Monday 1 December 2014

“Western silence on genocide against minorities in Iraq is shocking”

Sister Hanan Youssef
Full transcript of my interview with sister Hanan Youssef, of the Good Shepherd Sisters, who works with refugees in Lebanon. News item, in Portuguese, here.

Transcrição integral, no inglês original, da minha entrevista à irmã Hanan Youssef, das Irmãs do Bom Pastor, que trabalha com refugiados no Líbano. A reportagem pode ser lida aqui.

You work in Lebanon. Are you Lebanese?
Yes, I am Lebanese. I was born in the South of Lebanon, near the border with Israel, but I had to leave when I was 8 years old, I couldn't go back, because Israel occupied this area for many years. After the liberation it was taken by Hezbollah. I never saw it again.

Now I am in the Upper North of Beirut, in a Shia Muslim area, but we also have Christians, Sunnis, Iraqi refugees, Syrian refugees, a mixed population.

Are you Maronite?
Yes, I am Maronite, it is the biggest church in Lebanon. It is a Catholic Church. St. Maron, patron of this church, lived in the fourth century. We have always been Catholic. We have our own oriental liturgy, we have married priests, which shocks the Latin rite a little bit, but we are Catholic.

Your main work is with refugees. Are most from Iraq?

The Good Shepherd sisters opened a centre for street children in 2005. In 2006, with the War against Israel, we took charge of a dispensary, a clinic, St. Anthony's clinic. And we welcomed 5000 Shia refugees from an area which Israel bombarded. After that they left and we started to welcome Iraqi refugees, from 2008 to now. All the Christian Chaldean refugees from Iraq came through our centre.

We took a decision as a congregation to be close to this population, because they were very disoriented and needed lots of help, a lot of listening. Their Arabic is a little bit difficult to understand by other NGO's, so they felt more comfortable to come to our centre and all of them, without exception, liked coming here and we took the decision to welcome them, to be beside them and that is why we continue to receive them until today, with the crisis in Mosul, caused by the jihadists, many Iraqis fled Iraq.

In the beginning we welcomed a lot of young couples with their children, they were leaving Iraq forever, but nowadays we are welcoming also elderly people.

Before travelling to Portugal I received a blind woman, in a wheelchair, who is 85 years old. She was forced to leave her home. She was disoriented, very sad, very depressed. I was really sad. I thought to myself, what if it were me, blind and 85 years old, forced to leave my house, my area and all my life behind me? I was really speechless before her.

It is an inhuman situation, This population is forced to leave everything and to flee.

This woman and these more recent refugees are the ones coming from Mossul and the Nineveh Plains... We had heard that many were taking refuge in Arbil, but there are also some travelling to Lebanon?
Yes. When they reach Arbil, if they have money to buy a plane ticket they choose to go to Lebanon and submit a request to UNHCR to get a Visa to go to the West. All of Iraqis dream of leaving Iraq forever. Young people, but now also the elderly, are forced to do it.

Before coming over I also received two young men who came to the dispensary and they were crying: “Sister, we don't need help, we need work”. I listened to them. They said: “Sister, our parents sold everything, jewellery, cars, everything to buy plane tickets for us. We are here now, but we need to bring our family with us. Please help us to find work, to be able to pay for the ticket for our parents.”

Christian refugees in Iraq, fleeing Islamic State
And they were crying. It is unusual to see oriental men crying. I was disoriented and speechless before them, there have been many cases like that.

What is happening in Iraq is genocide. I said that 10 years ago. We are facing a very big genocide in Iraq. It is empty… all the Christians are outside Iraq now. In 1996 there were one million, nowadays we talk about 150.000, it is really a big genocide in Iraq.

Of course there is also a terrible situation in Syria. Do you also have Syrian refugees?
Of course. Our centre receives refugees from Syria, Iraq, other minorities who don't have any place to go. We offer them three kinds of service: Primary healthcare, social help and psychological help.

We have 32 doctors, of all specialities, to help them, because in Lebanon healthcare is private and very expensive, the state is unable to offer the refugees help, because there are four million Lebanese and we received 2.5 million refugees, more than half of the population of Lebanon.

Lebanon has been at war for about 30 years. The entire infrastructure has been destroyed. We don't have enough schools for all the children, enough places in hospitals, enough potable water. It is a big, big challenge.

It is not a developed country, because of the war everything has been destroyed, and to receive so many refugees is a huge crisis. They become poorer and poorer, with no jobs, the Syrian refugees make the society very weak and vulnerable. They are a huge number and among these refugees many jihadists have entered.

The borders are open, with no control, which is why many Jihadists are now in Lebanon, causing trouble, fighting against the Lebanese army, to control a Sunni majority area, as you hear in the news, every day we have soldiers killed by jihadists, and many such things.

The Syrian refugees live in Lebanon with no job. They are killing, stealing, they are violent. They need a place to live but the state is unable to help them and the international community didn't help Lebanon as much as we need. That is why there is really a big, big crisis in Lebanon. That is why we, as the Good Shepherd Sisters, need to be helped. I thank Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which has helped us to face this crisis.

We know that ACN is one source of help, where do you get the rest from?
We have a few others, rich benefactors in Lebanon, who can help a little bit. In terms of healthcare services, the UN gives us about 10% of the budget of the dispensary. The big NGO which helps is ACN, in social issues, basic needs, clothes, milk, diapers for babies, hygiene kits, the basic for these refugees.

It is possible that the crisis in Syria will spread to Lebanon. If this happens, there is Syria on one side, Israel, with a closed border on the other, and the sea. Where will all these refugees, plus the new ones, go? Is there anywhere left to go?

If this happens it will be a big war in the Middle East. Until now Lebanon is still stable in the Middle East, because the army has taken control of the situation. I don't know if the army will be able much longer, because it is a week army after 30 years of war. But if the war in Syria spreads to Lebanon it will be the end of the Middle East and the end of the presence of the Christians in the Middle East. We hope that this will not happen. If it does, it will be very difficult.

Lebanon is the country in the Middle East with the highest proportion of Christians. Do most of the Christians in Lebanon feel a special solidarity with the Christians from Syria and Iraq, or do they see them as a problem that they want to solve?
No, we see them as our brothers and sisters.

Winter is making life even more grim for refugees
They are like us. When the Islamic State took over Qaraqosh and all the Christians from Qaraqosh fled, many coming to Lebanon, the solidarity was exemplary. All the churches in Lebanon appealed and all the Christians collected a lot of food, a lot of clothes, a lot of money to help these refugees. We are poor, but even the poorest family gives something to help. It was really an example of Christian solidarity.

No, we don't see them as a problem, we are present to help them and to help ourselves at the same time. We are all a minority, refugees in the Middle East with this big crisis with the Islamic State. We are afraid, in Lebanon as well. We are waiting and praying a lot. Before coming I was thinking about St. Paul: “For you Lord we are facing all persecutions and all kinds of troubles, but we hope in you because you love us”, and our only hope now is the strength which comes from God.

The Shiites have been defending the Christians in Syria. Does the future of the Christians rely on an alliance with the Shia, including of course Iran?
I don't think so. As Christians in Lebanon, in the Middle East, all our lives I, myself also, lived with Muslims, Sunni and Shia. The Jihadists are not Muslim, in my opinion, they use Islam to spread their ideology. But I don't think that the Christians should count on the Sunnis or the Shias. Citizenship is for all, Christians, Sunnis and Shias. We share this country and we need to be recognized as Sunnis, Shias and Christians. I don't think we should be part of any... we are open to cooperate and share this country with our neighbours. We are not party to any political issues. In my opinion we can't count on any party. We need to cooperate with all the Muslims.

Has the response from Europe been what you expected?
Really I am shocked by this silence. There is a big silence about this genocide in the Middle East against the minorities, not just Christians. It is a big shock for me that Europe is so silent, sometimes to save a dog we have demonstrations in the streets. But every day there are lives destroyed in the Middle East and nobody says anything. It is a big silence and we are shocked. Why this silence? As if Human Life is without value. We are shocked, yes, we need a lot of support from this population, we need them to be awake! Why this silence? I can't understand.

Why are we still sending arms to the Middle East? To the jihadists or to the other parties?

We need them to stop sending arms, to stop the arms trade and then many things would change in the Middle East.

Pope Francis will be speaking to the European Parliament next Tuesday. What would you like him to say about the Middle East?
He is saying many beautiful things. He is the only voice to speak of peace and stopping sending weapons to the Middle East. I would like him to say please give the Middle East Peace. Enough war, enough lives destroyed. Enough children in the street, enough children forced to fight. Enough selling women in the market. Enough! It is inhuman and we need to be more human. I hope that he will awaken the conscience of the European Union.

What has happened in the Middle East is really incredible. We sell women in the market like objects. It is inhuman! Stop, please stop.

There are many different Christian churches in Lebanon. Have they been able to speak in one voice?
I don't know if they cooperate. I think there is much solidarity amongst them to face the crisis. Because it is a very critical moment in our history as Christians in the Middle East, a very critical moment. We stay or not, it is a question of life, of presence in the Middle East, that is why I think all the churches are united to face this crisis. We need to be united and to be close to each other to face this crisis. It is our survival, our life on the line.

Christian refugees in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
Are there members of your congregation in Syria?
Yes. We have two communities in Syria. One in Homs and one in Maaloula, and a third on the border, in the Bekaa valley. The sisters are very afraid for their lives.

They remained in Homs and Maaloula?
Yes. They chose to stay with the population. They risk their lives, but as all the Christians who also took the decision to stay, we need to stay among our people. We can't abandon them. It is not possible.

Many people wonder how they can help. Materially they can give money or goods to Aid to the Church in Need, or other NGO's. In terms of prayer, what would you ask of them? Is there a special saint in Lebanon they could pray to?

Yes. Our patron is Our Lady of Lebanon. Our Lady of Lebanon and Our Lady of Fatima, of course, are the same. We need prayer. Before money, before anything else, we need our brothers and sisters in the Western churches to think about us, in heart and prayer. If we feel that we are supported by our sister churches in the west we will be stronger. We have faith of course. We need prayer, we need presence and we need people to be aware of our persecution.

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