Amid impossible conditions, Assyrian orgs fill front lines to help IDPs and refugees

The Virgin Mary Complex in Baghdad is sanitized in March to combat the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of the Assyrian Democratic Movement)

April 22, 2020 | By Joe Snell

CHICAGO — The Virgin Mary Complex in Baghdad is home to roughly 140 families of Assyrian background. Established in late 2014 by the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), the camp for internally-displaced persons has faced mounting financial pressures to remain open from the federal government, and now faces another crisis: keeping its population safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.

IDP camps like the Virgin Mary Complex are especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus because of cramped living quarters and lack of proper sanitation and health care materials, according to a study by the Assyrian Policy Institute (API) earlier this month.  

And the impossible conditions are worsening.

In March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) suspended resettlement departures due to the global pandemic. Other countries placed their own holds on planned refugee arrivals, punctuated on Tuesday by an announcement from U.S. President Donald Trump barring new immigration.

The number of Assyrian IDPs and refugees across the Middle East fluctuates, and although numbers are unclear in Iraq, API estimates as many as 16,000 Assyrian refugees in Jordan and up to 20,000 in Lebanon. 

“As countries drastically reduce entry into their territories owing to the COVID-19 global health crisis, and restrictions around international air travel are introduced, travel arrangements for resettling refugees are currently subject to severe disruptions,” the UNHCR wrote in a March statement

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also disengaging from the region, citing decreased funding and staff support.

As some NGOs retreat, Assyrian-led organizations like the Assyrian Aid Society-Iraq (AAS-Iraq) and the Assyrian Support Committee in Lebanon are filling the front lines to support these under-resourced communities. 

As the virus began to spread across northern Iraq, AAS-Iraq rolled out mobile clinics, medical technicians and volunteers to conduct field examinations. And in March, ADM led a sanitation and sterilization initiative of the Virgin Mary Complex.

AAS-Iraq has since pivoted their efforts to food distribution. Through an emergency grant from the Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A), they provided food items such as rice, sugar, tea and cooking oil to 200 Assyrian families in the Semele district. Despite a strict quarantine and government curfew, aid workers continued distributing food in the villages of Shiyoz, Mesireke, Sorka and the Semele district center. 

“In north Iraq, health systems are fragile and already stretched to provide for the routine needs of the population,” AAS-A wrote on their website. “COVID-19 is increasing pressure on these systems; none are adequately equipped to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.”

The Assyrian Support Committee (ASC), a Beirut-based aid group affiliated with the Assyrian Church of the East, launched an initiative aimed at spreading awareness about the virus and distributing food baskets and hygiene kits to 511 Assyrian families in Bauchrieh, Hadath, Zahle and Ashrafieh. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has intensively worsened an already devastating economic crisis and exposed the inadequacies of Lebanon’s social protection system,” Jack Jendo, a board member of ASC, told API. 

ASC formed emergency response units composed of volunteers in areas with significant Assyrian populations and also created a hotline and online form for families to report symptoms and confirmed cases.

There are currently no reported cases of COVID-19 among the local Assyrian community, Jendo said, and credited early response efforts and support from the NGO Catholic Relief Services for helping spread awareness about prevention measures. 

API Director Reine Hanna said that social media campaigns have been key to spreading awareness, especially for those families living in isolation.

Awareness of the unique challenges facing Assyrians, Yazidis and other minoritized people is critically important, Hanna said, in order to avoid a “humanitarian and security disaster.”

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