Nineteen Christian Iraqi students aged between 12 and 16 and five teachers who live in Erbil are in Gozo for a week on an educational, cultural and spiritual exchange programme.
Their visit was made possible by Proġett Merħba, the Gozo Diocese and the Anglican community.
“The first thing that comes to mind when people think of Iraq is war, but Iraq is much more than that. It’s about people of different religions, languages and age-old heritage.
“Despite the conflict in the area outside of our town, life still goes on for many of us,” 15-year-old Valita Glyana, from the Mar Qardakh School in Ankawa, told The Sunday Times of Malta.
One of the teachers at her school, Rawsan Hedo, explained that the students do not only follow internationally-recognised curricula, but are also taught how to become leaders so that one day they could help bring peace to their own country.
“We’re trying to bring up self-confident, open-minded students in a place surrounded by war. Although where we live is safe and tranquil, there is always the fear of intrusion of violence and terrorism from the surrounding war zone,” he said.
The aim of the visit is to allow the Iraqi students to share their history, culture, and values with fellow youths in Gozo, bridging the distances often created by cultural diversities.
It is also aimed at helping the Maltese community learn about the realities of other Christians across the world, and shed some of the prejudice.
Those behind the visit are calling on the Gozitan community to engage with the students, as the group will be taken around several villages to meet the locals, the organisers explained.
Over the last few years, the Church has been vociferous about the need to welcome refugees making it to our shores and Bishop Mario Grech even called on parishes to host refugee families.
This call was also sounded by Pope Francis himself throughout the current Catholic year called the Jubilee of Mercy.
In collaboration with the Emigrants Commission, the Gozo Diocese is hosting two families for a year in Għajnsielem.
Proġett Merħba is meant to complement this initiative. It kicked off following a visit by Iraqi priest Fr Douglas Bazi – who was last year invited to Nadur by archpriest Mgr Jimmy Xerri to celebrate Imnarja.
Fr Bazi works in the Chaldean Church of Erbil, which homes thousands of Christian refugees, including those who fled Mosul after the Islamic State took over the city.
Fr Bazi had spoken to Mgr Xerri about the plight of Christian refugees, especially youngsters and teens, and the need to give them hope for the future.
When asked how the Gozitan community could help his community in Iraq, Fr Bazi had told Mgr Xerri not to send money, but rather try to give the youths a different experience.
So Mgr Grech called together the Gozitan parishes and a series of fundraising activities was launched to be able to host a group of youths from Erbil.
A lot of the Christians in Erbil have had to move there from other towns and villages because of persecution. Some live in tents and caravans, but for the young students, the future looks bright.
Visibly excited, they explained that they plan on furthering their studies, and have made no career plans yet.
In the few hours they have spent on the island, they have already learnt that they can understand some of the Maltese chatter around them.
They giggle as the videographer tells them, in Maltese, to speak into the microphone, as he does not need to translate “tkellem hawnhekk” (“speak here”) in English.
“Wherever you go, you will always learn something that will help you open your mind a bit more, one day at a time,” Matthew Zaito says.
The 15-year-old lived half of his life in Holland before his family returned to their home country, where he “finally felt at home, and no longer a guest”.
Fellow student Hilda Shangula, 14, is looking forward to meeting fellow Maltese youths and she hopes that if she comes across anyone whose perception of Iraq is that of a war zone, she would manage to debunk the myth and convince them otherwise.
“I could speak to them about the ancient Kurdistan castles and our different languages… Just come there and you will totally change your mind,” she says, determined.
Anyone who would like to contribute to such visits can make a donation at Il-Kurja tal-Isqof, Triq ir-Repubblika, Victoria or on the Diocese of Gozo’s APS bank account called Proġett Merħba Iraq 2000 1776 060