Since August of this year, the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic church in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan has been home to around 300 families. The families all fled their homes on the nearby Ninawa Plains after extremists from the group known as the Islamic state took control of the areas in which they lived.
At the door of the church today I meet Maan Daoud, a 22 year old, who is guarding the property. I ask him how he’s feeling, as Christmas draws nearer and he tells me, “there’s no atmosphere of celebration here. The only signs of celebration are this tent and the tree next to it”.
He’s referring to a tent that looks out of place among the others here that house the displaced families. It’s known as the “Jesus tent” and it has become something of a landmark with visitors regularly coming to the church to take pictures of the tent.
Daoud left his home in Qaraqosh, a town east of the city of Mosul which is completely under the control of the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group, around four months ago. He says that when he looks at the decorations on the tree and in the tent he is reminded of his home.
“At the same time last year things were so different,” Daoud says. “We were preparing for the holiday. But today we hardly even talk about Christmas. Regardless of what happens though, the children here will continue to celebrate.”
Near the tent there’s a small room that Father Douglas Bazi uses as his office. Bazi is responsible for the church and now the displaced person’s camp on the grounds – or the “guests’ camp” as Bazi prefers to call it out of respect for those who live here now.
In an half an hour interview Bazi went into depth about the trials and tribulations that the families here face on a daily basis, as they go about their lives in tented encampents or half-finished buildings. However he barely mentioned the fact that Christmas was coming.
The Jesus tent was Bazi’s idea. He explained that it had been erected because Jesus Christ had lived a life full of displacement and suffering. “So we felt it would be appropriate to erect a modest tent with a Nativity scene,” Bazi noted. “It is an expression of what is found in the Bible: God pitched a tent here to be close to his people.”
Asked about his Christmas wishes, Bazi looked at a paper Christmas tree that had been made by one of the displaced school students living here and said sadly: “pray for us, help us, rescue us”.
The families living in tents on the church grounds are still living in better conditions than those families finding refugee outside established camps. The number of Iraqi Christian families now finding shelter in Ankawa, the northern part of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil that has traditionally been home to local Christians, has increased massively since the IS group began their assault on the region. Some local estimates suggest there are over 100,000 Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan and many of them are in Erbil.
Not far from Bazi’s church, Samira Yacoub and her three daughters have set up home in a building that is still under construction. The women were making pastries and trying to decorate the unfinished building – it only has walls and no roof – in an attempt to revive their own Christmas tradition.
Yacoub, who is in her 60s, used to live next door to Saa Church in Mosul and she hopes that by next Christmas she might be able to return home. However her daughters don’t agree with her – they want to seek asylum in a country far from Iraq.
They are not the only ones. Teacher George Yacoub and his five-person family have been sharing a 30 square meter tent with another family for the past few months; they live right next door to the Jesus tent at Mar Elia Church.
Yacoub’s family won’t be together at Christmas this year because his relatives have already left for Jordan, where they planned to seek asylum.
“But we don’t feel so bad because there are others who share our tragedy,” Yacoub said.
The school teacher comforts himself with the thought that now he simply has a bigger family, composed of all of his similarly displaced neighbours in tents all around him. Their relationships are not based on only seeing people on happy occasions, Yacoub argues. It’s a relationship forged in the middle of a crisis and all the stronger for it.