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Kurds mobilise ‘huge’ aid effort

19 September 2014


In need of emergency aid: women refugees are being supported by the Christian Aid partner REACH, which is distributing food to displaced families (below)

In need of emergency aid: women refugees are being supported by the Christian Aid partner REACH, which is distributing food to displaced families (b...

ANN Ward, an emergency programme consultant for Christian Aid, has been based in the Middle East for eight years, and Iraq for five. The recent crisis in Iraq is, she says, "the most horrendous thing I have ever seen".

Speaking on Tuesday from her home in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, she spoke about the "monumental" scale of the suffering in the country, the "empty hopelessness" she sensed among Iraqi Christians, but also the "wonderful" generosity of the Kurds, and the "huge mobilisation" of local volunteers.

"I come from a non-violence background, and even I have struggled with this sense of 'Somebody stop ISIS', because they are so brutal," she said. "The savagery is so abysmal. . . How does one stop such savagery? It does not seem to be able to be mediated, because they are so ferocious."

The influx of Iraqis fleeing ISIS was unimaginable, she said. "Families are looking for tents to live in, because they cannot find a house, or they can't afford it. It's just overwhelming numbers of people with nothing."

This week, the UN reported that the number of internally displaced people within the country had reached 1.8 million. Christian Aid's partner REACH is providing food and other items, and in the next month will be distributing "winterisation kits", a task frustrated by the fluid nature of the displaced population. It is also providing health and hygiene services, and offering vocational training, small business development, and a youth centre offering children's education and arts services.

Both Yazidis and Christians had been welcomed by the Kurish regional government, which was "quite nervous for good reason" about the arrival of militants, Ms Ward said. "Arabs are not nearly as welcome, and have a lot more security to get into Kurdistan."

The "great nationalistic fervour" that had surged in Kurdistan at the beginning of the internal conflict, as the armed Kurdish fighters - the Peshmerga - filled the security gap, had died down, she suggested, perhaps as a result of the formation of a new transitional government and international diplomacy.

Ms Ward said that she had been "very moved and impressed" by the groundswell of Kurdish groups who were organising to help the new arrivals. She gave the example of a church in Kirkuk which had delivered a "monstrous truck of clothes" to Sulaymaniyah. "There is huge mobilisation of groups who are supporting and helping through pure volunteerism."

She said that this spirit of humanitarianism extended to the cause of the Syrian refugee population, which now numbers 23,855 in Sulaymaniyah, UN figures suggest. Christian Aid's partner Asuda, which is dedicated to tackling gender-based violence, has set up a resource centre, and is providing legal, psychological, and social-work support for women from the Syrian refugee community. It is currently engaged in a "major trust-building exercise", going from door to door to interview women about their experiences. It is working with community leaders to address issues such as reports of taxi drivers' harrassing Syrian women.

"It's [gender-based violence and abuse] quite shaming for any culture," Ms Ward said. "We are very carefully coming at it from a protection standpoint of saying that women have a right to live in safety and go to markets without being harrassed."

Attention from men in the street was "much more threatening to young women from outside the culture. . . I don't think it is a Kurdish/Syrian thing; it's a male/female thing." She paid tribute to the three male Kurdish volunteers at the centre, who had come to ununderstand the dynamics of gender-based violence by reflecting on their own experiences of discrimination as a minority.

Asked about the impact of the crisis on people's faith, Ms Ward said that people continued to cite their faith in God as the source of their strength, but that she had sensed "such empty hopelessness" in her visits to church. "I know that there are so many Christians I talk to who are ready to leave. They need safety. They are tired of this persecution."


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