In Iraq, aid groups face lockdown constraints trying to help displaced

By Dale Gavlak | Catholic News Service
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Displaced women and children wearing protective masks wait in the medical center of a camp in Dahuk, Iraq, March 7, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. CNS photo/Ari Jalal, Reuters

AMMAN, Jordan — A top Catholic humanitarian group expressed concern for the tens of thousands of Iraqis displaced inside their country and dependent on assistance, because access to them has become severely restricted due to COVID-19.

“The government in the northern Kurdish area of Iraq has been very careful and restrictive (with regard to measures to tackle coronavirus), more so than in central or southern Iraq,” said Hani El-Mahdi, Iraq country representative for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services. El-Mahdi spoke to CNS by phone from the area’s capital, Irbil.

“But access to people is a challenge,” El-Mahdi said of the current situation as most of Iraq faces lockdown in a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19. Iraq has reported 1,434 cases of the coronavirus as of April 17, but some medical professionals claim the number could be higher.

“Travel between cities and within cities in the first two to three weeks was very restrictive. Now, the government is looking into requests (by aid groups) to access certain areas. But still, most of the nongovernmental organizations and Caritas, whom we work with closely, and others in Irbil, we are all under the same situation — we cannot access the population in these circumstances,” El-Mahdi explained.

“People are stranded more than ever,” he said.

El-Mahdi said nongovernmental organizations and the Kurdish government are considering how to change the way groups like CRS and Caritas can operate under the current constraints, perhaps implementing remote systems and various technologies.

The CRS representative said most of the organization’s work in recent years has been aiding the “returnees,” Iraq’s religious minorities, such as Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Shabak, who were victims of the Islamic State militants’ violent takeover of their towns and villages, both in and outside the Ninevah Plain region from 2014 until 2017.

This has involved aiding about 10,000 people by rehabilitating houses and schools, providing people with livelihood opportunities, educational services and training as well as encouraging ways to reconcile different religious and ethnic communities by tackling issues and building social cohesion among those groups.

CRS also works with the Archdiocese of Irbil to assist those still displaced due to the Islamic State invasion who cannot return to their cities or towns.

In the northern city of Dahuk, CRS is helping Yazidis regain educational opportunities and in Zakho, near the Turkish border, it hopes to set up a program establishing livelihood activities.

“The majority of the internally displaced live outside of camps” and in limited measure can access food markets that are functioning, El-Mahdi explained. But restrictions due to the coronavirus mean that no one is permitted to go to offices to work.

“Definitely our travel out of Irbil and Dahuk is very, very limited. Many of our current programs, such as shelter rehabilitation and education, are completely on hold now because schools are closed. Our educational program has been suspended,” he said. “It’s still very limited to where we were in February.”

“Over the past two to three weeks, we have been seriously working with partners trying to restructure many of our program activities, so we can provide some remote assistance, bring cash assistance through mobile money. We are thinking about new ways to help people,” El-Mahdi said.



  • catholic relief services
  • iraq
  • coronavirus

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