Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Often abused, despised and fear-ridden, three Iraqi Christian families have ended up in a country they have never heard of, Lithuania. But as long as they find here a safe refuge, provided in their case by the Lithuanian Catholic Church, the name of a new home barely matters.
Still, whether the 15 Iraqis will wind up calling Lithuania their second Homeland remains in a big question- 40 Syrians brought to Lithuania by the country’s Evangelical Lutheran Church over a year and a half ago have left for a better life to the West.
Lithuanians were refugees themselves
«Helping refugees is one of the duties of the Christian life. It is important not to keep our hearts shut down. As the plea of help has been received from Iraq, we responded (to it)…Our ancestors have been refugees themselves and lived in refugee camps in Germany and the United States after the World War II,» Gintaras Grušas, Vilnius Archbishop is quoted as saying by Lithuanian media.
Having fled from ISIS jihadists’ persecution the families will temporarily stay for now with the Lithuanian capital Vilnius’ Christian parishes and, later on, they are expected to be accommodated by devoted Catholic families. One more Iraqi family is to arrive in Vilnius a little bit later.
According to the Lithuanian Archbishop Conference, the highest governing body of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, offerings will be collected in Vilnius Catholic churches to support the families of refugees.
The archbishops mull calling on the capital’s Christian residents to come forward with any aid for the Iraqis, meet them and get acquainted with their lifestyle, culture and the offshoot of the Christian faith they present, Chaldean Catholicism.
Wikipedia describes Chaldean Christians as adherents of the Chaldean Catholic Church, originally called The Church of Assyria and Mosul, which was that part of the Assyrian Church of the East which entered communion with the Catholic Church between the 16th and 18th centuries.
In addition to their ancient Assyrian homeland in northern Iraq, northeast Syria, northwest Iran and southeast Turkey, a region roughly corresponding with ancient Assyria, migrant Assyrian or Chaldo-Assyrian Catholic communities are also found in the United States, Sweden, Germany, France, Canada, Lebanon, Jordan and Australia, according to the digital encyclopedia.
Horrible memories of ISIS
Klara Lazar Banjamin Šamun, one of the refugees, told Lithuanian media upon arrival that Iraqi Christians are in constant fear for their life after Muslim jihadists, known shortly as ISIS, captured the town of Erbil last year. Erbil, also known as Hawler, is in Northern Iraq and has a permanent population of approximately 1.5 million as of 2013.
«The main reason for our persecution is that we are Catholics. They (ISIS militants) do not like Catholics because we are good and grateful people. The key reason we had to leave Iraq was imminent threat to our lives,» the Iraqi woman is quoted as saying by kauno.diena.lt., the daily of Kaunas, the second-largest Lithuanian city.
After Islamic militants invaded the town, the life of the town’s Christian community has been shaken up. Women, especially, have found themselves in danger.
«It was impossible to walk to a nearest shop and church because of constant explosions and persecution…I would not dare to walk on my own as my brother would accompany me on those rare occasions out,” Šamun told.
«We decided to leave Iraq in order to be able to liver as Catholics- with dignity and in peace…When we arrived in Lithuania and landed in an airport we saw that local people take us so holily that we started feeling that we are off to a new life,» the former Erbil resident said. «Now we really sleep calmly as we know that there is no danger to our lives.»
The Iraqi woman also inclined her family wants to be as much independent as possible in Lithuania so it would not have to ask the authorities for allowances to make it through.
Another Iraqi woman, whose name is withheld, is quoted by lrytas.lt as saying that she would not be able to leave house without her brother.
«There has been the constant gripping fear of explosions. There was impossible to walk free on the streets. I could not go to work as it posed a risk of abduction. We often had dream that the Islamic terrorists break into our home. My father would not sleep for days in fear that there come knocking at the door and the intruders will whisk us away before killing us,» she told.
Hopes for forged friendship ties
According to Vilnius Archdiocese, the Iraqi have already started learning Lithuanian and getting acquainted with Lithuanian culture and history.
Among the comers are four men, eight women and three teenagers, who are expected to enroll Lithuanian schools in the autumn.
Ilma Skuodienė, the head of integration programme at Caritas, the Catholic charity organization at the Lithuanian Catholic Church, describes the foreigners as «educated, good-hearted and warm people” who from the beginning have developed understanding with families from the Lithuanian capital’s Christian parishes.
According to her, three Vilnius parishes in total will take care of the refugees for now, providing them accommodation, food, city bus tickets and other means of living.
«Besides, they will get allowances from local parishes,» she added.
From September 1, the young Iraqis will be attending a Catholic school in Vilnius and the parishes are going to do whatever it takes to make the once hapless folks feel good in Lithuania.
