In this issue of the newsletter
Update: Christmas for Refugees program exceeds expectations in Iraq
Update: As many as 525 Christian refugee children at each Christmas party
Update: Christmas for Refugees expands in Jordan, as terror attacks increase
New: Christian town of Qaraqosh in ruins; may have Christmas event in 2017
Cultural center used to host Christmas events in Iraq
Hundreds of children at each event: Christmas for Refugees expanded to Iraq in 2015 in response to the capture of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain by the bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in 2014. Many thousands of Christian families were forced to flee their homes in towns such as Qaraqosh which had a population of over 75,000. Most of those families fled to the Erbil area which is the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Huge tent cities were constructed for refugees to the west of Erbil as advancing Islamic State fighters moved to within twenty kilometers – about twelve miles – of Erbil.
The Iraqi army, rebuilt at a cost of $24 billion by the United States, dissolved in the face of the attack and left behind hundreds of millions of dollars of high quality American made military equipment. The Kurdish Peshmerga was finally able to stop the advance of ISIS.
For a year, thousands of displaced Christian families survived in the tent cities. They were slowly moved to one-room trailers, even shipping containers, inside refugee camps in Ankawa, a Christian city next to Erbil. The population of Ankawa tripled, straining the water supply and the power supply. (Now, electricity is available about twelve hours per day.)
The conditions I found were grim when I arrived in Erbil in 2015 to begin the process of holding Christmas for Refugees events in Iraq. At the time I toured the Ashti 2 camp and a larger Catholic run camp in Erbil. I made an initial commitment to host two Christmas events for 300 children each.
Months later, during Christmas week 2015, I returned to Erbil to attend the two Christmas events for Christian refugee children. These were extremely well organized by our ministry partner in Erbil. Sadly though, many hundreds of children were turned away. The events were held inside a temporary church inside one of the camps. The children from the “worst case” families were invited, but many hundreds of children could not attend. I was heartbroken and in tears and vowed that every child in that camp would somehow be accommodated in 2016.
My commitment was fulfilled this year as over 2,000 children enjoyed a real Christmas, with a four hour event inside a larger rented facility. Christmas songs, plays and puppet shows were presented from a stage that allowed children to see and participate easily.
Clowns may seem out of place at Christmas parties for children in the United States, but clowns presenting a skit that expresses a moral, faith-based lesson and then offering a prayer of salvation is a norm for children’s Christmas events in Iraq.
Presentations include a lot of slap-stick humor that brings uncontrollable laughter from the children. The clowns joined by multiple Santas (Baba Noels) keep the children’s minds away from the daily situation they and their families are in as displaced persons.
Every child at the Iraq events received a hot Christmas meal of chicken, rice, yogurt and naan bread. Snacks and juice were also handed out because of the length of the programs in Iraq.
Each child in Iraq also received an age and gender appropriate gift box. The boxes had pink lids for girls and blue for boys, and contained different useful items as well as toys. Volunteers in Iraq filled the boxes.
The volunteer program in Iraq is huge because of the number of children at each Christmas party. On average, fifty volunteers are involved. At all the events in Iraq there were live musicians and singers, not recordings. Ten to twelve people were involved in the Christmas plays and puppet shows.
Food preparation and distribution required the help of just about every adult present including myself. There were a lot of hungry kids grabbing for the food plates.
A Santa helped to pass out the gifts, but with 400 to 500 children in line, he needed help from volunteers including me. Each child had a ticket for a gift to avoid duplication or errors.
The events are highly organized. All children are identified at the camps. Lists are made up with the name of the child, the parents, the town they are from, their church affiliation if known and the number of the trailer in which the family lives at the camp. Each child receives a bus ticket, a meal ticket and a gift ticket.
In Iraq the Christmas parties for the children were held from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM. The meal was served just about at the dinner hour. All Christmas parties in Iraq were held during Christmas week, with the last party held just two days before Christmas Day. The children were reminded during Christmas week of the eternal hope they have in Jesus.
Christmas for Refugees is not just for the children
Hygiene kit distributions: From the beginning of the Christmas for Refugees program, aid and help for the children’s families was one of the main goals. At the first Christmas dinners for the children in Amman, Jordan, “joy bags” were passed out to the families of each participating child. Each large plastic bag held a retail value of about $50 worth of basic and holiday foods to help refugee families.
