Doors to Hope in Iraq

by Lilla Ross

Imagine everyone on the First Coast driven from their homes, sleeping on the streets, desperate for the basic necessities. That’s approximately the number of people displaced in Iraq by the Islamic State.


Cullen Larson, Southeast regional director of Catholic Relief Services, stands center with Bishop Rabban al-Qas (right), Chaldean Catholic bishop of Dohuk and headmaster of Dohuk International Private School, and Dr. Emad Noel (left), Director of Caritas Iraq in Dohuk, and students at the school.

Cullen Larson, Southeast regional director of Catholic Relief Services, saw the chaos and suffering first hand during a recent visit to northern Iraq.

Larson, of Atlanta, spent several weeks helping Catholic Relief Services and its partner Caritas Iraq with their work serving many of the 2.2 million refugees.

As the international humanitarian agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, CRS works in almost 100 countries. Bishop Felipe Estévez is on the board.

A special effort began last summer as waves of refugees fled the advance of the Islamic State, infamous for its beheadings, and other militant groups.

Many travel to northern Iraq, a semi-autonomous region that is home to the Kurdish people. Because the Kurds have their own army, some see it as having been relatively successful in resisting militants.

CRS has about 40 employees in Dohuk who work with 20 employees of Caritas Iraq and 70-80 volunteers, he said.

Those displaced include Christians, Yazidis, Muslims, and others from several ethnic and religious minorities, Larson said.

“When you add the people affected in the host communities who are impacted by the influx and the increased demand for food and housing, it is more like 5 million,” he said. “One million can’t be reached because they are in the middle of the conflict areas.”

About a third of the internally displaced people (IDP) are in camps, which receive some assistance from the government, the United Nations and international aid groups. But the other two-thirds are left to their own resourcefulness, finding shelter wherever they can. And it is these people who are most vulnerable and least served that CRS and Caritas Iraq are trying to help.

Hundreds of refugees have taken shelter in empty, unfinished buildings in Dohuk that were abandoned because of the war.

“These are just shells, concrete walls and floors with no doors or windows,” Larson said. “They are cold and rough. Between four and seven families will live in one house. There’s no furniture, mostly a piece of carpet on the floor and kerosene heat.”

To help make the buildings more habitable, CRS is negotiating with the owners to allow the refugees to live in them for two winters in exchange for modest upgrades, mostly the addition of doors and windows. Refugees with engineering and construction skills provide the labor.

“We have finished 422 buildings, serving more than 12,600 individuals,” Larson said. “We have plans for another 1,000 buildings.”

In addition, CRS provides vouchers and cash so the refugees can buy supplies and clothing to meet the specific needs of their families.

“It’s all done in a very accountable way,” Larson said. “Cash allows it to be flexible and honor their dignity and their right to make choices for themselves. Their needs change with weather and circumstances.”

CRS also is working with local educators to help find classroom space for approximately 700,000 displaced children. Some of them haven’t been in school in nearly a year.

One problem is the difference in language. Most of the IDPs speak Arabic but local schools are conducted in Kurdish, Larson said.

“It’s a real mismatch,” he said.

The other problem is space. About 500 of the schools are used as shelters; another 130 for military purposes; and 200 are in need of repair, Larson said.

“Existing schools are trying to manage by having classes in two or three shifts for different age groups,” he said. “If all the schools were operating at capacity, they would still need 80 new schools to meet the demand.”

In the meantime, CRS is trying to help find child-friendly spaces where classes can be conducted informally, staffed with IDPs who were teachers back home.

“We have found 15 of those spaces and we’re trying to expand that with additional funding,” Larson said.

The needs of the IDPs far outstrip available resources, Larson said. To date, CRS has allocated $11.5 million for its services in Iraq. The funds come from a variety of private and government sources, about a third of the funds come from Catholic donors:

  • 41 percent from Canada and Germany
  • 27 percent from the U.S. government
  • 22 percent CRS funds and private donations
  • 10 percent from Irish and Dutch Caritas

The situation in Iraq is constantly changing and additional displacements are likely, Larson said. But he finds hope in the response of Iraqis like the Chaldean Bishop Rabban al-Qas, who is the headmaster of the Dohuk International Private School.

The school has about 250 students, boys and girls, Christian, Muslim and Yazidi, a religious minority. It’s a four-year English curriculum with free tuition.

“I walked through the halls with the bishop. He was like a long-lost uncle. He knew something about everyone. He’s a very pastoral man,” Larson said. “He is building a new foundation for Iraq that is very diverse and knows how to live together.”

To help:

Donate online at crs.org

By mail: CRS, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, Md. 29703

By phone: (877) 435-7277