Mennonites continue humanitarian efforts in conflict-torn Iraq

By agency reporter
23 Jul 2008

Five years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq the humanitarian situation for many people continues to deteriorate, says Mennonite Central Committee, which is extending its humanitarian work there.

Churches, peace activists and development agencies say that just as de-escalation of the military situation is vital in Iraq, so is humanitarian assistance.

Particularly vulnerable are 2.8 million people who have fled their homes for safer locations within Iraq, says Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Representative Daryl Byler.

“The humanitarian situation of some longer-term internally displaced people is actually worsening because many are unemployed and have exhausted their savings to cover rent and other expenses,” he commented recently.

Many displaced people are hesitant to return to their homes because they do not want to risk facing the same threats and terror that forced them to flee.

“Although the security situation has improved somewhat, these improvements are fragile and the security situation is still incredibly volatile,” explained Byler.

In response to requests from three long-term partner organizations, MCC is undertaking a $2-million material resource response.

Shipments of 20,000 relief kits, 62,000 blankets, 62,000 school kits, 12,000 newborn kits and 5,500 sewing kits will be distributed over a six-month period in 11 of the 18 governates in Iraq.

Currently, MCC warehouses in Canada and the United States have fairly large supplies of blankets and school kits but there is an urgent need for relief kits and heavy blankets, according to MCC Material Resources Coordinator David Martin.

Relief kits contain soap, shampoo, toothpaste, bandages, laundry detergent, bath towels and personal items. A $10 donation with each kit will help cover the costs of purchasing new buckets for the relief kits, transportation costs and some of the distribution costs, said Martin.

In an effort to distribute blankets before the winter months, the first five or six containers of material resources will be sent in August and the remaining shipment of 15 more containers will be sent to Iraq by the end of the year, said Martin.

Distribution of these resources is being organized and coordinated by REACH, an MCC partner organization based in northern Iraq, and by Iraqi Al-Amal and Iraqi Youth League, two long-term MCC partner organizations based in Baghdad. All three organizations have distributed material resources in previous years, said MCC Representative Cindy Byler.

Representatives from each organization have participated in MCC-sponsored peacebuilding training programs and are designing distribution plans that incorporate and promote peacebuilding activities, in cooperation with local governments and community groups.

These plans will help the most vulnerable people in each community where material resources will be distributed. This includes displaced people who have found refuge in a new community, displaced people who have returned to their home communities and poor people living in these communities.

“This is a new way of working together,” she said, adding that this collaborative approach brings together people from different ethnic and religious groups.

Agencies monitoring the situation of displaced people within Iraq report that people are slowly returning to their home communities, mostly in Baghdad, but often as soon as they leave, newly displaced families from other regions of Iraq arrive, said Daryl Byler.

“Some families return to their homes and find that they have been destroyed or looted," he said. "They leave one family member to stand guard and the rest return to their area of displacement."

About 70 percent of the homes vacated by displaced people are occupied by other families or damaged. These homes are generally located in communities that were mixed communities before 2003. Many of these communities are now homogenous communities and not receptive to having people from different religions and ethnic groups return.

About two million Iraqis have found temporary refuge in other countries, mainly Syria and Jordan. These people live in fear of deportation. When they return to Iraq most of them face the same realities as returnees who had found refuge in safer areas within the country. In parts of Iraq, local authorities are providing land to refugees who return from abroad, but not to people who fled to safer locations within Iraq.

Cindy and Daryl Byler are Mennonite Central Committee representatives for Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. They are based in Amman, Jordan.

MCC is a relief, development and peace agency of a number of Mennonite churches in North America: http://mcc.org/

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