As the program expanded to Lebanon the large bags of food for families were not feasible because of the need to bus children to many of the Christmas events. At the events requiring busing, vouchers for food at local markets were issued to families.
In Iraq basic food needs were taken care of for the most part by larger church ministries, but other essential needs of the family were not. Local ministries that work daily with displaced Christian families recommended a kit of hygiene materials rather than food. Most of the Christian families who fled the Nineveh Plain and Mosul were robbed of all their belongings by the Islamic State.
Christians who did not escape before the takeover of their towns could take no money, no jewelry, nothing of value — if they were allowed to leave at all. Even wedding rings were stolen by the soldiers of the Religion of Peace who had taken their homes and given them the choice to leave, convert to Islam or die. Many of the young unmarried women were taken as sex slaves.
While most Christian families in the camps in Iraq did have food provided by churches and ministries, they did not have other essential items such as tooth paste, shampoo, hand soap or soap to wash their clothing. The kits we had made up for distribution to the families consisted of (depending on availability) shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, dish detergent, laundry detergent, cleaning disinfectant, tissues, sponges and feminine pads for women.
At the Ashti 2 camp in Ankawa, Iraq our main delivery to the families required two trucks for the hygiene kits. Another truck was required for diapers, since December was also the month for our fourth delivery of 180,000 diapers to displaced Christians in Iraq who had diaper age children.
The hygiene kit distribution occurred at the same time as the diaper distribution, at two separate locations in the camp for displaced Christians. On my way from the hygiene distribution to the diaper distribution I saw a grandmother with these two little ones dressed in Christmas clothing and with diapers in hand, headed back to the one room caravan their family lives in. Diapers for Refugees was a new project of the Religious Freedom Coalition for 2016.
In each delivery for March, June, September and December, 180,000 high quality diapers were distributed to Iraqi Christian refugee families, for a grand total of 720,000. Disposable diapers are necessary because of the lack of facilities to clean cloth diapers in the camps. With prayer and help from Christians in the United States the program will continue in 2017.
Terror in Jordan during our Christmas programs
In the face of terror,Christmas programs were held: The second day I was in Amman, Jordan there was a terror attack in Karak in the south of the country killing ten, including one Canadian tourist, and injuring thirty-four. At the end of the killing spree the jihadists holed up in a Crusader castle that my wife and I had visited in 2012 while doing mission work. Our first Christmas event for the children was scheduled for the same day and went on as planned.
There has been an upswing of terror attacks in once quiet Jordan, as Islamists from Jordan who went to Syria for Jihad are returning. The son of a member of the Jordanian Parliament was a suicide bomber in Syria in 2015. Jordan had been relatively free of these kinds of attacks, and as result security is still lax. The attack in Karak came at a time when the Christmas for Refugees program was expanding beyond the area of the capital city of Amman.
I stopped to monitor events in Lebanon once and in Jordan twice. On my second trip to Jordan a Christmas party was held in Madaba, which is a majority Christian town to the south of Amman near Mount Nebo.
Next year in Qaraqosh: While in Iraq I visited the devastated town of Qaraqosh and delivered aid to the 300-member Christian militia that is guarding it. This town is simply not habitable.
The Islamic State destroyed 25% of the buildings, then burnt out another 50% after they were finished looting. They stole everything, even digging up graves to steal from the dead. There is no power and no water.
If Christians can move next year from their refugee camps back to Qaraqosh and other Christian towns such as Bartella on the Nineveh Plain, they will still have nothing.
Plans are already being made to bring the Christmas for Refugees programs to these towns on the Nineveh Plain in 2017. Pastors of some of the churches who now work in the camps in the Erbil area have been contacted and they do plan to lead their congregations back to their homes.
I cannot begin to express the evil I have seen done by Sunni Muslim groups in Iraq and Syria, not just the Islamic State, but al-Qaeda and al-Nusra and others. I have cried with Christian women who have told me of watching their husbands beheaded, their sons crucified for not converting to Islam, and their daughters taken as wives for Sunni fighters. Many of them were victims of gang rape as well.
Christians in America must speak out to stop the genocide of their Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East. They need our help! Please pray for the Christians of the Middle East. Pray for the children who have seen such horror and suffered so much trauma.
William J. Murray, Chairman
Religious Freedom Coalition, 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW #900, Washington, DC 20004 * (202) 742-8990