Christians help where it hurts in Iraq

Focus on the Family Middle East eyes housing, blankets for refugees

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Map courtesy of Global Mapping Intl.

IRBIL, Iraq — Here in a church courtyard, about 30 refugees gather around Egyptian volunteers who have come to help them find what so many in this region have lost – homes.

As Sami Yacoub and his 20-year-old son, Bassel, stand and talk with refugees in the churchyard, the stories pour out: IS troops taking wives and daughters by force in Mosul and selling them as sex slaves to other militants … a couple calling once-trusted neighbors and getting taunted as the neighbors bragged about looting and occupying the couple’s home.

“They are normal-looking people – I can see myself in their situation,” says Bassel, who is studying dentistry in Cairo and spoke via Skype. “And people are so worked up about losing their property, their homes. We heard stories about 3-year-old children being taken from their parents’ arms. We’ve heard stories of parents in the chaos of escaping, forgetting their children. And they’re heartbroken.”

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently likened the expansion of IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to the spread of Ebola through West Africa, calling the group “the world’s other most active and destructive agent.”

“ISIL is the antithesis of human rights,” he said in an Oct. 16 speech in Geneva. “It kills, it tortures, it rapes. Its idea of justice is to commit murder. It spares no one – not women, not children, nor the elderly, the sick or the wounded. No religion is safe, no ethnic group.”

Sami, a self-employed publisher in Cairo and a regional partner of Focus on the Family, says that when he looked at the needs of people who have fled here, two became clear: good housing and warm blankets. With winter approaching, both needs are being felt more sharply.

Many families are living in unfinished, government-owned buildings with cracks in the cement walls. Some are living in basements, where rainwater floods what little space they have. Green, standing water testifies to the lack of proper sanitation systems.

“I have seen places with refugees who have no toilet – they just go behind a wall for the toilet,” Sami says. “The situation is really difficult. Our first concern was to find ways to work with locals to provide housing.”

A tanker truck delivers fresh water to refugees. (Photo by Bassel Yacoub)
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With money that Sami received from donors, he worked with Christian leaders in Irbil to find apartments for 72 families to share at a cost of $1,500 U.S. per family for six months. The team also bought tents at $480 apiece for another 40 families.

Refugees tend to stay in their new hometowns one to two years, just to figure out what to do next, Sami says. So, with that initial round of money now spent, Sami hopes to repeat the effort, plus raise an additional $15,000 to buy 1,000 high-quality blankets. The total goal for this next round of aid is $145,200. The FOTF team is working with a variety of local church leaders to distribute the aid to avoid the appearance of bias to refugees.

“The most common thing that they were complaining about was that a lot of the resources were distributed unfairly,” Bassel says. “The other common thing they all agreed upon, the thing they need the most, is blankets. We’d ask them, ‘Would you prefer we give you food or blankets?’ They went for the blankets, most of them.”

Sami and Bassel might not have found many decent blankets in Irbil, but they found even less animosity toward IS among the Christian refugees – something that both father and son found amazing, given the amount of suffering that the militant group has wreaked on them.

“Their Bible knowledge is very little,” Sami says. “But these people – I was so amazed about their courage. People were saying, ‘We pray that the Lord would touch ISIS people that have persecuted us.’ To me, this is a very special kind of faith. We identify faith by churchgoing. We identify faith by Bible knowledge, what kind of denomination you belong to. This is the kind of faith that abides, confessing Christ as Lord, sacrificing homes. It’s the kind of faith that made people sacrifice everything not to deny Christ.”

To make a donation to Focus on the Family’s Middle East aid effort, contact Sami Yacoub at sami.yacoub@focus-me.org.

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