When people think of Jerusalem, they rarely imagine it drenched in rain, stiff with ice, or crowned with glittering snow.
Since my return to the Holy City in the first days of 2015, the weather has been exceptionally windy, cold and damp.
During the eight winters I’ve lived in Jerusalem, it has snowed a little nearly every year, but the melt comes quickly and the unexpected beauty of familiar landmarks frosted in white usually fades within hours.
This year’s snow has already turned into bone-chilling rain. As I’ve hurried into warm shops or rushed back to my own comfortable home – my hands, feet and nose aching with cold – I’ve been less likely to complain than usual.
Instead, my thoughts have been elsewhere, in the not-so-far away refugee camps that seek to shelter those who have fled the civil war in Syria, and those who had been driven from their homes by the terrifying brutality of ISIS and other jihadis.
Millions – Left Out in the Cold
More than 3 million refugees have fled Syria; half a million more have gone from Iraq, and more than 1 million more have been displaced within Iraq, many of them Christians. Most of these evacuees are hunkered down in the Kurdish autonomous region.
Millions of displaced families – including babies, small children and the elderly – who fled for their lives in last summer’s raging heat are now struggling to survive in the same frigid storms that have lashed Israel in recent weeks. My Jerusalem friends and I have been wet and cold at times, but we were able to end each day warm and safe in our homes.
The refugees have no such luxury.
In early November, I visited Kurdistan to see for myself what kind of conditions they were facing.
I spoke to Christian refugees who had fled the horrors of ISIS. They had found shelter of sorts in Erbil and beyond, but their spirits were broken and their lives were miserable. Many were living in unprotected areas, partially exposed to the elements. They had no hot water for personal use or laundry. There were no heating units to be found. And the rains had barely begun.
An American security contractor I talked to seemed more worried about the dangers of winter than about ISIS. A longtime resident of Colorado Springs, he shook his head in near-despair when I asked what would happen to Kurdistan’s refugees when the inevitable winter storms arrived.
“The weather here is similar to that in my hometown, and it can get very, very cold. Dangerously cold. I think it’s a disaster in the making,” he told me. “Winterization of the tent cities is the most essential and urgent issue here. Somebody needs to replace the tents with ‘caravans’ [pre-fabricated dwellings with foundations] before the rain and snow start up and the mud starts to flow. But how’s that going to happen in a month’s time?”
His fears turned out to be all too well founded.
What About the UN?
Another friend and colleague, Charmaine Hedding, whose Munich-based Shai Fund is providing assistance to refugees in Kurdistan, just returned to Germany from the region. She reported that the large UN camps are in terrible condition.
We’ve all heard that those camps are rife with violence, drugs, sexual abuse and theft. Not only has the UN done a poor job of planning, supervising and equipping the existing refugee camps in Kurdistan. It has not prepared them for the winter.
And now the UNHCR claims to have run out of money.
In November 2014, Kurdistan’s Rudaw News reported from Erbil:
The United Nations is looking for private Kurdish donors for its program to prepare 1.26 million Iraqis for winter, as it is still $173 million short of what it needs for shelter and basic items like blankets and fuel for cooking and heating.
We are aware of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) budget constraints — we are not looking to them for money,’ says Dr. Jacqueline Badcock, who oversees all United Nations humanitarian activity in Iraq. “We need to look at new ways to look for funding. This means exploring possibilities in the private sector as well as engagement with neighboring countries.”
Anyone who follows the various incarnations of the UN – and in Israel you’d be a fool not to – knows that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is the flawed but active global outreach to refugees and displaced persons.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency also deals with “refugees,” but some of an entirely different kind. Since 1949, the UNRWA has offered assistance to the Arab refugees who either fled or were expelled from Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.
The UNRWA also assists Arabs who lost their homes in the 1967 War.
Notably, both those wars were initiated by multi-front Arab attacks on the Jewish State. Both wars ended in humiliating Arab defeats. And, inevitably, both left victims behind.
But as Diane Bederman wrote,
Can you name another group of people displaced by war who have been coddled from the day of displacement until … forever? No. The standard definition of a refugee, which applies in every case except that of the Palestinians, includes only those actually displaced in any given conflict. UNRWA has defined a Palestinian refugee as anyone whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” But it has also continually expanded this definition, now stating “the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible for agency assistance.”
The UNHCR has a worldwide staff of 7,739. The organization assisted 45.2 million refugees in 2012 and its budget reached a record $4.3 billion.
The UNRWA’s website explains that, in the beginning, this agency was in responsible for “850,000 persons, based on painstaking census efforts and identification of fraudulent claims. The 1948 registered refugees and their descendants now number 5 million.”
To serve 5 million Palestinians, UNRWA’s staff numbered an astonishing 31,000 in 2012. Its budget was $907,907,371.
Timon Dias wrote for Gatestone Institute, “UNRWA is the only UN refugee agency … that designates the descendants of the original refugees as refugees as well – even though 90 percent of UNRWA-designated refugees have never actually been displaced.”
If the surviving refugees from 1948 and their first-generation offspring were the only ones designated to receive assistance from UNRWA today, and the staff was pared down appropriately, the surplus funds would be enormous. Perhaps they could be redirected to the UNHCR.
Who knows? Maybe that would provide food, heating, winterization – and hope – for the refugees in Kurdistan and beyond.
The Forgotten Refugees
Significantly and at no expense to the UN, other refugees also appeared following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
I wrote about this important and largely untold story in my book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel in the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.
Many Westerners are unaware that between 1948 and 1970, roughly 850,000 to 1,000,000 Arabic-speaking Jews were expelled from Muslim Middle Eastern lands.
These Jews left 10 Muslim countries with little more than the shirts on their backs. They, too, were refugees – in fact, some have called them the “forgotten refugees.”
There were no UN resolutions on their behalf. There were no international inventories of their vast, lost properties. There were no efforts made to formally document their unjust expulsions and stolen lands. Only in recent years has their cause been brought before the world. One wonders if it’s been too little, too late.
Israel – in large part – took them in (some went elsewhere). Once they arrived, like today’s displaced people, they also lived in tents.
They spent a cold winter or two in wretched housing. They survived on the barest provisions. But despite the many challenges they faced, they had a future, thanks to the Jewish State. Today, half a century later, they and their offspring comprise around 50 percent of Israel’s population.
Then, as now, Jews are increasingly facing persecution and violence in Europe. Fears abound, and immigration to Israel is increasing dramatically once again. The circumstances are horrifying – including the recent murders in Paris.
Thankfully, there is a place for them to go. They have a homeland – a safe haven – in Israel.
And their story epitomizes the true meaning of Zionism.
But what about today’s Christian refugees? And other persecuted minorities? As of now there is no earthly homeland, no safe haven for them.
Perhaps, whether in Jerusalem or beyond, the season’s cold weather can serve as a reminder. If we notice that our hands are numb with cold, let’s remember to pray for them. If we’re dripping wet and our feet feel like ice, let’s call to mind their misery and despair. And when we have a minute or two, let’s try to research some practical ways to provide assistance through organizations that we know and trust.
The 2015 winter has just begun. The storms haven’t ceased. The cold wind still rages. And the refugees in the Middle East have precious little to hope for.
Let’s see what we can do to help them.
For more information about the plight of refugee children in Kurdistan, visit BasNews.