This video is part of a footage collection on Christian refugees in Sulaimaniya, Iraq in March 2015.
Jens Petzold is a Swiss monk who heads a monastery in Erbil, Iraq for Iraqi-christian refugees who fled ISIS attacks on their towns last year. A former resident of the famous Deir Mar Musa monastery in Syria, Petzold first came Iraq from Syria in 2011 in order to rebuild the abandoned monastery of Deir Maryam al-Adha. After the Islamic State started to attack Christian villages in Iraq this past summer, he became the sole caretaker of dozens of displaced families.
Petzold is a charismatic and unorthodox church congregation leader. This footage tries to show how a single person can make a big difference to many refugees as well as show how refugees from the Christian community try to get on with their daily lives, somehow trying to avoid leaving their homeland for good.
In August 2014, the Islamic State captured a number of Iraqi Christian towns in the area surrounding Mosul, among them Karakosh, the largest Iraqi city with a Christian majority. Most of its 50,000 residents fled within a couple of hours on the 6th of August and left most of their belongings behind. Right now more than 100,000 of the already shrinking population of Iraqi Christian community have become internally displaced or fled to other countries. While most of the IDPs have found refuge in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil and two large refugee camps near the city of Dohuk, a small monastery in Sulaimaniya opened its doors for more than 200 refugees who have now been living in this very crowded place for more than half a year. The monastery with its church and one building houses 80 people, nearby apartments another 100+ people. Almost 70 of them are children.
The author visited Sulaimaniya in March 2015. The entire footage was shot during that time. It includes interviews with Jens Petzold, several of the refugees, shows daily life in the monastery as well as a mass. I accompanied Jens Petzold during trips to the local market, to a Christian graveyard and to another local church community where they are raising funds to build new housing facilities.
- [0:00:00 - 0:00:40] Women of the refugee group of the monastery preparing dinner.
- [0:00:40 - 0:05:49] Preparations for the evening mass & short interview with Father Petzold Father Jens Petzold, Head of the Monastery Deir Maryam al-Adha Petzold: How many members this monastery has? Well, I am the only true member. When we were invited in 2010 [to rebuild and reopen the monastery Deir Maryam in Sulaimaniya] the idea was to rotate staff between [our home location at the monastery Deir Musa in Syria] Syria and here with me as the head of this institution. The other were to stay for two or three months a year. That was the idea - but sadly the civil war in Syria started and the project was no longer possible in 2011 and 2012. Petzold: How the refugees are housed? Here you can see curtains we have put up in the church and also in the other larger rooms. Every compartment belongs to a family. In the church live about 50 people right now, the two other rooms have 10 and 20 people. Petzold: Right now, we are at a critical point. The living situation in the church has not changed in 5 months. Some people have been living in the other rooms for 6 months. That is a critical point. We have more conflicts and now we need to work out a solution for the families to have some more privacy. Petzold: There were several waves of refugees. The first group knew of us already. In August we planned a seminar for women on posttraumatic and wartime experiences. We invited some of the women of Karakosh - so they called us on the 7th of August [when then entire population of Karakosh fled] asking whether they could take refuge here. Of course, we cancelled the seminar which was scheduled for the 9th of August. Those were the first families. Petzold: In September 2014, those refugees who now live in the church arrived. They were housed in a school - but the school had to open after the summer vacation and they needed new space for those families. Then, I decided to use the church itself as well. Petzold: Children we have a lot of. 65 in total, 49 of them needing elementary school education and 6 of them high school education. And they go to school. From the very start, we organized an informal primary school. This is something we put big emphasis on because schools give some kind of daily structure.
- [0:05:49 - 0:07:10] Funny remarks of Father Petzold regarding the color of his cassock Petzold: The Christian Churches of the East don’t know any rules regarding the colors [of a priest’s cassock] but they now seem more and more to follow the example of the Vatican. A pity. The Eastern Churches used to allow every color imaginable - which is funny if you see representatives meet the pope while wearing every color of the rainbow. Quite a jolly thing to see.
