ROME – Christian organizations on the ground in the Nineveh valley, a heavily Christian area in Iraq devastated by the 2014 ISIS occupation, have expressed “frustration” with the lack of meaningful work done by the United Nations to help religious minorities and especially Christians in the territory.
According to one representative, the children of Christian families in the town of Teleskof, Iraq, who survived and endured the ethnic cleansing brought forth by Islamic extremists, returned to a school this week allegedly repaired by the UN, only to find it filled with rubble and weeds and lacking the primary necessities.
“The interior of these buildings… there’s nothing done on them!” Steve Rasche, the legal counsel and director of IDP resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq told Crux in an interview. “There’s no power, there’s no water, and there’s no furniture. After three years of disrepair they are filled with all sorts of debris.”
Rasche, who plays a crucial role in the reconstruction efforts for the fewer than 100,000 Christians remaining in the Nineveh Valley, added that the school rehabilitation projects conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) consist “of one thin layer of paint on the outside surfaces of the buildings facing the road.
“The most prominent work appears to be the ensuring that the UN logo got on this work,” he said.
The UNDP is the primary instrument through which the pooled funding from the major donor countries, such as the U.S., the UK and the EU, implement their aid toward the restoration of the Nineveh valley and Mosul in Iraq. But Rasche explained that while reports state that the UNDP has been doing significant work in the Nineveh valley, “we simply don’t see it on the ground in any meaningful way.”
In its 2014 National Human Development Report, ‘Youth: Challenges and Opportunities,’ the UNDP had stated that education and unemployment represented one of the greatest challenges for young people in Iraq and indicated that the youth illiteracy rate was alarmingly high at 13 percent.
Crux reached out to the UNDP, which confirmed that the Ministry of Education in Iraq opened the schools in Telesqof on October 3 and that additional supplies will be sent during the week.
“Getting children back into school is a top priority which is why a number of humanitarian organizations have been rushing to help communities in newly liberated areas get ready for the new year,” said Lisa Grande, UNDP humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.
“It’s terrific to know that children are back at their desks and learning. They’ve been through so much. Schools are the best hope. Children are able to play, learn and aspire to a future.”
Crux has so far been unable to verify whether the conditions of the school have actually improved.
Rasche reported that during the weekend, members of the Christian community in Iraq had been working to clear the building in time for the school opening on Oct. 3. He also underlined that these are Iraqi government schools and thoroughly identified in the restoration process as priority projects, even though no formal support has been offered to get the structures ready for the children.
While admitting that there are well-meaning people in the UN who try to get work done, Rasche pointed to a “disconnect” between the people on the ground in Iraq and the organizations paying for the reconstruction. He gave the example of construction of “a road that is 50 meters long and then it stops,” as one case where the work done had little to no real impact on the community.
Rasche listed as one of the most cogent examples of the “disconnect” the fact that in the July 2017 UNDP fact sheet on the Support for Minority Areas, the organization listed the town of Tel Kaif as a place where the “stabilization work is accelerating.”
“Tel Kaif is an historically Christian town that has been ethnically cleansed by ISIS and is empty of Christians,” Rasche said. “They have a large Sunni population there and the Christians are terrified to go back because of what happened.”
“How disconnected do the people publishing these reports have to be that they don’t even know that that town has been ethnically cleansed of Christians?” he asked.
There have been media reports that since the Chaldean church in Tel Kaif was reopened, the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Raphael I Sako, expressed hope that its displaced population might return. So far, the Christian population of the town remains very low.
To make matters worse, Rasche stated that Tel Kaif has been officially recognized as a safe haven for family members of slain ISIS fighters. “The women and children who have been fully indoctrinated in the ISIS mentality are now there in this town that has been ethnically cleansed of Christians,” Rasche said.
In the same document, the UNDP stated that in November 2016 the organization had opened a “special window” aimed at supporting the Chaldean and Assyrian Christians as well as other religious minorities so that they may have “confidence in their future in Iraq.” But of the 12 towns listed in the fact sheet where reconstruction projects are being implemented, only one, Batnaya, is 100 percent Christian, while the others all have majority non-Christian populations.
Rasche insists that foreign donors “don’t have to take our word for it,” and stated that they should send their own representatives to see the reality of the situation.
“What we are continually faced with is a situation where the people on the ground report back to the UNDP, or the U.S. government or whomever and say ‘there is no work being done here.’ And the response is ‘sure, there is! Look here at this report, it says here there’s work being done. There must be work being done’,” Rasche said.
“One can imagine the frustration from that.”
Christians risk disappearing completely from Iraq unless their precarious situation is improved. The U.S. Senate is currently sitting on a bill, HR 390, which would determine the funding and intervention that will be directed toward improving the communities of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq.
If those funds are issued, Christians in the areas can only hope that they will be used for projects and infrastructure that actually improve their already impoverished quality of life.