In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth.
It’s just another hot afternoon in the front yard of the Mari Lia Church where 700 Christian Iraqis now live. Over a month ago they fled Islamic State militants when they overran their hometown of Qaraqosh. Now they call this impromptu tent city home.
The families are safe now, but concerns are growing over the lasting effects the situation will have on their children.
14 year-old Israr fills buckets of water to take back to her family’s tent. Any thoughts she had about her future have now been lost.
“I don’t think about my future anymore," she said. "I just take everything one day at a time. We want to leave and go abroad because we don’t believe we’ll ever go back home. How much longer do we have stay in this place? How much longer till it’s over?”
In an effort to address this concern, one of the priests, Father Daniel, is now focusing on providing programming for the displaced youth.
“It’s really important to focus on the psychological side of the kids because if we don’t take care of them now they may grow up and have some issues and some troubles with the psychological side,” he said.
In an attempt to capitalize on an otherwise difficult situation, the church has started its own school in the church.
The head priest, Father Douglas Bazi, explains why he’s putting so much effort into these programs.
“I don’t want to be like nightmare to them," he explained. "I want just to pass. And when they remember this situation I want them to remember, “Yes, in difficult time we’ve been learn. When was nothing we be learn. When my parents were scared we be learn.”
In addition, every night for two hours, Father Daniel runs educational classes and activities to help distract the children from the pain and boredom of their new lives.
Local volunteers help out with face painting while others help with drawing classes. And the evening ends with singing and dancing.
But despite the relative safety of his congregation and success of these educational youth programs, Father Douglas fears that the future of Christians in Iraq has come to an end.
“I cannot say we will stay here and fight to the last drop of our blood," he said. "And when it is finished what will we do? It’s blood. It comes one time. That’s it.”
Reporting for this piece was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting