Iraqi church hopes to heal trauma of displaced children

Youngsters hug outside Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Ankawa, Iraq, where a camp for displaced Christian families has been set up, July 25, 2016. Children learn skills to prepare themselves for returning to their hometowns and living again alongside Muslims who may have collaborated with the Islamic State group.


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 20, 2016

ANKAWA, Iraq — When the Rev. Daniel Alkhory first asked them to draw their dreams, shortly after they arrived at his church about two years ago, the children drew rockets and bombs, soldiers and Islamic State fighters.

Displaced from their homes near Mosul when militants swept into the country, the children were residents of a camp on the grounds of Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Irbil, the Kurdish region’s capital. Their drawings reflected trauma, anger and a desire for revenge, Alkhory said.

To prepare displaced families for reconciliation and to head off violent reprisals when they return to their communities, Alkhory organized programs aimed at healing their trauma and encouraging their resilience. Music played a notable part.

Six months later, when Alkhory asked them again to draw their dreams and ambitions, they made more hopeful images of judges, engineers, teachers, builders, cooks, doctors and even a pop star.

“That one was inspired by Britney Spears,” Alkhory said, pointing to one 11-year-old girl’s crayon drawing of a singer on stage under a disco ball. “Her songs helped them heal their trauma. They really love her songs. She’s so famous among the children.”

The program includes daily activities such as drama, reading, computer and Bible study classes. But music class and dancing to hits by Spears and other pop stars on YouTube “were like a path” to healing because they helped the children express themselves, Alkhory said.

“When they go to their tents, they don’t know what’s going on except that their mother’s grieving and their father’s shouting,” he said.

“The Christian community is really angry about what the Muslims did to them,” Alkhory added.

That animosity is directed not only at the Islamic State group but also at the once peaceful neighbors who remained and collaborated with the militants. He fears the Christians may seek retribution.

Christian communities in Iraq are among the oldest in the world, dating back to the first century. Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, there were about 1.5 million Christian inhabitants, including several prominent academics, businessmen and senior politicians in the secular Baathist regime. Their numbers have declined precipitously after years of anti-Christian violence and persecution by al-Qaida, Wahhabist groups and other Sunni extremists. Fewer than 300,000 remained before the Islamic State group’s stunning military victories in 2014.

Some Muslims who stayed after the extremists’ onslaught sent messages to the Christians who fled, telling them they’d sold their houses or taken their belongings, the priest said. Rumors of much worse circulate in the camp.

Abeer George, who has lived at the camp since leaving his village with his wife and two children in the summer of 2014, talked of Christian boys who had allegedly converted to Islam and aided the militants by giving them information about the homes of police and security forces to attack.

Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that because of such anger and resentment, re-establishing rule of law and due process in Mosul and surrounding villages will be critical after its liberation.

“You can imagine the type of revenge,” he said. He cited the French resistance’s treatment of women accused of collaborating with the Nazis. “But much worse.”

Alkhory hopes that his programs will prevent such hostility by healing psychological wounds.

During a drama class at Mar Elia in late July, children acted out scenes of forgiveness and sympathy, as well as childhood fantasy. In one pantomime, a rich family mistreats a poor widow and her child, then reconciles with them over a meal. In another brief play, two friends make amends with a girl they had insulted.

A few days later, Fatin Ollo, 20, a volunteer music teacher, was instructing some of the same children to play the violin. She drew the bow slowly across the strings of an imaginary violin and spoke the sound of the note.

“Sooooooo,” she said. In Arabic she told them to try it. “Yallah.”

Music is “special,” said Ollo, who has been teaching displaced children for two years. She hopes learning the language will help them cope.

“They suffered a lot because of Daesh and the hard life here,” she said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “Music gives them hope, relaxes them.”

Many of the children are eager to learn their favorite song, Ollo said. One student, Christine, 11, said her lifelong wish was to hold a violin.

Roughly half of Iraq’s more than 3.5 million displaced civilians are children. Many have more immediate needs than arts classes — such as food, shelter and medical care — but programs aimed at peace-building are a part of the relief effort, said Khalil Sleiman, a response manager for World Vision International, one of the Christian aid groups operating in Kurdistan that has provided assistance at Mar Elia.

“Part of the preparedness ... is to prepare the people to accept each other and live together again,” he said. “I can say the right use of music, sports (and) social activities can make a change.”

“It’s the reason I’m here now” doing aid work in Iraq, said Sleiman, who was once in a similar position. He spent time as a teenager in a relief camp in Lebanon after that country’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Sleiman’s organization has received private funding from a U.S. donor for a one-year project to build up youth leaders with the skills to be peacemakers and breadwinners in the region.

The ultimate goal is to keep the youth from fleeing the country.

At Mar Elia, Alkhory said, the program is being used to prepare youth to improve the world around them by creating solutions to the problems they see.

“We want our youth to stay here” in Iraq, Alkhory said. “We want them to feel powerful.”

There are additional programs to empower adults, too, such as projects to create jobs for the camp’s women. In addition, “facilitators” help people of all faiths — Muslims and Yazidis as well as Christians — to regain something that Alkhory says trauma and displacement destroy: the sense that words have meaning, that there will be justice, and that they are significant.

“They feel like they are a molecule ... a grain of sand,” he said of those who have experienced trauma.

But reconciliation is a two-way street, and Alkhory is concerned about those still under Islamic State influence and the indoctrination they’ve received over the past two years.

“I don’t think we have any problem with the (displaced) children,” Alkhory said. “The trouble is on the other side.”

Twitter: @chadgarland

Fatin Ollo, 20, helps 11-year-old Christine with her finger placement on July 25, 2014 at the displacement camp at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church, where Ollo teaches violin to children of families forced to flee their villages when Islamic State militants arrived. Arts classes are part of the church's effort to help heal the children's traumas and teach them to reconcile with Muslim neighbors. Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes