Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who have fled to the Kurdish city of Arbil after jihadists seized their villages are camped out in the streets and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
About 80,000 people have arrived in the city in the past week, say local officials, joining the tens of thousands of others who came in the weeks beforehand, swelling Arbil’s population by about 20 per cent and threatening its ability to absorb them.
The Christian quarter of Ankawa is overwhelmed by the influx and its streets are filled with displaced people. Families sit in patches of shade, toddlers clutching water bottles, weary-faced women in dresses and tracksuits exchanging news while anxious men hover nearby.
“It’s really heartbreaking that we don’t see much sign of international aid,” said Joe Stark, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “And while there is no mass movement into Arbil right now, people continue to trickle in.”
The closer you get to a church, the busier the streets become. The crowds swell when they hear that a food delivery is due, and there is a mad rush towards the church gates when it arrives. Later, a stream of people emerge, some carrying crates of water, others with tins of tuna. The churchyard of St Joseph Church is filled with piles of luggage, clothing drying in the sun. All around, there are pale-blue, UN-donated blankets strung up from trees in an effort to provide some form of privacy and shade for the groups of desperate people.
There are refugees everywhere — confused children eating stale bread, mothers wiping their faces or fanning their children in the heat. A few sit in silence, looking stunned. Men crouch in the shade with their families, or carry rubbish to an overfilled dumpster in the middle of the churchyard.
“Thank god that we have the Kurdish regional government taking care of us,” said Nashat Saadoun, a father of five whose family is camped out in the yard. “The church has been a big tent for us.”
Most of the people here have fled from Qaraqosh, a town near Mosul with a population of 40,000 that, until fighters from the Islamic State, or Isis, streamed in last week, was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq. They made up 97 per cent of the town’s population, and could live freely. Now they are among at least 1.2 million Iraqis on the move.
Some had already been displaced from surrounding Christian settlements that had been overrun by Isis, before they had to flee again when the jihadists advanced and took the town last week. “I’ve been displaced twice; first when my baby was just six days old, and again last week. And my daughter is only two months old,” said Mariam Muafaq, another of those sheltering in the churchyard.
With the chance of returning to their homes any time soon a distant prospect, some of the refugees are begging to be given sanctuary in the West.
“The only solution for Christians and Yazidis is to take us outside the country — the United States, Europe, anywhere. I don’t see any future for us here. My neighbour betrayed us. And if you can’t trust your neighbour, how can you stay?” said Abu Ahmad, a father of two.
For the time being, however, leaving is not an option, and preparations are under way for the new arrivals to make their stay in Arbil more permanent. A short distance from the teeming churchyard, a team of volunteers has taken a more organised approach, filling a yard with donated tents and portable toilets.
There is a children’s play area, a huge bucket of ice chilling countless water bottles — and a set of speakers blaring out cheerful music.