Mar Elias stands for Saint Elijah, an Old Testament prophet. There is a shrine to Saint Elijah in Erbil, Iraq where Mar Elias church is. Mercury One and Glenn Beck visited this church and surrounding courtyard in December 2015. At the time it was being used as a refugee camp and occupied by over 1,000 Assyrian Christians.
How did the neighborhood of Ankawa in Erbil, Iraq grow from a population of 30,000 in 2011 to 100,000 in 2015?
In 2014, ISIS overtook the Nineveh province, a large area covering most of the northwestern part of Iraq that includes historic cities including Qaraqosh, Mosul, Batnay, Karemles, and other predominantly Christian towns. After ISIS took over their homes, citizens fled in droves to Erbil, a city to the east of the Nineveh province. Many of these refugees were Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Yazidis and Muslims, who all ended up in various neighborhoods in and around Erbil.
One of these neighborhoods was Ankawa, a bustling area which had several Christian churches, active open markets, crosses everywhere and a statue of the Virgin Mary at the entry point to the neighborhood welcoming anyone who came to the area. Generally speaking, it’s a very urban and western feeling area. There is an air of commerce, bumper to bumper traffic, a nightlife, and an engaged community. Ankawa is an anchor point for the Chaldean Catholic community in Iraq.
The neighborhood of Ankawa swelled to 100,000… that is more than triple the people living in the community. Tens of thousands of people arrived to the capital city of Erbil. The government was already financially burdened with the war and they could not provide enough resources to care for these displaced people. Many who journeyed into Erbil were Assyrian Catholics and they made their way to the churches in Ankawa and other neighboring areas seeking aid.
We talk a lot about what it means to be Christian and to live a Christian life. We could all take some cues from the residents and the Chaldean Catholic Church of Erbil and Ankawa. Instead of placing restrictions on aid or turning these people away, they opened their hearts and the neighborhood to them. The churches responded by turning their properties into refugee camps. The residents responded by welcoming and providing assistance as they could.
The refugee camps were throughout Erbil. Mar Elias is just one such camp and it is the first place that Mercury One went to assist. In December 2015, Mercury One arrived in Mar Elias (in Ankawa), where the refugees had been granted temporary permission to occupy the holy shrine and had made the square and the church a permanent home. Over 1,000 people lived in this area which is the size of a typical strip mall/retail center in the U.S. This courtyard and accompanying building had become a semi-permanent home. There was running water and a sewage system developed. A primary and a secondary school was created and the community committed to educating the children who lived here. There was a daycare. If possible (which you can imagine was extremely difficult), families were finding ways to make money. An open-air market had been organized and opened just outside of the courtyard’s gates… so a place for commerce was established.
Mar Elias had become the center of the Christian refugees in Ankawa. People from other camps would come to Mar Elias to socialize and share news. There was a volleyball court set-up that was incredibly popular, probably because it was just something so simple and normal and fun, an escape from the trauma these refugees had suffered and continued to endure. Some of the refugees were artisans and created a beautiful public art piece that serves as a war memorial for those that have been lost in this violent, bloody time.
In December Mercury One moved from Mar Elias 149 people – 62 children, 25 families – to Slovakia. This was the beginning of our ability to impact the lives of these people. But, it didn’t take long for Mercury One to understand that the best solution, and the solution desired by those who were impacted the most, the Christian and Yazidi population in the region was to find a way to stay in their homeland. We just knew that the life they were building in the Mar Elias’s courtyard and buildings was not a permanent solution. Though, the community had organized and it didn’t seem like there was a place to go.
It took almost 10 months, but by October 2016, the last refugees were cleared out and the grounds were abated, rebuilding and restoration process had begun. The refugees were resettled to private homes and apartments in and around Erbil which were funded by Mercury One.
Nearly 6 months later, Mercury One is proud, for the people of the Ankawa community, that Mar Elias has been restored. The Church is once again a place for quiet contemplation and worship. It was beautifully restored in time to host special services over Easter weekend.
On Palm Sunday, Mar Elias was packed with locals and refugees to mark the beginning of Holy Week.
Republished with permission from MercuryOne.org.