- [0:07:10 - 0:13:14] Chaldean / Syrian Catholic Mass
- [0:13:14 - 0:15:17] Short remarks of Father Petzold on the importance of being thankful Petzold: I think it is a very important that we don’t just ask but also see how God has had his impact in the world - from minor things until we slowly see the larger ones. That’s a good spiritual practice to sharpen one’s perception. To appreciate the people you meet and the help you are receiving here at this place. Asking for things is a large and important aspect of people’s lives here - especially when writing application forms - but we also have to see that a lot has happened. We were provided with our daily needs - rice, food and everything else - which cannot be taken for granted. This is why we need to tank. It is good and just to tank - as we just said during mass. It is good and just.
- [0:15:17 - 0:15:40] Still shots from the living area of some families
- [0:15:40 - 0:16:42] Refugees distributing dinner & short prayer before dinner
- [0:16:42 - 0:17:35] Father Jens Petzold with Matthias Vogt (Head of the Middle East Desk at the German Pontifical Mission “Missio” - one of the donors for the refugee program at the Deir Maryam monastery) discussing building new housing facilities for Christian refugees and priests right next to an existing St. Joseph church community in Sulaimaniya a couple of minutes away from the monastery. Petzold: We had some problems regarding the land. Vogt: This is the street. Petzold: Exactly. This is the road. This is the church. And behind there’s a small piece of land - here it is in more detail. We have just finished surveying the land. Unfortunately it is very mountainous. Vogt: (jokingly) So the containers will have to stand skewly. Petzold: There won’t be no containers. Vogt: You want to build something real. Petzold: Something to last.
- [0:17:45 - 0:21:57] Visiting the St. Joseph Church community in Sulaimaniya where another big group of refugees is housed. Petzold: They provided me with a key to their church. Journalist: How many families are living here at this church community? Petzold: I believe, there are 45 left. Journalist: The number is decreasing? Petzold: Yes. Right now, our monastery houses the largest amount of refugees in Sulaimaniya. Journalist: Did some of them move in with other relatives or why did the numbers decrease? Petzold: Some of them did. Some went to Erbil, others to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. We are speaking about 2.5 Million refugees in total plus 200.000 Syrians. Most of them do not live in camps but spread over a large number of villages and cities. We are still busy discovering where all of them went.
- Refugee Family from Karakosh, Jumbat (the mother in the middle) Jumbat: We’re from Karakosh. Maybe we lost it forever - but maybe everything is possible. God help us. Only God.
- [0:21:57 - 0:24:23] Driving across Sulaimaniya with Father Petzold speaking about the city itself and his position towards helping the refugees to migrate to other countries. Father Petzold: I have to say, in spite of being so geographically close to Iran, they somehow missed the Iranian sense of beauty. Well, most modern public buildings in Iran are ugly as well - always these blocks of concrete and metal. Journalist: But the rest reminds you that they have thousands of years of culture. Somehow that got lost here. Petzold: You have to remember the embargo and the awful long military campaigns. Saddam tried everything to stop the Kurds. That was the final blow the local artisans here in Sulaimaniya which used to be a city of traders and commcerce. It’s hard to find a skilled carpenter or plumber. Horrible. Petzold: Right now, there is the threat that people give up hope, that they accept being here as a point of no return. There is a lot of work to be done so people can find jobs, so they can start making plans again - whatever these plans might include. I am against forcing them to stay in Iraq. If they want to leave, I want to prepare them properly - so they don’t flee but emigrate. That’s a small but important difference. We have a French school here, for those who want to go to France. They should take courses and get ready before they go.
- [0:24:23 - 0:25:54] Visiting the Christian cemetery of Sulaimaniya. Still shots of Jens Petzold, tombs & the city of Sulaimaniya. One brief morbid & funny remarks of Petzold Father Petzold: That does not look too bad. It seems they restored some of it recently. I really wish someone would finance the rebuilding of the small chapel and mortuary here at the cemetery. That way I would get rid of all the coffins that are piling up at my monastery. Otherwise I would have to open a coffin shop some day.
- [0:25:54 - 0:28:58] Visiting the local market with Father Petzold talking about buying food for the refugees. Several street scenes of vendors & cafes. Father Petzold: This is the entry to the market of Sulaimaniya. On the left side, it’s a larger market where you can find food and almost everything else you might need - right up to power transformers. Journalist: And here you’re buying all the food for the refugees? Petzold: No, for that I go to a hypermarket. Some prices are better and you also get better quality and fresher products. After two days of lying around here in the food market, so much food is already spoiled. Journalist: [Reminds Petzold of his earlier jokes about the mediocre cooking skills of some of the refugees] Why pay attention to food quality if the refugees keep on cooking the same meal - some tomato sauce with overcooked vegetables - every single day? Petzold: I still have some hopes that one day they will start preparing something else.
