As ISIS—or as the Islamic State as they are now calling themselves—continues to invade towns throughout Iraq, hundreds of thousands of residents have fled to find safety. The group is known for brutal enforcement of their strict brand of Islamic law, and has forced many Christians, religious minorities and others Muslims escape the violence by abandoning their homes.
We recently spoke by phone from Erbil with Kathryn Taetzsch, the senior response leader of World Vision’s team in Iraq, who is helping to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced families in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
We understand that you’re working to help those who have fled the violence in the region. How many have displaced?
There are more than 200,000 people who have been displaced within just a week. Overall, in the region, over 1.5 million people have been affected over the last couple months. Additionally to the internally displaced Iraqi population, there are 200,000-plus refugees from Syria who have found refuge and shelter in Northern Iraq from the Syrian conflict. So there is massive movement of population, and people are crowded in shelters that are provided to them.
There are a lot of people that are still along the roadside, moving either in their own car, other means of transportation they could find or by foot in order to find a place where they can stay and where they can feel safe—where their basic needs are actually met. So we have been working with local partners to start up a bigger response than what is currently ongoing.
For these individuals who are displaced, what kind of situation are they facing in terms of access to food, water and shelter?
There is a massive, massive mobilization of the church that is going on right now. And it is very impressive to me, also, that the local host communities are very engaged—local authorities, churches, other faith-based organizations, and just the solidarity of people trying to host people in their homes.
Many people have been welcomed in schools and communal buildings. Many have started to move out from parks or other public places that are in the open space to go into buildings where there is space. These places are very, very overcrowded. I’ve visited numerous places where there are more than 30 to 40 people in one small classroom.
People have access to food and water, but it’s just temporary, and very soon those supplies will run out. Therefore, World Vision, and all the other humanitarian actors, need to respond in order to replenish those items that are required.
Many people could flee with just the basic stuff they had on, like the clothing they were wearing. They just jumped into their cars. Many did not have time to take their ID with them or their money, so they’re very dependent on anyone who is receiving them and providing for them.
The worst is actually the plight of children. There are many, many children who have fled, and they are completely disrupted in their lives, and in their education. Many children were supposed to be in class a couple of weeks ago, but now, obviously they can’t.
Many people who are elderly and people who are chronically ill are severely suffering here every day. Currently, it’s summer. It’s more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s very hot. If you can imagine the overcrowded shelters, the lack of sanitation facilities and the basics, it is very difficult for those with families to get along for a long time. So there’s a really urgent need for international humanitarian support.
Are most of the people in this situation from religious minorities?
There is definitely a large group of religious minorities that have fled, but there is a lot of solidarity among the faith communities, and in the host communities.
Christians of all denominations that are here are receiving those Christians who have fled and are helping them wherever they can in the church compounds. The Yazidis have been very welcomed in many communities that do not have the same faith.
It is a massive mobilization across the faiths, and that is very encouraging to see. We also as Christians should reach out and help and really show people that we are united and can support people by helping them—no matter what their faith is.
Have you seen a lot of churches being converted into shelters?
Absolutely. There is massive crowding in many of the compounds and the churches. I visited another compound here at a church some days ago and they had a park opening around the church, and there were many, many sheltering there. They had put up extra latrines, but this is not a situation where people can live long under the open sky. It’s very hot right now. There is a lack of sanitation facilities. Children are playing near barely finished buildings that are still under construction—there are unsafe buildings for children to run around and play.
People are trying to figure out what they can do in order to take the next step. These people are really traumatized by what has happened. People we’ve talked to started crying when they were asked what would they like to do next, or what would it be like to be free? So it is a very dire situation, and there is a need for long-term solutions. World Vision hopes to address those needs with our partners, but we need support from anyone who can provide some financial resources as well as prayer, because it’s a massive task, and obviously the people here are really depending on the international communities for support.
What do you think that long-term solution would look like?
It is really difficult. The most important would be peace in this region, because people want to just go home and rebuild their lives. As far as we know, there hasn’t been major destruction of buildings, so they could possibly go back very soon.
However, the challenge is that people who are in fear do not necessarily immediately trust that they can return. It is important that all parties work toward peace and reconciliation and that a permanent solution is found. Many of the people said they would like to leave the country, which is understandable, but this is not the solution for this country and for this region. People are very rooted in their traditions, in the locality, so for them to actually go somewhere else overseas is probably not the best solution at this point.
Have any of your team members been affected or threatened at all personally?
We feel very safe here in the Kurdish region of Iraq. We appreciate all the solidarity among the different groups and communities who have come here, people with different backgrounds and faiths.
What’s the best way for anyone who hears about the plight of these people who have fled their homes to support them?
In terms of the impact that can have on these people’s lives right now, if anyone would like to donate, they can through our website, which is www.worldvision.org, or they can also call our hotline, which is 1-888-562-4453.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.