Forced out by ISIS, Iraq's Christians start over

Published: June 10, 2015

Two refugees look for hope in Jordan and Kurdistan

On the run from ISIS: during the night of 9/10 June this two-way road has 10 lines of traffic fleeing Mosul
On the run from ISIS: during the night of 9/10 June this two-way road has 10 lines of traffic fleeing Mosul

World Watch Monitor

One year ago, Mosul fell to militants belonging to a Sunni Muslim movement calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Thousands of Christians and other religious minorities, threatened with execution, fled. These are the stories of two who have found refuge, one in Jordan and the other in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Though they live among other Christians at the moment, the situation in Iraq and Syria is fluid, and when a person speaks publicly, relatives elsewhere can be singled out for retribution. For that reason, World Watch Monitor is withholding their true names. For purposes of this report, they will be called Sarah and Fared.

 Life as an Iraqi Christian refugee

Sarah

"It was a horrible night,” Sarah said of June 10, 2014. “We left with a very small bag and we went to my sister's house in Mosul. After five days, my father started to believe that our town wasn't safe anymore, because there were so many Christians living there.

“Then we decided to go to a monastery in Mosul, because we thought it would be safer for us. While we were there, one of our neighbours called my father and told him that a man from ISIS came to our house and asked about us. He told the man that we were out visiting relatives and we would return soon. 'No!' said the man from ISIS, 'They are not here. They’ve already left their home behind. Tell them if they don't return we'll take it.' So, my parents left the monastery, went back to our house and stayed there for three days.

“After this, my mother started to feel very anxious about the situation and we left home for the monastery again. In the evening of the very day we left, July 16th, one of our neighbours called my father in the monastery and told him that an ISIS car was driving the streets announcing from its loudspeakers to Christians, giving them three options: One: Convert to Islam, so as to be safe in Mosul. Two: Give money to ISIS. Three: Be killed.“

As did so many others, including nearly every last Christian, Sarah left. She and her parents, two sisters and oldest brother headed east, toward the border with the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, in northeastern Iraq.

"Those were the worst days of my life, when we had to leave the monastery without knowing where we were going," she said. "We were helped by a family of Kurds and lived in an apartment for a month in a town near Dohuk. But then we had to leave again when the owner said we had less than a day to leave, without giving us any explanation. My family and I left for Jordan on the 12th of November."

Looking at a map, it seems more obvious to move north to Turkey than southwest across ISIS-controlled Iraq to Jordan. Yet one refugee in the town of Fuheis, Jordan, said Iraqis have heard that UN aid arrives faster in Jordan. The town, 20 kilometres from the capital, Amman, in Jordan’s Northwest, also is well-known for its long-standing Christian-majority population in a country that is 2 percent Christian.

Among Middle Eastern countries, Jordan has a reputation for comparative religious freedom. “Arab Christians are an integral part of our region’s past, present and future,” King Abdullah II told the European Parliament in March. “Jordan is a Muslim country, with a deeply-rooted Christian community. Together, the Jordanian people make up an indivisible society, friends and partners in building our country.”

Fuheis’ 20,000 residents saw a sudden increase between June and August 2014, and again in December.

On arrival in Jordan, Sarah's family first stayed for three weeks with a relative, who helped them settle down. Now they rent an apartment. They have money to afford one meal per day.

As for many displaced people the world over, the local church provides a connection to the community. The Palestinian pastor of a local Baptist church said meetings attract up to 100 people, including evangelicals, Catholics and Greek Orthodox. He said the church visits 20 to 30 Iraqi refugee families, Christian and Muslim, who need aid.

The UN’s humanitarian aid programs are more obvious in northern Jordan, in Zaatari and Mafraq close to the Syrian border. Still, many Iraqi Christians say they feel “safe” among Fuheis’ largely Christian community.

"Since the beginning of the Iraqi crisis, Jordan has opened its doors to receive displaced Christians,” said Dana Shahin of Caritas Jordan. “In almost all the areas that the Iraqi families were received, neighbors and many local organizations, both Muslim and Christian, came to welcome those families and contacted Caritas Jordan to provide help and assistance."

Recently, Sarah has started to help in a dental clinic that opened after a visit by a group from Norway and Brazil, which started offering dental care in the Baptist church left it with resources to continue the work. But when asked about her longer-term plans, Sarah was not too optimistic.

"Now we are waiting on the UN to see what happens, but I think no country will receive us,” she said. “I believe the world will force us to return to Iraq, so we will be killed there. I think we have no future as Iraqi Christians."

Some of the
 Iraqi Christians
 who fled to the Kurdish capital of Erbil eventually found places in small apartments, sheltering them from Iraq's winter.
Some of the Iraqi Christians who fled to the Kurdish capital of Erbil eventually found places in small apartments, sheltering them from Iraq's winter.

Photo courtesty Open Doors International

Fared

"Last Friday I thought of Mosul, because then it was June 5, the day the curfews started one year ago,” said Fared, a Christian in his late 20s. “We were not allowed to take our cars into the streets anymore. For five days there was heavy fighting on the other side of the river Tigris. I lived on the Left-bank. On our side it was relatively calm, but of course we were afraid.

ISIS had crippled four of the five bridges crossing the Tigris, to thwart any advance of Iraqi reinforcements. It wasn’t necessary.

“The Iraqi army withdrew," Fared said, looking as astonished today as he said he was a year ago. "The rumours spread very quickly through phone and social media. Many Muslims in my neighbourhood stayed, but especially Christians wanted to leave the city. Despite the curfew, we packed our car with the most valuable things like papers, some photos and clothing for two months and then left."

Their destination: Erbil, the rapidly modernizing capital of the oil-rich, and well defended, Kurdistan region of Iraq that lay beyond the reach of ISIS. On the highway, Fared said he drove alongside Humvees carrying Iraqi soldiers.
 
"The way to Erbil normally takes about one hour, but now it took us 12,” he said. “There were four checkpoints, but especially the first one at Kalak took long. For eight hours we waited in lines of about 5 kilometres long. The two-way road had become one way direction and the cars were about 10 or 12 lines wide, six lines on the roads and another six lines on the sides of the road.
 
"Later, I had contact with my former neighbour. He told me that in 50 minutes after we left, the neighbourhood was taken over by Da'ash," he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
 
Today, a year after the Army withdrew from Mosul, Fared said his church plans a prayer meeting. "Not a meeting to despair or to be depressed, but a meeting to also see the goodness that God brought to our lives and to also count our blessings."

Aid to the Iraqi refugees in Erbil, in the form of food, clothing, training and job creation, continues to come in through churches and partners working with organizations such as Open Doors International, an international ministry that supports Christians who have been threatened because of their faith. Fared said the aid has helped him start over.

 "I'm part of a small church and they took care of us very well. I now live in a small apartment in Erbil and I'm happy with that,” he said. “I think I will never return to Mosul ever again. Or maybe one more time. Just to sell the plot of land I have. Then I leave and never come back. There are good opportunities for me and my wife in Erbil, so we are rebuilding our lives here now."