- [0:28:58 - 0:30:05] Father Jens Petzold telling a funny story about how people from St. Joseph’s Church in Sulaimaniya stole the church bell of his monastery & some still shots of the monastery Journalist: There is no church bell in the tower, isn’t it? Father Petzold: Father Ayman [from St. Joseph’s] stole it. When I came back from Syria the last time, 36 hours by bus, I immediately went to bed - at that time I always slept at my office downstairs. I heard some people working on something here at the tower. I did not bother and when I woke up, the bell was gone. And where did it go - it’s now at St. Joseph’s. That’s another project I am working on right now. I really want a new church bell. A nice sounding one.
- [0:30:05 - 0:32:36] A second evening mass at the monastery - this time with less footage from the actual rite and more facial expressions from people attending, especially the children.
- [0:32:36 - 0:34:10] Elementary school for refugee children at the monastery
- [0:34:10 - 0:41:21] Long interview with a refugee from Karakosh about his life in the monastery & his plans for the future Ronny Louis, 26 years old, refugee at Deir Maryam Monastery in Sulaimaniya [He always mentions Hamdaniyya, the name of his district in the city of Karakosh - replaced this with Karakosh because only the city name is used in the media] Ronny: We had to flee Karakosh twice already. First in June 2014 for one and a half months, but then the Peschmerga took again control of the city and we returned. When the Islamic State attacked for the second time in August, we fled again. Ronny: In Karakosh we had a very good life, had our houses and good schools for our children. Ronny: We were protected by the Peschmerga and I worked as a pharmacist in the hospital of Karakosh. Ronny: On the 6th of August around 8pm we heard fighting and the first wounded were coming to my hospital and we heard stories about the first people killed. Ronny: When the first bodies turned up, many people were struck with fear and decided to leave. Ronny: Most left their belongings, all their money, their jewelry behind in Karakosh. They took only clothes and things necessary for survival. Ronny: Some people did not notice the attack and did not flee because they were asleep. These few people were left behind and became prisoners of the Islamic State. Ronny: Around 50 young people were left behind and we still have no news about their fate. Ronny: We left Karakosh around 10pm and arrived at the final checkpoint before Erbil only at 7 in the morning because so many people were fleeing and the checkpoints were so crowded. Ronny: The first night in Erbil, most people slept in the garden of the local Mar Jousef church community. Ronny: We are very thankful to Father Jens for offering us his church and for taking care of us. But the housing facilities here obviously have many problems: there is only a single bathroom for all the refugees and no separate room for all the children. Five families are sitting in the same room. Ronny: One of us refugees suffers from cancer and has a urine bag which takes forever to change. He is always occupying the bathroom. Ronny: There is one bathroom for all of us, one toilet, one place to eat, sleep and spend the day. Psychologically, we are down to our last reserves. We have no idea how to organize a place to stay, how to organize education for our children, we have no information what happened to our houses and we don’t know when we will be able to return. The longer we have to stay here and share everything with 200 people, the harder it gets. Ronny: It matters a lot to us to stay together as a church community. The church is our mother and we have already found help there prior to the current situation. The church brings people together and our belief in Jesus Christ gives us strength. Ronny: Right now, we have no hope left. Us younger people have no idea what kind of future we will have. We don’t know if we will ever be able to return home. After a year here in Sulaimaniya, nothing has become clearer for our future. It is still unknown. Ronny: Migrating abroad and leaving the Middle East might be a solution for us. But we need assistance or it won’t make any sense. We have no financial reserves and no perspective to quickly find a job abroad. We simply don’t know how to do it the right way. At the same time, I don’t see a future for us back in Karakosh. Ronny: The most important thing for us right now is safety. Only if we are safe we can settle again. Safety means a house but also safety for our children, a school and a church to pray. But right now I don’t see that here in Iraq. If I had support, I would try to emigrate. Ronny: We don’t receive any help from international organizations. Nobody came to ask what we needed. And if the go and apply for a job here in Sulaimaniya people tell us to go away because we can’t speak their language [Iraqi Christians speak Arabic, while the official language of the KRG region is Kurdish].