pregnant, often through being raped. While Muslims oppose abortion, if the young mother keeps the baby, she will be killed, Hétu said.

NEW RELATIONSHIPS

In Lebanon, Muslim refugees have come to a city of 25,000 Christians, he said. The sisters who run the school convinced the local residents to send their children to the school in the afternoon so the refugee children could attend in the mornings.

In the evenings, adult Muslims and Christians gather at the CNEWA-funded school. "It creates a new kind of relationship. Even though there's hardship, there's a new relationship."

Hétu said that while the Christian populations of many Middle Eastern countries have declined precipitously in recent decades, he believes Christianity will survive in the region. He outlined many of the major threats and persecutions Middle Eastern Christians have suffered over the past 2,000 years.

"Christians survived all that," he said. "I don't think it's too late for Christians. They'll always be there."