(RNS) Kris Ozar, 37, is in charge of programming for Catholic Relief Services in Egypt and is now in northern Iraq coordinating the charity’s emergency efforts with other groups, such as Caritas Iraq. He has been working with Christians and Yazidis forced to choose between conversion to Islam or death by the Islamic State.
Ozar spoke with Religion News Service’s Kimberly Winston from Irbil, Iraq, about the challenges refugees face. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The Christian and Yazidi refugees have been rescued from Mount Sinjar. What is the situation where you are right now?
A: From my window, I can see a church compound and it is filled with tents and there are hundreds of people inside those tents. Everyone talked about getting (the displaced people) off Mount Sinjar, and that was an amazing challenge, but what we forget is that the most amazing challenge lies ahead.
Two Yazidis I spoke with yesterday highlight that. One was a man whose entire family is missing. He pulled out his smartphone and started flipping through his pictures. “Dash, dash, dash,” he said as he was showing me his wife, his father, his brother, his niece. “Gone, gone, gone.” This is a man who is trying to start his life over in an abandoned house with four other families and searching for how he can mentally and physically start his life over.
Q: How do CRS and other relief agencies help people who have lost so much?
A: In the short term, we can provide essential food and nonfood items and sanitary services and provide them with shelter. But then we have to ask how do we get them into dignified living conditions? How do we get the children back into school? How do we work with this population to identify the trauma they all have gone through, and how do we help them to restart their lives in new communities? This is a long-term mission. Yes, they are out of harm’s way, but winter is coming and we have hundreds of thousands of people sleeping in tents — if they’re lucky.
Q: You have worked in other refugee hotspots around the world — Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya among them. What, if anything, is unique to the situation among the Yazidis and Christians?
A: The Yazidi are one of the poorest communities in the country. A good part of them ran with only the clothes on their back. These communities were just caught off guard. They were stripped of everything they had.
Q: What would you most like people to know about the situation there that has not been played up in the media?
A: It’s been quite beautiful to see the solidarity of the local communities and charitable organizations coming out. While organizations like CRS and Caritas Iraq were getting started here, local Iraqis were going to the store and buying water and cooking meals for people and just pulling up to parks and other places where people were sleeping and serving meals out of the backs of their cars. And it wasn’t just the wealthy Iraqis, it was all of them playing their part.
Q: What is the long-term future for the refugees?
A: It isn’t just getting people off Mount Sinjar. That was essential and it was horrific, but now it is about the next chapters. How do we accompany these populations to help them rebuild? That is not a box you can tick by sending emergency relief or through one-time government grants. CRS and Caritas Iraq and others are committed to developing a plan on how we can accompany these people. We need to continue to remind ourselves of the plight of the Iraqi people. The machine is in motion, we can help and we can make a difference for the Christians and the Yazhidi as well.
by Kimberly Winston