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In the Bleak Midwinter

Frosty wind made moan as we set out to visit another ancient Chaldean Christian community with food provisions for Christmas and the New Year.

A small community of 35 families, 180 people located close to the Pesh Khabur border crossing in the Sulaivany region of Duhok province.

It is an interesting community, which is actually divided into two parts, Avzrog Miri (lower) belonging to Armenian Christians and Avzrog Shno (upper) our destination, the Aramaic speaking Chaldean Catholic community who first settled the village in 1936.

Their peaceful life came to a halt at the outbreak of the Kurdish -Iraq war in 1961 with the Iraqi army looting and pillaging their village on four separate occasions.

Avrog Sheno was totally destroyed by Saddam Hussein in 1975, whose regime systematically implemented a policy of Arabisation, replacing the Christians with local Arab tribes, taking land and houses, forcing the few who had returned to once again flee for their lives.

It was only when the Sulaivany region came under the protection of the Kurdish Regional Government in 1991 that the Arab tribes returned to the Mosul homeland, leaving the fragmented Christian community able to return and from September 2014, commence the rebuilding process with aid from The Supreme Committee of Christian Affairs.

Their life is simple, infrastructure is minimal with mud roads and less than little electric supply. The residents are warm and welcoming. Sleet poured down as we arrived, the wind roared miserably in the trees. We wondered whether we would make it out having crossed numerous kilometers on mud tracks to reach the village.

Whereas we wanted to “get on with the distribution" due to the possibility of getting stuck there, the villagers wanted to warm us up first, and ran to bring their neft heaters in, and to cook us their traditional breakfast of eggs, beans and yogurt which would have gone down a treat in the minus 5 celsius cold. We reached a compromise with chai and fig cookies which led to a heated debate on who bakes the best cookies in the village! An argument which we could see had been debated for years.

The community is one which expresses its gratitude. They shared that no one comes their way, that they had received help and aid in the past, that the church was totally rebuilt to its current splendor, but they struggle with the provision of basic food supplies.

Their homes are basic, reconstruction being far from adequate, let alone complete. They were anxious to share the glories of their church dedicated to Saint Mansoor de Paul, renovated by Chretiens d’ Orient, the focal point of their community life. Their joy, their reason for returning to this barren strip of land was Sunday Mass.

Abuna (Father) Sami proudly showed us the manger figurines that he had made by hand. I noticed that Baby Jesus was missing. It was December 23rd. “He will come on December 25th. You seem to know a lot, are you a Chaldean like us, maybe a European Chaldean? Did you know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Many think in Al Kuds but it was Bethlehem which is very close to Al Kuds. “I shook my head, preferring the wisdom of silence. FYI, the use of the name Al Kuds is highly politicized, indicating a pro-Palestinian stance. Yerushalim, which is used by the Yezidi community, is pro-Israel.

We left knowing that we had provided, thanks to you, valuable food aid for those who struggle to put anything on their table, yet always have plenty for guests. We left somewhat puzzled by the plentitude we found in the Church, that every area of the Catholic spiritual life had been attended to, but the villagers, those who come to Sunday mass, to confession, and to baptisms, go hungry.

As the sleet pounded our car, and the wheels struggled for traction as we made our way home, I thought of the verse in Proverbs 19 which says “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the L-rd and He will repay him for his deed." We were happy to share that which we had, happy to know that the villagers would have some food in their stomach when they say their Christmas Mass.

We will return to the humble Chaldeans of Upper Yellow Waters. In the spring, to bring them gifts for Newroz.


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