Winter Brings Killer Cold to Those Who Fled Death in Middle East

January 15, 2015

Children such as this one at a tent camp outside Erbil, Iraq are among those with the greatest needs in the Middle East.

Winter cold has begun to claim lives among people from Iraq and Syria who fled atrocities of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militants, indigenous Christian workers said.

Among the victims last week was a 2-month-old girl named Layla, born to a Kurdish family from Kobani, Syria.

“A little baby died because of the cold,” said the director of a ministry for Syrian refugees in Turkey. “It´s mauling me even more because I have seen the babe with her mother in their tent. Please pray for us so we can do something for them.”

Thousands of people flowing from Syria into Turkey need baby formula, diapers and children´s clothing, especially socks and shoes, which the Christian workers can purchase locally. The ministry also seeks to arrange for medical care and the local purchase of heaters and blankets, he said.

A leader of a ministry in Lebanon´s Bekaa Valley that runs a school for refugees near the border with Syria also reported fatal cold last week.

“Last night a 4-year-old child died, frozen near the school,” he said. “Please pray with us for our brothers in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon who are facing very low temperatures. Please pray for the school, as well; we are closed because we cannot heat the classrooms.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned that winter could bring crisis conditions to up to 1 million people displaced by civil war in Syria and ISIS in Iraq. Christian workers in centers for people from both countries have begun to see their worst fears come to pass.

“Winter is painful and has disastrous effects on the displaced, especially those living in tents and uncovered buildings still under construction,” said the director of a ministry working in camps for displaced people in two cities in northern Iraq, Erbil and Dohuk. “Winter flu is widespread, and there are a lot of children suffering from it. There are a few cases of deaths of children and the elderly.”

Dohuk is nestled in a mountainous area where temperatures can drop below freezing, subjecting people without inadequate shelter and nutrition to illnesses and other health risks. The Iraqi ministry director said some people cannot move from tents into buildings due to unavailability and high rent costs. Those that can often end up in buildings that do not have heating or panes in their windows, and they are overcrowded.

“It certainly is not that easy. The number of families living in one house or apartment is between 10 and 20, and this matter carries painful consequences,” he said.

The need for electric heaters, kerosene-fueled heaters, and kerosene is “very urgent,” he said. “This bad weather weighs most heavily on the chronically ill.”

Iraq has 1.9 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs), as well as thousands of refugees from Syria, with more now arriving from Kobani. The UNHCR estimates about 800,000 people in Iraq are in need of shelter assistance and 940,000 lack basic items to withstand winter weather; it expects to be able to attend to less than a quarter of those affected.

At a newly opened refugee camp for nearly 4,000 people in Turkey, near the Syrian border town of Kobani, another ministry director found children wearing sandals in the frigid temperatures.

“We bought shoes with all the rest of the money we brought with us,” he said. “There is really much pain and suffering. Babies are sick all the time, and the deaths have started to rapidly increase, unfortunately.”

The cost of children´s shoes is $14 per pair and for adults, $21, he said. The ministry would like to buy 1,100 pairs of children´s shoes and 800 pairs of shoes for adults, as well as 1,500 coats for children and babies for $15 each, 500 coats for adults at $25 each, and as many pairs of socks as possible at 40 cents each.

At a mall and office building made available to displaced Iraqis in Erbil, windows without panes allow cold air to shoot into rooms.

At an office/mall complex near the center of Erbil, where many IDPs from Mosul, Qaraqosh and other parts of Iraq seized by ISIS have taken refuge, the father of one family said children are missing more than winter clothes.

“They don´t have schools,” Ayad Neha from Qaraqosh said. “School started months ago. It´s not like they´ve missed a year or two years of school, but probably they will.”

All the displaced Iraqis would like to return home, he said, but that is not possible as long as ISIS controls cities like Mosul and Qaraqosh, which had large Christian populations. The afflictions and unknowing have deepened their faith, he said.

“I have more faith now in Jesus,” Neha said. “We are ready to die for our Christianity. We decided to leave because we didn´t want to convert.”

In the same building a pastor who requested anonymity said Christians who were born into families from traditional churches in Iraq but do not practice the faith have had a tougher time dealing with hardship.

“The more difficult thing is when someone gets persecuted for someone he doesn´t know – he´s a Christian in name, but he doesn´t know why he is getting persecuted, because he does not truly know Jesus,” the pastor said. “Those people are suffering a lot. And most in Qaraqosh didn´t even know DAESH [ISIS] was coming. Some of them literally woke up hearing [the jihadist chant], “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” everywhere – which is the worst nightmare, when you hear that.”

Practicing Christians, by contrast, have seen their faith grow, the pastor said.

“The people in the churches have said, ‘We used to hear preaching from you that God as a Father takes care of his kids, but now we are living it. Today we have trust in the Lord more than ever. The Lord did not leave us.’”