Msgr. Sullivan Shares His On-the-Ground Experience In Iraq

Check Out This Just-Released Q & A

Catholic Charities Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan joined a small delegation in early April led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chair of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA),  to Iraqi Kurdistan.  During this mission they visited families displaced after ISIS swept through Iraq in the summer of 2014.  They spent time in displacement camps filled with Christians, Muslims and Yazidis who fled to these camps and looked at health clinics, schools and churches that sprung up to serve them.  As part of the delegation, Msgr. Sullivan spoke one-on-one with those forced to flee their homes as well as with sisters, priests and bishops – many of them displaced as well – who stand shoulder to shoulder with those in need providing them with care and direction.

Q:  In light of your on-the-ground experience with displaced persons you met in Iraqi Kurdistan, please share your insights about the brutality of ISIS and its connection to religious persecution.

A:  I visited Iraq nearly two years after the exodus of Christians from the Plains of Nineveh outside Mosul. The displaced persons I met were clearly targeted because they were Christians and driven from their ancestral homes. They are now welcomed and temporarily resettled in another small established Christian community in Erbil, 60-100 miles from their homeland.

Yet the reality is the U.S. mainstream media often does not sufficiently cover what's going on in other parts of world, particularly in this case of persecution of Christians in Iraq. Nonetheless, we live, unfortunately, in a time in which there is a lot of persecution in the name of religion. ISIS is attacking not only Christians but causing havoc on Muslims and Yazidis as well.  

Q: What surprised you most about the displaced people you met and the camps where they live?

A:  I was relieved to see that now, 20 months since some 130,000 people fled from their homes in the Plains of Nineveh to Ankawa, Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, these displaced people show strong resilience and an ability to handle themselves some of their basic necessities. This includes medical care, education near these camps and religious education.  Even entrepreneurial efforts including mom-and-pop shops have begun to spring up in the camps.

There is relative order and decent public hygiene. Critically important is the presence of clergy that adds a sense of priority and community to these camps.

I need, however, to emphasize that they are living in completely temporary conditions, in small vans and unfinished buildings that lack electricity and water. These are not conditions people should have to live in.

Q:  Were you frightened to visit resettlement camps located so close to areas attacked by ISIS?

A:  Many parts of Iraq remain a war zone. These parts were quite close to where we visited. However, we traveled to Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq where Christians fled for safety and now live in displaced persons camps. During our time there were no violent incidents. It’s where the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) that Cardinal Dolan chairs is located, where CNEWA helps those displaced in the camps. We went there to see firsthand the work they are doing and support and share with people back home the crucial work we witnessed.

Q:  As one of only five participants with Cardinal Dolan who led this mission, can you share with us his key takeaway not only for the Catholic Church but for all of us?

A: Cardinal Dolan summed up what he learned from this mission of solidarity: the continuing need to pray, to provide help and assistance and advocate on behalf of those persecuted and displaced. Those we met feel displaced, persecuted and have as their overriding concern the desire to return to their homeland where their parents, grandparents and ancestors lived for centuries.

Q: And how about you, Msgr. Sullivan?  As executive director of Catholic Charities New York, the largest provider of immigration and refugee services in New York State, what insights do you bring back from this mission?

A:  First, it’s important to understand the distinction between internally displaced persons – such as those we met – and refugees. Internally displaced persons haven't gone quite as far away from where they had been as refugees. They haven't crossed a border to another country. As a result, displaced persons seem to have a greater longing and belief than refugees in the possibility that someday they will be able to go back home. 

Under U.S. law, refugees, on the other hand, have proven they were persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality or political opinion and cannot, as a result, safely return to their homeland. When we help resettle refugees in the U.S. it's because it’s been determined it’s impossible for them to go back home so they have almost no hope of that. Our job, then, is to help create a welcoming environment here and provide the skills they need to make this their new home.

I think it's important for us to keep in mind that today we have a worldwide crisis of displacement. There are, according to the United Nations, 60 million displaced persons in the world, roughly 20 million actual refugees that crossed borders and another 40 million displaced in their own countries. That’s an incredible number of people forced to leave their homes.

We need to work as a world in two directions; first to  deal with those factors that can prevent people from being displaced and becoming refugees and second, for those who are displaced, to figure out how, if they can't go back home, we can create a welcoming environment so they can rebuild and succeed.