By Paul Jeffrey
ANKAWA, Iraq — When a colleague and I arrived at the Ashti camp for internally displaced families on the outskirts of Ankawa last month, we asked for the “abouna,” the Arabic word for father, or priest. We were looking for Rogationist Father Jalal Yako, but he wasn’t in his small caravan, the modular container-like building that has become ubiquitous among the displaced in northern Iraq.
In response to my one-word query, people pointed down a crowded passageway. We headed that direction, occasionally querying, “Abouna?” Everyone kept pointing us on, all the way to the toilets. There stood the priest, with several construction workers, remodeling some troubled toilets.
I’m not sure whether Father Yako’s seminary education prepared him for this, but today he’s the de facto mayor of a village of 250 families, about a thousand people. Toilets are just one of his challenges.
When tens of thousands of people fled from the Islamic State’s sweep through Mosul and Qaraqosh in 2014, they came to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they found physical safety. But since they weren’t refugees (they had crossed no international border), they weren’t eligible for assistance from international agencies. Neither the government in far-off Baghdad nor authorities in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan offered much help. It was the church that walked with them as they fled from Islamic State, and the church that struggled to find them food and shelter in exile. Twenty-one months later, the church remains the principal manager of aid. Providing spiritual care goes hand in hand with providing water, sanitation and electricity.
Father Yako is an Iraqi who studied and lived in Italy for almost two decades, but came home to begin a mission in Qaraqosh in 2012. Two years later, he fled alongside the people of the town. His bishop said he could return to Italy, but Father Yako refused.
“As religious, it’s our mission to stay, not to leave,” he told us. “Even though we lost our houses and everything else, it’s for the people that we are consecrated. Now is the most significant moment to continue to serve the people, from the smallest to greatest.”
As the camp took formal shape, Syriac Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul asked Father Yako to manage it. He performed a census and got to work organizing the camp.
“The families are trying to live their lives, but it’s not easy. The camp was made in seven days, like the days of creation, without any preparation. Everything was rushed. The consequences of that came later when it rained. There was no drainage for the water outside, and water and humidity caused problems inside. A caravan is basically just a box, and there are no bathrooms. Instead, there are common bathrooms that always need maintenance,” he said.
On top of those infrastructure problems, Father Yako said the stress of formerly middle-class people living so close together exacerbated normal tensions, provoking aggression and at times mandating that he call the police.
“At times we despair. But we have to support each other and have confidence that the Lord will not abandon us. Kind people have helped us continue. At first, everything here was water puddles and filth,” he said. “But the Lord has his ways and he brings us the right people in the right moments.”
Father Yako expressed confidence that the villages they fled will someday be liberated.
“Just as we left, so we will also return,” he said. “Thanks to God our life here has made us feel like an example to other people and other faiths in Europe and beyond who watch the experience of the people here and are inspired. As a community, we have survived because of their solidarity, the solidarity of churches, friends, and humanitarian organizations. They have contributed a lot, perhaps because they have felt part of our people’s journey. We have resolved many problems here thanks to their help. We have many friends.”