CPT aids refugees seeking safety in Iraqi Kurdistan

Sep 1, 2014 by and

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Christian Peacemaker Teams reports the brutal violence of militant Islamic State forces in Iraq has not changed CPT’s goals of partnering to transform violence and oppression, but it has affected how they go about it.

Yazidi Iraqis who fled the violence of Islamic State forces in the Shangal area are staying in camps in Duhok Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. Christian Peacemaker Teams visited the camp Aug. 15-16. An official at the Peshabur Iraq-Syria border crossing estimated that more than 100,000 people have sought refuge since Aug. 5. — CPT Iraqi Kurdistan

Yazidi Iraqis who fled the violence of Islamic State forces in the Shangal area are staying in camps in Duhok Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. Christian Peacemaker Teams visited the camp Aug. 15-16. An official at the Peshabur Iraq-Syria border crossing estimated that more than 100,000 people have sought refuge since Aug. 5. — CPT Iraqi Kurdistan

CPT has maintained a presence in northern Iraq’s semi­autonomous region of Kurdistan for several years, but recent actions by IS — formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — have triggered a cascade of refugees into the area.

In an email responding to questions from Mennonite World Review, the team described conversations with dozens of refu­gee Yazidi people with common experiences — men killed and women raped by IS; survivors dying without food and water on desert mountains. In addition to internally displaced people, CPT reported an estimated 100,000 people crossed the border from Syria since Aug. 5.

“Even as communities of people with diverse faiths and belief systems overcome old prejudices together to aid the Christians, Yazidi and other minority ethnic groups IS has harmed, the influx of Arab Iraqis into the Kurdish region has increased the anti-Arab sentiments in Iraqi Kurdistan,” reported the team, which includes two Mennonites and one member of the Church of the Brethren.

CPT has worked in Kurdistan for several years to support villagers whose land was taken by the government and given to oil companies, destroying ancestral farmland. The team has produced a video and accompanies groups as they protest destruction of their land and livelihoods.

That work has expanded to listening to and reporting refugee stories. CPT is advocating for Europe, the U.S. and Canada to loosen refugee immigration restrictions.

CPT is also helping Kurdish individuals and groups working to counter anti-Arab sentiment.

“The influx . . . is bringing to the surface old prejudices, often against Arab Iraqis because of the history of genocide against the Kurds by Saddam’s regime,” the team wrote. “Additionally, there is a long history of Yazidis being perceived as heretics and even [being] called ‘devil worshipers.’ There are tensions among Yazidis, Christians, Shabak and several other religious groups that aren’t Muslim with some conservative Muslim groups.”

CPT facilitated delivery of material aid collected by religious and nonreligious groups for people in need of any faith, regardless of ethnic background.

While many nongovernmental organizations are working to address the refugee situation, some groups receive more attention than others. For example, the Christian church in northern Iraq supports all Christians who have fled IS. CPT prioritized traveling to Duhok to visit Yazidi tent camps no other international organizations had visited and wrote a report, available at cpt.org.

CPT is based out of Suleimani, about 100 miles from the nearest IS forces and fighting. The team calls this “a fairly safe distance,” though the Duhok camps they visited were only about a dozen miles from the front line.

“We do not worry about the incursion of IS forces to Suleimani or Erbil; however, tensions are high with the surrounding violence, and there are many rumors,” the team wrote. “People worry about IS sleeper cells or agents within the major Kurdish cities. So far none of the rumors have proved true, and we hope they won’t.”

Long-term solutions

In late August, the U.S. military began a campaign of air­strikes to limit IS forces from deeper incursions into Kurdistan, as well as to protect strategic locations such as a dam in Mosul.

“The violent U.S. response is preventing IS from advancing into more of the Kurdish region and is easing current anxieties,” said team member Peggy Gish. “But it does not deal with the underlying injustice and will in the long run intensify the ongoing cycle of violence.”

CPT executive director Sarah Thompson agreed, noting that 11 years and trillions of dollars after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, strategies of war and sanctions have done little to bring lasting peace.

“It’s a moment for introspection,” she said. “How many of us rely on violent systems to maintain a particular arrangement of life?”
While it is difficult to tell what CPT’s work will be in the future, Thompson said, the organization is not planning to leave Iraq. CPT evaluates its teams every six months, with the next session coming in October.

“We want to be available to people who have that kind of peculiarity in their lives,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan team will continue to advocate for welcome of refugees, supporting access to basic needs regardless of ethnicity or religion.

“This is our nonviolent resistance to what IS stands for and what IS is trying to accomplish here in Iraq,” the team wrote. “They are using violence, hatred and prejudice: killing, raping and abusing people who do not conform to their beliefs. In solidarity with our local partners, we are doing the work of reconciliation and of helping to build the culture of peace that will resist future violence.”

In addition to prayers and donations, CPT supporters can even get involved by visiting Kurdistan on an educational delegation. The next delegation runs Sept. 26-Oct. 10. More information is on the CPT website.


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