HOW did a female bank owner with US$2 million to her name come to lose everything but the pyjamas on her back?
It was the question 35-year-old Frenchman Benjamin Blanchard asked as he sat in a refugee camp with a woman in pyjamas who had fled from Islamic terrorists.
“She had very beautiful houses in Mosul, maybe many beautiful houses, a lot of big cars, and she had US$2 million in her bank account,” Mr Blanchard (pictured) said.
“She was Christian but she went to the church at certain times in the year, not more.”
But on one particular day, this woman would show a loyalty to the Christian faith that would cost her entire life. ISIS turned up at her door and demanded she convert to the Muslim faith.
“When ISIS came she had a choice, as everybody – she could save all her goods, it was very easy, she just had to convert to Islam,” Mr Blanchard said. “But she decided to save her faith and to keep faith in Our Lord and she decided to lose everything.”
The woman fled from Mosul and became an Internally Displaced Person – the term for a refugee in his or her own country – one of 3.2 million in all of Iraq.
It’s a story Mr Blanchard will never forget and a constant reminder of why he co-founded SOS Chretiens d’Orient (Christians of the East), an organisation rebuilding Christian cities in the Middle East.
In 2013 he watched Islamic terrorists burn Christian churches to the ground in the battle of Maaloula, Syria.
The French government was planning a response – to drop bombs on Syria – but Mr Blanchard and a friend, Charles de Meyer, had another plan.
They would travel to Syria personally and provide emergency aid for the Christians whose lives were destroyed.
Their first humanitarian donation included four tonnes of toys, clothes and blankets for Syrians who had nothing for Christmas that year.
Fast-forward four years, and the the organisation, with the help of more than 1000 volunteers, has built and restored seven schools – with three more in construction – 16 religious buildings including churches, and 10 mobile medical clinics.
They have supported 10,000 families and more living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq who want to stay in their Christian villages.
For now, helping Christians in these countries is the priority.
“We cannot imagine expanding because we have been working with those people since 2014, since the beginning of their flee and now it’s time for them to come back and it’s time for us to help them come back and to finish the job,” Mr Blanchard.
All this work is not without its dangers.
On New Year’s Eve in 2014 Mr Blanchard was with a group inside a restaurant in Aleppo when it started “raining bombs”. The group ran for their car parked in the nearby street.
“There were gunmen who were shooting together because there were an infiltration of terrorists in the city,” Mr Blanchard said.
“We drove very fast to come back to the hotel, and after from the hotel we saw the city from the windows; it was like fireworks.”
These are situations that Mr Blanchard assures his own volunteers will never encounter.
“When we are going to such a place we don’t have volunteers. It’s totally forbidden,” he said.
“Our volunteers are only in very safe places and, for us, the most important thing is the safety and security of our volunteers.
“I think with the help of God that’s why we haven’t had any problem.”
Earlier this year Brisbane Catholic Ora Duffley became the first Australian to volunteer for the organisation, visiting Iraq and Syria with financial support from Australian Catholics.
It was enough reason for Mr Blanchard, who comes from Lyon but lives in Paris, to make his first visit to Australia.
“Ora was the first Australian volunteer, but I hope she won’t be the last one,” Mr Blanchard said.
During his first stop in Brisbane, Mr Blanchard connected with friends and family of his patrons in Iraq. Many are refugees who fled the Middle East when Australia opened its arms to persecuted Christians.
“Yesterday and today I spent time with a Syrian family, they came from a village that I know very well, and they were surprised that someone knows their village, a little village in the middle of Syria,” Mr Blanchard said. “I say that in Syria, and especially in Iraq, Australia is like a dream.
“For a lot of people, it’s their dream to come to Australia.”
But, for others, the dream is not to leave the Middle East but to see it flourish as it did 2000 years ago, and that’s where SOS Chretiens d’Orient come in.
“Qaraqosh was the main Christian city in Iraq,” Mr Blanchard said. “All the Christians – there were around 60,000 in 2014 – fled the city.
“If they don’t come back, if they won’t come back, we can think of it as the end of Christianity in Iraq because Qaraqosh is more than a city, it’s a symbol of Christianity in Iraq.
“If Qaraqosh is not born again all the Christians of Iraq will lose hope.
“For us it’s an emergency to rebuild Qaraqosh.”
When Mr Blanchard leaves Australia next week, he hopes to take with him more than $150,000 in donations, money that will go directly to rebuilding Qaraqosh.
“That’s why I’m here in Australia because we need more money to help people of Iraq to come back and especially to come back into Qaraqosh,” he said.
“I don’t know if Australian people will answer our call but I hope.”
Prayers are also more than welcome.
“I’m waiting for their prayers because people in the Middle East and especially in Iraq and Syria, they feel very alone, isolated,” Mr Blanchard said.
“Sometimes they think that Western countries have forgotten them and don’t know that they ex