Meetings of French youth and Iraqi refugees in Istanbul


Small gestures of hope

 Meetings of French youth and Iraqi refugees in Istanbul

 Iraqi refugees in Istanbul are the objects of a reportage published in the last issue (June-July) of “Presence”, the review of the Turkish Catholic Church. Turkey is the country of arrival of a large number of Christians, including 4600 Iraqi refugees, most of whom have settled down in Istanbul, where they sought shelter from the sectarian violence which since 2003 reduced by 50% the ancient presence of Christian communities. Iraqis in Turkey risk having to wait many years before they can emigrate to other Countries. In the Crescent-Moon country they are not granted health assistance, working permits nor rights to public education. Turkish legislation stipulates registration in police stations within 10 days after arrival in conjunction with the request of a document certifying the refugee status to the offices of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Until they receive the document refugees are considered “asylum seekers”, while those who don’t register or fail to submit asylum requests are considered immigrants without documents. In many cases these people, who fled from armed conflicts, have low-paid jobs or live as beggars, while in Iraq they were wealthy, with high education titles and property that they were forced to sell – indeed to undersell – in order to escape violence.


A reception centre. The Chaldean patriarchal vicar of Diyarbakir, Msgr. François Yakan, created a reception centre for migrants providing various support services that include advice on UNHCR registration forms, housing, primary needs, Turkish language courses, schooling for children as well as the coverage of urgent expenses. In order to fulfil this mission, Msgr. Yakan travels across Europe in search of funding and support, so that the States may accept to provide for the needs of some of these families. The vicar, along with baptisms and first communions, even finds the time to celebrate Mass in remote inland villages for the isolated families of Christian refugees and to reopen – past May – the ancient church, dating back to the 4th century, dedicated to Saint Hormisda, a patron saint of the Chaldean Church.


An active parish church. Most Iraqi families in Istanbul live in apartments located in the neighbourhood of Kurtulus where the young have the opportunity to follow bilingual classes (Arabic and English) in the Don Bosco school, directed by the Salesians of the cathedral of the Holy Spirit. The classes are taught by teachers who to do their utmost to help improve the living conditions of their pupils. This triggered the desire of many young people, notably French-speaking sons and daughters of foreign workers in Istanbul, as well as catechists that attend the local parish of Saint Louis of the Rench, to be actively involved in providing help and assistance to young refugees.


The experience of sharing. They first met with them on December 12, during the Advent, when young people took part in a Mass in Aramaic with the Iraqi community. They were positively impressed by the liturgical richness and by the rite. This meeting was followed by another, divided in two moments: the feast of Shrove Tuesday, dressed up, with music and candies, followed by the beginning of Lent during which the parish community committed itself to donate English books to their refugee friends. The decision to donate books – as many as 140 along with dictionaries and three subscriptions to English magazines – organising a real and true library, springs from the wish of the Iraqis (who need everything but keep high the pride and dignity of their people) to settle down in Anglo-Saxon countries to rebuild a better future for themselves. Books, understood as the symbols of knowledge, of thought and of freedom, provide meaning and significance to this exchange of cultures and friendships. “For us young people from Western Europe, who don’t suffer, and most of all, need nothing – said Geneviève du Parc Locmaria and Laure Accolas – meeting and sharing our experience with our peers that lost everything, including their homeland, was a magnificent experience. Now it is our duty to continue along the path of fraternity and sharing”.


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