A massacre at one of Iraq's largest churches in October, 2010 and continued attacks in predominantly Christian areas of central Baghdad highlight the continued danger for Iraq's Christian community. Many of Iraq's million and a half Christians wonder if they can continue to remain in their homeland.
In 2010, with support from the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch and others, IOCC provided more than 1,500 Iraqi families in Baghdad with food and personal hygiene items and is currently seeking new ways to assist vulnerable families in the country.
An estimated 7,500 people received critical assistance in areas that have been the target of some of the greatest violence since 2003. Some of the families receiving assistance have been displaced by violence within Iraq and are unable to return back to their homes – some of which have since been destroyed.
Food assistance provided by IOCC has included high protein food supplies to combat increasing rates of malnutrition. The supplemental food was designed to provide for a more varied diet after needs assessments by international organizations in Iraq showed that access to food is one of the top priorities for people who have been displaced. Many of those displaced are not able to access government food rations – or fear for their safety if they venture out to receive them.
Isolated and vulnerable minorities, such as Christian communities, have been included in IOCC's humanitarian assistance program. The aid has been of particular importance given the recent resurgence of attacks by insurgents on churches in Baghdad and Christian families in other areas of the country. Recently an IOCC assessment team has traveled to northern Iraq to explore other possibilities for assistance.
Support from the Order in 2010 has contributed to the work of International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) through projects like the one in Iraq and other projects in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere.
In addition to providing direct assistance to families living in Iraq, IOCC is also working to address the needs of Iraqi refugees living in neighboring countries. IOCC recently signed an agreement with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to provide food assistance, educational support and vocational training for Iraqi refugees and Syrians in Damascus, Aleppo, and Jazirat. It is estimated that the project will provide direct assistance to more than 56,000 people over the next two years.
In Lebanon, the positive effects of role playing in a school play are all too real for one student, Malek. He was on the verge of being expelled for behavioral problems and poor attendance, but has now been transformed into a disciplined, hard-working student with the dream of becoming a professional actor.
"I know that to become an actor I will have to work hard and doing well in school is a large part of that," said 14-year old Malek.
Although both his father and his sister are teachers, school had never been important for Malek and he often skipped classes. When IOCC started extra-curricular activities at his school, Malek was inspired to change his ways. "I had to start improving my behavior or I couldn't be in the play. Punishment had never affected me before but I wanted to be a part of these activities," he says.
The play at the Zahle Public School in this picturesque town in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley is just one of more than 160 such activities organized by IOCC as part of the Lebanon Education Assistance for Development (LEAD) Program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The program includes activities such as sporting events and health and craft fairs that are designed to foster a positive educational environment and develop creativity among teachers and students. So far, IOCC has assisted 228 public schools throughout Lebanon and supported more than 110 school clubs and 116 parent-teacher associations under the LEAD program.
As for Malek, the program is working. "He was no longer the same person," says Principal Maria Hadchiti, "there was a 180 degree change."
Since 2006, IOCC has helped improve the condition of Lebanon's public schools by creating hundreds of school clubs, parent-teacher associations and after-school activities. The program, which has also provided science labs, computers and infrastructure repairs, has benefited an estimated 75,000 public school students in Lebanon and led to IOCC receiving a $26.4 million grant at the end of 2010 to expand its program to 600 public schools throughout Lebanon.
IOCC, supported by the Antiochian Orthodox faithful in America and the Order of St. Ignatius, also continues it work in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Bassema, an IOCC staff member working in the West Bank, must often leave her home as early as 4:00 a.m. in order to negotiate the many checkpoints that she encounters on her way to the villages where IOCC is working. “I cannot say that we have broken down all the barriers that many families face here in the West Bank, but we have been able to break down some,” she said, referring to IOCC’s work in the Qalqilya region. Bassema’s arduous journeys are indicative of the difficulties faced by hundreds of families who have been cut off from their farmlands and water sources by the West Bank Barrier. IOCC is assisting these families create house gardens and build water cisterns. Bassema’s hard work is paying off and families in the region where IOCC is working can now provide up to 30% of their own food needs and meet all of their household water needs.