BRISBANE Catholic teacher Ora Duffley has returned from a confronting few weeks on mission helping Christian refugees in northern Iraq.
Miss Duffley set off before Easter to join the French Catholic mission SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, working hand in hand with local people and parishes on the ground.
Even though she was well-read on the ongoing war against ISIS, she said nothing could prepare her for what she encountered.
“To see the Blackhawks (military helicopters) and the abandoned buildings … the country is just in ruins, because of war after war,” she said.
Miss Duffley arrived in Erbil where SOSCO teams work with refugee families, mainly Chaldean Catholics and other Christians, who fled from Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plains towns of Bashika, Bartella, Teleskuf, Karemless and Qaraqosh.
They help in whatever way is needed including supplying washing machines, cookers, furniture, water filters, medical and hygiene packs, food, toys for the children and school supplies.
“I have seen children too sick to move, whose families have lost everything and now sleep together on the floor and live on the charity of the Church and the donations of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient,” Miss Duffley said.
While confronted by dismal living conditions, she said the refugee families were “resourceful and resilient”.
“They touch your heart, because they make the best of such a terrible situation which has been cast upon them through no fault of their own,” Miss Duffley said.
“They live in makeshift tents, too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and despite this harsh existence, they smile, they laugh and play.
“But this is no way for a child to grow up, without an education, without a proper home, without loved ones, many of whom have been killed or have simply disappeared since Daesh (ISIS) destroyed their peaceful existence and its soldiers overran the Nineveh Plains in 2014.
“Again and again, I listened through tears, as old women relived the horror of living with ISIS who took their village.”
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 ISIS 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 their war-ravaged region and rebuild their communities.
During her stay, Miss Duffley helped deliver 400 water filters to people returning to the town of Teleskuf. It was a $40,000 project, and one of SOSCO’s most important projects this year.
The filters were partly funded by money she raised in Brisbane, including donations from readers of The Catholic Leader.
“We were able to present them with a means to have clean, safe water,” she said.
“Up until that point they had not had that.
“It was another step forward, another sign of hope that life can get back to normal.”
On Palm Sunday, Miss Duffley travelled to the once-thriving Christian town of Qaraqosh.
“I have read the stories of the atrocities carried out there, but it was overwhelming and shocking to actually see, to actually walk the ground,” she said.
“Nothing prepared me for that and it struck me to the core.
“We stood there, other volunteers and I, in the midst of a bombed and burnt-out church, our tears flowed.
“It had once been the pride of the town, the place at the heart of the town where people had gone to worship, a place they loved.”
Miss Duffley attended a Palm Sunday Mass in the church ruins, the first Mass held there since Qaraqosh was abandoned in 2014.
Returning families filled the church, including women dressed in their colourful traditional clothing, flanked by a special unit of the new Iraqi army made up of Christian soldiers.
“I offered a prayer that one day this city, its people and its churches will once again flourish,” Miss Duffley said.
She intends to return to northern Iraqi to resume her volunteer mission work with SOSCO later this year.
Miss Duffley encouraged other Australians to also take up the volunteer call.
“Volunteers, including tradesmen are particularly needed,” she said.
“Their skills are needed for the massive rebuilding underway. And also to train young Iraqis to have the skills they need to rebuild their villages.
“Just last week in the town of Qaraqosh, the local bishop and priests, in conjunction with SOSCO, laid the foundation stone for the rebuilding of the first 50 houses in the town.”
To donate to help Miss Duffley’s volunteer work, go to https://www.gofundme.com/soslovetoiraq.