How you can help Iranian Christian refugees

Background

Iran has for many years been listed among the worst countries for persecuting Christians, featuring prominently every year on Open Doors International’s World Watch List of the top 50 persecutors and the US State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern for “egregious violations of religious freedom”.

As Article18 has highlighted with the #place2worship campaign, Persian-speaking Christians have nowhere to worship collectively in Iran, being prohibited from attending the churches of the recognised ethnic Assyrian and Armenian Christians, and facing sentences of up to 10 years in prison for worshipping together in their homes in what have become known as “house-churches”.

As a desperate measure, many of these Christians have subsequently and very unwillingly said goodbye to their families and homeland and stepped into the unknown.

The most obvious route for many of them has been to end up in neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, where they have continued to suffer other forms of pressure - for example not being granted work permits or access to healthcare, while many countries that once offered a safe haven to refugees have now closed their doors even to the most legitimate seekers of asylum.

Meanwhile, since 2018 the UNHCR has delegated the responsibility of interviewing asylum seekers to the Turkish immigration service, under whose authority Iranian Christians are increasingly reporting harsh and unfair treatment.

Some, despite having had their claims approved by the UNHCR, have been refused in the second round of interviews by Turkish officials and are now at risk of deportation back to Iran.

A lot of these families left Iran when their children were very young, and many have been unable to find suitable schools for their children and have spent the past five, six or even seven years just desperately hoping they will soon be relocated to another country.

Meanwhile their hopes, aspirations and livelihoods have been negatively impacted.

And all the while, it is clear that there are so many individuals and churches worldwide that would be willing to help if only they were provided with credible information from organisations with insight and verifiable data.

How you can help

Traditionally, many of these refugees have been relocated to safe countries through the UN mechanism, but this system has been paused in the past few years, and now only a small percentage of those relocated are Iranians, and an even smaller percentage are Iranian Christians.

This means that there are few clear prospects for these Christians to be relocated. But one of the very few options available for them is to be accepted with a refugee-sponsorship visa to a country like Canada.

Practically, this means that an organisation, charity or group of individuals can apply to become a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH). Once they have this license, the SAH can sponsor refugees for the first year of their relocation to Canada, which means providing for their housing and other expenses while they learn the language and are familiarised with their new context.

What does the sponsorship entail?

The sponsorship is for one year, and costs roughly 16,000 Canadian dollars per person, with a reduced per-person rate for families.

Wonderfully, some families and individuals have already made their way to Canada through this scheme, but many others are stuck in Turkey because no church knows about them or have heard their stories.

Our role

In response to this need, Article18 has compiled nearly 100 briefings of families and individuals stranded in Turkey.

Article18 has been asked to help them find potential homes in churches and communities that are willing to accept them.

So if you are a leader or member of a church or SAH in Canada, please contact us and we’ll be more than happy to introduce you to a family in need.

What if you don’t live in Canada?

There is also opportunity for individuals, organisations and churches outside Canada to contribute to this process, as some licence-holders in Canada have the willingness to help but are short of finances.

Article18 could help coordinate this multilateral relief operation by connecting sources of funding with churches and individuals in need.

There have already been examples of churches in Canada offering their licence to relocate some individuals, with churches in other countries being willing to undertake the financial commitment.

Again, if you can help in this regard, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

What are the refugees’ primary needs?

1. Financial support

A lot of the refugees we have interviewed feel a double vulnerability to the worsening economic situation both in their home countries and their country of transit.

For example, Turkey has registered 22% inflation at the end of 2021, which has made life difficult for most Turkish citizens and even worse for the large population of refugees in this country, who have no permission to work.

We know of some individuals who have been forced to survive on only one simple meal a day.

There are churches and organisations in Turkey dedicated to help alleviate this pressure, and these churches would also be very happy to be assisted by donations from individuals and organisations that are willing to help. Again, while Article18 is not directly involved in these relief projects, we would be only too happy to connect those who would like to help in this regard with churches and refugees in Turkey. Please contact us if you can help.

2. Healthcare provision

Developing an illness that requires long-term medical care is unfortunately a common occurrence in the life of refugees living in harsh conditions.

We know of individuals who have fled their country hoping for a safer life, but while stranded in Turkey have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, cancer, or a heart condition.

Receiving proper care has become a serious challenge to these individuals, and has brought many of them to the verge of disillusionment.

Identifying the people most in need is not difficult when working with and through local churches, especially now there are Iranian churches or fellowships in almost every major Turkish city. Again, please contact us to find out more.

3. Children's education

In years gone by the length of stay for some refugees in Turkey was around two or three years. But now it is not uncommon for people to have to stay for seven years, or even longer.

We know of one Christian convert who spent over six years in prison in Iran, whose children have not been able to attend school and continue their education properly in Turkey, although they've proven to be very gifted and intelligent learners.

And while this family still await a breakthrough in their situation, the children sink into depression, putting even more stress on their parents, who begin to feel that their commitment and faithfulness to their Christian faith was the cause of their children's gloomy future.

Perhaps the challenge for well-established churches or Christian organisations could be to think about setting up an online school or even possibly university education for the children of refugees, so they are better equipped to contribute positively to the countries they will be relocated to in the future, while at the same time easing the pressure on their parents and giving hope to the children.

Offering free online courses would be a practical and life-changing step. Please contact us if you think you can help in this regard.

4. Trauma care

Finally, any crisis of this level calls for persistent and professional care, especially when there have been multiple traumas: from the initial arrest and imprisonment, to fleeing the country under difficult and uncertain circumstances, and then living a life of uncertainty in countries of transit where refugees often face prejudice and exclusion.

While localchurches can offer a level of care and spiritual input, some deeper wounds of trauma call for more professional intervention, perhaps from a qualified Christian counsellor who could commit to support a refugee with a medium-to-long-term course of treatment. Once again, if you can help in this regard, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

The situation for Iranian Christian refugees is bleak on many levels, but perhaps together we can begin to lift the gloom.