Caritas centres are dotted across the poorer areas of Baghdad. The typical working day of a Caritas employee begins with traffic jams, road checkpoints, closed streets, and, in some cases, bomb explosions. It takes some workers up to two hours to get to the centres, although they live less than 10 km away. They need to get an early start to be there at the daily staff meeting at 8 a.m.
“We have to discuss the day, talk about current projects and possible improvements. There is no time for that in the day,” said Aasera*, a staff member.
Shortly after, people start to come. Mothers with their babies need a doctor’s consultation. They also come to learn about living healthy lives. Elderly people want to get a warm meal and socialize. Children are eager to play and learn. There are orphans, disabled, widows or victims of violence.
“The place is always very busy. We call it the ‘beehive’. The atmosphere is very cheerful. The children love to come here. They will tell us they want to celebrate their birthday here or that they put on their nicest dress for us. They really appreciate the centre. The older ones will proudly show us the good marks they achieved thanks to our lessons,” said Aasera*.
Every month, the 122 Caritas staff support about 5,000 children, 1,000 pregnant women, 2,000 people forced from their homes and hundreds of families, some of them with special needs.
In each centre, there are five to eight doctors, social workers, teachers and other professionals. The biggest initiative is the ‘Well Baby Programme’ providing care for malnourished children, pregnant and breast feeding mothers. Children are weighed and measured regularly. They get nutritious food adapted to their specific needs. Mothers can get health treatment or vaccines and receive counselling on how to raise the children despite shortages.
“My husband never lets me leave the house. This is the only place I am allowed to go to and I am always looking forward to it,” said Amira*.
The centre offers not only food packages and medical treatment, but also a vast range of social activities and traditional festivities.
“I enjoy coming here. sitting in the garden of the centre, laughing, having fun. My house is small. Here, my children can play in the fresh air and be safe. As if our life was normal again,” said Farrah* another visitor to the Caritas centre.
Some are there to get rest, others want a future. Teenagers get the chance to go back to school. They are hoping for a better life and a job once the conflict is over.
Their future remains uncertain. Recently, a huge explosion rocked the capital Baghdad close to the head office of Caritas Iraq. The blast smashed the glass and caused damages. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. 352 people, mainly civilians, were killed in Iraq in February. Violence across the country has spiked in the last weeks because of the national elections coming up on Sunday.
“The violence and the political instability are difficult to cope with. We feel very anxious about that. But then, the positive impact our work has on the people makes us very happy and proud. And that helps us to keep going every day,” said Aasera* of Caritas Iraq.
The people who come to the centre reflect the different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds of all Iraqis. Caritas gives them a rare opportunity to mix, get to know and understand each other.
Caritas staff are called “Messengers of Peace”. Their efforts stand for integration and peaceful conflict resolution as much as for humanitarian aid.
This also benefits the persecuted Christians in the country. Iraq’s Christian community is one of the world’s oldest. But since the 2003 invasion, it had to face church bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. Attacks against Christians have multiplied over the last weeks to keep them from voting for Christian candidates in the national election.
“The tribal laws still govern many families. They discourage peace building and openness. It takes a lot of patience and goodwill to change this,” said Aasera*.
Work mainly takes place in the morning, up to about 2 p.m. in most centres. In the afternoon, there is time for administrative work. Caritas also visits people at home if they are unable to come to the centres. It’s a task for the agency’s 300 volunteers.
Thanks to Caritas, around 10,000 people, mainly women and children, in Baghdad, and in the north and south of the country get the assistance they desperately need and a bit of normality to their lives.
The centres have become so popular that Iraqis will cover a distance of up to 100 km to get there. They just know they can trust Caritas. As Sabeen*, an Iraqi mother, puts it, “The Caritas employees care about my child’s health as much as I do.”
Working for Caritas in Iraq is very difficult and dangerous, but Caritas employees agree “It’s worth it. The Iraqis are very grateful for our help”.
*All names have been changed
Photo credits: Caritas Iraq