Catholic Relief Services photo
CRS staff Kris Ozar, far left, with Bashar. The father of four, a Caritas staff member who once cared for displaced Iraqi families, is now displaced himself.
Catholic Relief Services photo
CRS staff Kris Ozar, far left, with Bashar. The father of four, a Caritas staff member who once cared for displaced Iraqi families, is now displaced himself.

In 2012, local Catholic Pedro Rubalcava was invited by Catholic Relief Services to Ghana as part of a Diversity Outreach Leaders Delegation.

The goal was to learn about the Church's social justice mission and to attempt to "enter into solidarity and communion with our brothers and sisters there," said Rubalcava in a 2012 article after his trip.

One of the relief workers Rubalcava met there, Kris Ozar, who is now serving in Iraq, recently sent the Oregon Catholic a note about the situation in Erbil, Iraq, where Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities are being forced from their homes by militants of the Islamic State.

Militants captured Mosul in late July and Qaraqosh in early August, killing hundreds of people and forcing thousands of Christians, Yezidis and other religious and ethnic minorities from their homes.

The U.S. military began airstrikes against the Islamic State Aug. 8 as well as airdrops of food and water for Iraqi minorities who had been forced to flee. It is estimated 160,000 people have been displaced; many of those who have found safety are in Erbil.

There has been international outcry from Catholic Church leadership, including Pope Francis, who condemned the actions of Islamic State militants in Iraq, saying that persecuting Christians and other minorities "seriously offends God and seriously offends humanity."

Below is the note from Ozar.

Greetings from Erbil in northern Iraq. I write from a place and time of tremendous need. 

The scene around me is dire. Tens of thousands of people—families who just weeks ago lived quiet, middle-class lives—are sleeping under the open sky, in fear. Thousands of Christian families are sleeping on the grounds of Church compounds, finding shade and relief where they can. 

The needs, while basic, are  immense. People need clothes, water, food, soap, blankets—everything. They are living day to day, wondering what tomorrow will bring.

Catholic Relief Services and Caritas are working tirelessly to help. Our Church partners have given thousands of families refuge and are doing their best to provide for their needs. Iraqi communities are coming out to help, too—bringing bottles of water and warm, cooked food. The solidarity expressed by Iraqi families is moving. But what they have to give barely scratches the surface.

The situation got especially personal on Monday. I was visiting a Catholic Church compound in Erbil and was stunned to find one of our Caritas colleagues there, living and sleeping on the grounds among hundreds of other disheveled and displaced people. A few days ago, we learned that the offices of our Caritas partners in another part of the country had to be abandoned because of the violence. Some of our Caritas colleagues were forced to flee their homes and towns, and we had tremendous concern for their whereabouts and safety. 

And here was Bashar, protecting his family, including four children, under a small tree. This is a colleague I had come to know in far better circumstances, a warm-spirited peer. And now here he was, with nothing but the clothes he was wearing when they fled, sleeping on the dirt. We greeted each other warmly, and I sat with him near their small tree. He showed me a video he made with his phone of their harrowing, 10-hour journey. His children were resting on the ground next to us in the only clothes they had.

Despite all that Bashar is going through, I was treated like a guest. They boiled water to offer me tea. Their hospitality was so deeply generous—it reminded me of the grace of humanity.

The questions I am asked by Bashar and families in these Church compounds are, "Where do we go? What do we do?" I tell them that there are people around the world praying for them and doing what we can to help. And I let them know that whatever is to come, we will be with them. I feel confident in saying this because of the incredible support, spirit and reach of our CRS family.

These recent days have brought so much bad news from the Middle East. Desperate families continue to flee the violence in Syria, pouring into neighboring countries. CRS and our partners have assisted 350,000 war-affected Syrians across the region with shelter, food, medical care, and trauma counseling and education for children.

In Gaza, we wait for breaks in the violence to rush in medical supplies and relief kits. As I write this, a cease-fire is holding and we pray it remains. But we know just how fragile the situation is. Despite all of this terrible news, I am hopeful. CRS is committed to meeting the most urgent humanitarian needs in Iraq, Syria and Gaza, and we will remain in each of these war-torn areas for as long as there are families who need help.

But we cannot do this alone. We need your support to expand these critical efforts to more families and communities. Please donate to the CRS Middle East Emergency Fund to help Bashar and his family—and countless others in Iraq, Syria and Gaza.

Please keep these families in your thoughts and prayers. They need our help. They pray for relief. They deserve our humanity. 

With sincere thanks from Erbil,

Kris Ozar
Head of Programming, CRS Egypt and CRS Iraq
Catholic Relief Services