«We do whatever we can to better and quicker get them integrated into local education system and labour market», Skuodienė emphasized to BNN.
She hopes that Lithuanians will offer the Iraqi what cannot be bought for any money- genuine friendship.
«It would be great if (Vilnius) townsmen would have possibilities and free time to invite the families over for dinner or take a walk in the city, in other words, would offer them friendship,» the Lithuanian Caritas representative said.
Iraqis granted D-visas
Asked by BNN on what legal grounds the refugees from ISIS-ravaged Iraq were brought to Lithuania, Evelina Gudzinskaitė, a Communications specialist at Lithuania’s Migration Department at the Ministry of Interior Affairs, told they have not applied to the Migration Department, so the Department is not in the position to comment on that.
«There are various legal ways for Lithuanian citizens and institutions to bring over foreigners that they are interested about,» she told.
Answering the journalistic query by BNN, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed that the Iraqi citizens were issued national (D) visa based on Law on Legal Status of Foreigners and orders by Lithuanian Interior and Foreign Affairs ministers.
The unsigned reply also says Linas Linkevičius, the Foreign Affairs minister, welcomes and supports the humanitarian mission by Vilnius Caritas, which shows solidarity and extends supporting hand for those, whose life is in real danger.
Donatas Augulis, advisor to the minister, is quoted by some media as saying that the Lithuanian state-given visa is valid until November 2, but, according to him, all the necessary procedures will be done to make sure the Iraqis can start a new life in Lithuania.
He also pointed out that Lithuania will enter in negotiations with the European Union, asking it include the refugees into yet-to-be-approved quota of refugees that Lithuania pledges to accept in tackling the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.
«We exert much, but it remains to be seen if the EU allows it. So far it is very doubtful,» Augulis admitted.
With the story going online, Skuodienė, of Caritas, told BNN via e-mail that visas for the Iraqis have been issues in the Lithuanian Embassy in the Turkish capital Ankara.
“They have arrived as tourists, but we are intending in the course of a few weeks to apply for their work and residence permits,” she underlined.
Lutheran Church’s refugee experience could have been better
The Lithuanian Catholic Church is not the first Christian church to help fellow Christians in distress.
Last year, under the supervision of Lithuania’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 40 Syrian Christians have been cared for by the Church.
Over a year and a half since the arrival, BNN learnt from Mindaugas Sabutis, the Church’s chief archbishop, that the humanitarian mission has not been «a complete success.»
«Relevant institutions have not thought out all the peculiarities of their stay, including those concerning employment and schooling, so all the Syrians have left Lithuania,» Sabutis told.
The biggest hurdle, he says, came from the stiff annual visas the Syrian Christians had: «They could not be redone into ones leading to work permits, unfortunately. Much has been done in that regard, though,” the Lutheran archbishop noted. «The Iraqi refugees, I heard, will bypass the problem because of the other type of their visa.»
Thinking back Sabutis says that five of the Syrian nationals could qualify for work in Lithuania.
«There was even a medic among the people,» he remembered.
Asked what his advice were to the Lithuanian Catholic Church and the parishioners, he was brief: «Do not get daunted by the refugees.»
Having ended up over the Syrians in media limelight a year and a half ago, the Lutheran archbishop now prides himself the Evangelical Lutherans have started «a far-reaching discussion» in the society in terms of assistance to refugees.
«If I were in position to advice, I’d strongly suggest to simplify refugees’ integration when it comes to issuance of work permit or enrollment into schools here,» Sabutis told BNN.
He noted the support of the Syrian refugees has not cost the state a penny.
«The necessary money was collected from offerings and donations. Not only in Lutheran churches, but in Catholic churches, too,» he pointed out.
Regional crises clout refugee numbers
Lithuanian border patrol has detained four Iraqi men in proximity of the Lithuanian and Belarusian border last November. All of them appeared to have crossed the border illegally. They asked for political asylum when apprehended.
After being temporarily placed in a refugee shelter, their further fate is unknown, but only single refugees from the Middle East stay in Lithuanian permanently as the most decamps for the West.
According to the Lithuanian Migration Department, nearly 500 persons applied for refuge in Lithuania last year, of whom 177 were granted it, meanwhile 24 of the foreigners have gotten status of asylum seekers.
The bulk of the lucky comprised citizens of Afghanistan, Russia and Ukraine, according to the statistics.
Still, the figures are way little in comparison with the year of 2012, when as many as 628 foreign nationals sought refuge in Lithuania, most of who were Georgians.
The Migration Department notes that the numbers fluctuate depending on the scale of regional crises.