Christians ready to leave an Iraqi homeland that 'doesn't love us'

At camps for displaced persons in northern Iraq, Christians who fled the Islamic State more than a year ago are preparing to leave their homeland permanently.

Keith Lane/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Haitham Boutros Azzo and his wife Aida Nasser Toma with their youngest of nine children inside the camp for displaced people at the Mar Eleya church in October 2015 in Ankawa, in Erbil. The family fled Qaraqosh when the Islamic State invaded taking their family with them.

When Islamic State militants began attacking the Assyrian Christian village of Qaraqosh in August of last year, many residents thought it was another false alarm. They had fled an expected invasion just a month before, only to return several days later when the threat never materialized.

But this time was different. As mortars began landing on their northern Iraqi town, Fade Yousif received a call from a Muslim friend in nearby Mosul, which had already fallen to the militants. The friend warned that the Islamic State (IS) was on its way to Qaraqosh, and begged him to flee immediately.

Mr. Yousif and his wife, Naghm Yousif Abdel Meseeh, gathered their two daughters, some clothes, and their passports. Then they fled for their lives.

As they sped out of Qaraqosh, the view in their rearview mirror may have been the last time they saw their home. The town is still under IS control, and Ms. Abdel Meseeh says her family does not expect to return. Instead, they’re making preparations to leave their homeland behind permanently.

“Even if the situation in Iraq gets better, no matter how safe it is, there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again,” she says, sitting outside the small prefabricated structure in which she now lives in a camp for displaced people.

Leaving the land where Assyrians have lived for thousands of years will not be easy, but Christians are no longer wanted in Iraq, she says. “We love the land, but the land doesn’t love us.”

Her sentiment is echoed among the rows and rows of shelters in this camp for internally displaced people. More than a year after IS swept across northern Iraq, capturing the historic heartland of Iraq’s Assyrian Christians and driving out more than 100,000, many of the displaced say they no longer see a future for Christians here. Thousands have already emigrated, and many others are planning or hoping to follow.

There are no official numbers for how many Christians have moved abroad, but in interviews with dozens of displaced people, most said they were planning or hoping to leave, underlining the endangered future of this beleaguered minority in Iraq.

A broad exodus

The number of Christians in Iraq has long been in decline, but the 2003 US invasion unleashed a new wave of sectarian violence, and they became targets of threats, kidnappings, and killings.

Hundreds of thousands left Iraq – their numbers decreased from about 1.5 million before the invasion to less than 500,000 today. Many others who lived throughout Iraq fled to the Nineveh Plain, a historic Assyrian area where all-Christian towns were a haven of safety. Most Christians in Iraq are Assyrian, an ethnic group who speak a modern version of Aramaic.

Abdel Meseeh was one of those who sought refuge in the Nineveh Plain. Originally from the southern city of Basra, she and her parents moved to Qaraqosh in 2004.

Most of the Christians driven from the region fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous northern province. Ankawa, a mainly Christian suburb of the capital Erbil, swelled with the displaced. Those who could afford to rented apartments, and those who could not camped in unfinished buildings or stayed in camps run by churches.

The camp where Abdel Meseeh and her family live is on the outskirts of Ankawa. One thousand metal trailers, arranged in a grid structure on a gravel expanse, house about 5,500 people. There’s a school and a soccer field, and a church is under construction. Many residents have made their shelters more permanent – using tarps, wood, or cement to add shaded porches, putting up drapes, or even planting tiny plots of grass. Caged songbirds hang next to many doors.

In Abdel Meseeh’s trailer, stickers of flowers and butterflies adorn the door, while tapestries depicting Jesus and Mary hang on the wall. A teddy bear sits on her couch, which, along with the rest of the furniture in the tiny structure, was donated by local residents. Her daughters Merna, a precocious 9-year-old, and Maram, 7, roam the camp, playing.

They’ve done their best to make their life here bearable, but it’s not a permanent solution. They hope to emigrate to France – Yousif has a friend trying to secure visas. “But we aren’t set on France. We’ll go to any country that accepts us,” he says.

'We look for life, not death'

It’s not just displaced people who are leaving. Many Christians whose homes are in areas untouched by the Islamic State are also uprooting. Unlike those who fled their homes, forced to leave everything behind, they can sell their businesses and property to fund the journey.

In the town of Diana, in northeast Kurdistan near the Iranian border, more Assyrians are leaving every year, says Yatroon Yonan Dawood, priest of the St. George church there.

Asked what counsel he gave to Christians considering leaving Iraq, he responded with a question. “If you’re at home, and every day your parents are hitting you, will you stay at home or will you go out? It’s human nature that we look for life, not death.”

A life for their children is what Aida Nasser Toma and husband Haitham Boutros Azzo are seeking. Also from Qaraqosh, they were living in Baghdad when the US invaded. There they owned a liquor store and Mr. Azzo worked as a bus driver.

In 2004, they found a bullet at their home. If the message was not clear enough, wrapped around it was a piece of paper warning them to leave or face violence. They returned to Qaraqosh, only to be driven out last year by the IS advance. Now they live in a camp for displaced people on the grounds of the Mar Eleya church in Ankawa, along with eight of their nine children (their oldest daughter is married).

'Fear has overcome my faith'

They survive on UN food vouchers, charity from the church, and the income earned by their oldest son, who works at a hotel. Struggling to pay tuition fees for their four children who are in school, they’re desperate to emigrate, but don’t have the means.

Toma says they’re hoping the church can help them find a way out. All of her neighbors in the camp are also looking to leave, and she doesn’t expect to find many Christians in Iraq in a decade.

“It is going to be sad for all the Christians to leave,” she said, sitting on the floor of her trailer as her youngest son crawled nearby. “But we have no other choice, do we? All we want is to be safe and settled. I can’t remember one moment of rest and peace. It’s been war and violence all my life here.”

Toma says she used to wake her children to pray when church bells tolled each morning. “But now fear has overcome my faith,” she says. “I don’t want it to be that way for my children.”

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