BRISBANE teacher Ora Duffley is putting her faith in God as she prepares for a volunteer mission to help refugees in northern Iraq.
“I have prayed about this a lot. It’s a bit of a scary thing to go but I really trust in God. Being a single woman, I’m able to do this and have really felt a calling to help our brothers and sisters in the Middle East,” Miss Duffley, who will set off before Easter to join the French Catholic mission SOS Chretiens d’Orient, said.
The Brisbane Catholic woman will spend several weeks with displaced Christian families in refugee camps in Erbil.
SOS works hand in hand with local people and parishes on the ground, assisting in whatever capacity they are needed – emergency aid, medical supplies, educational resources, construction tools, food and toys.
The organisation is grounded in prayer as well as practical work.
“For the last two years I have organised messages of love from primary school children. Erbil is where we sent our messages, and so I feel a really strong connection with the people there,” Miss Duffley, who has spent the last decade in Australia and holds dual Irish and Australian citizenship, said.
“I see an opportunity as a Catholic to reach out to them and do God’s work, whether its carrying boxes, playing with children, teaching – whatever it is, my faith inspires me.”
Images of desecrated and destroyed churches, of displaced Christians forced into makeshift camps have shocked Miss Duffley.
“They’re ordinary Catholics like me, but we have the freedom to practise our faith in safety here. My heart goes out to them,” she said.
“They have been in Iraq for centuries living peacefully and contributing to society, but lately they have been driven out of their homes.”
In spite of the instability in the country, of which Miss Duffley is aware, she is committed to helping Iraqi Christians in need.
“If I can support them in even a small way by going there for a few weeks to lend a hand, I feel it my duty to help my brothers and sisters in faith,” she said.
Miss Duffley said she found strength in her mission in the Gospel of St Matthew: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me”.
Western observers concede the future of Iraqi Christians hangs in the balance, even though their presence dates back at least to the third century.
Before 2003, there were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, but estimates now range from 200,000 to 500,000.
About 70 per cent of Iraq’s Christians are from the Chaldean Catholic tradition.
In northern Iraq, it’s estimated that at the time Mosul was invaded by Islamic State in June 2014, only about 3000 Christians were left from the 35,000 there in 2003.
The challenge for international aid groups and volunteers is to make Christians feel safe enough to return to Mosul or the surrounding Nineveh Plains region and rebuild their communities.
“To be honest it is pretty traumatising. But I know their faith is so strong,” she said.
She said she was in contact with a priest from small villages close to Mosul who was trying to encourage his parishioners to return home.
“I know that some of the volunteers from SOS do go to the villages and have been helping with repainting the churches, cleaning them out, rebuilding, and getting rid of all the graffiti that ISIS has left,” she said.
“Some of the statues have been beheaded. It’s absolutely horrific.”
Miss Duffley said one of the volunteer and fundraising efforts was directed at helping villagers get clean water filtering kits, because the water and sewage system had been destroyed.
However, she said the focus for her work with SOS would be helping refugees still living in Erbil.
You can donate to help Miss Duffleyís volunteer work at https://www.gofundme.com/soslovetoiraq
By Mark Bowling