Iraqi Refugees in Beirut

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNS) — The death threat came as no surprise to Ihab Ephraim Khodr, an Iraqi Christian.

He had seen it happen to other Christians around Mosul, in northern Iraq, where he lived. Year after year there had been plenty of vague and general threats before he received a personal threat just before Iraq’s March 7 elections. Khodr knew it was only a matter of time before such a threat came his way.

His expectation is inked into his right wrist.

In Khodr’s student days in the early 2000s, he began to get a tattoo that portrayed a crown of thorns wrapped around his wrist. It was to be a sign of his devotion to Christ. It also would have made Khodr recognizable on the street as a Christian.

Then he suspended his appointments at the tattoo parlor as violence against Christians escalated.

Khodr and his wife, Diana, are graduates of the University of Mosul, which was founded by the Dominican order. But since their graduations in 2006 and 2007, respectively, neither had found a job. Khodr turned to running the family business, a small shop in the city. But he had to move the family to a village outside of Mosul for safety.

When the death threat came in early March, Khodr decided to close the shop. Without the income the shop provided or any prospect for a job, it made no sense for the couple to sit in the village waiting for the money to run out. Venturing back into the city and risk running into the mujahedeen — Muslim holy warriors — was out of the question. So the couple packed up their baby daughter Reena and, joined by Diana’s sister Israu, headed for the Syrian border, then through Syria to Beirut.

Like many Iraqi refugees they believe the resettlement process in another country will go faster from Beirut. Caritas Lebanon workers roll their eyes when they hear this. Fueled by rumor, there’s no evidence of a faster or surer route to the West out of Beirut.

The young family found a roomy apartment in a neighborhood a few blocks from the crowded and crumbling apartment blocks where the main concentration of Iraqi Christians live. It’s pricey: $500 a month, plus $100 a month for utilities.

Diana stays home with the baby. Her sister has a 12-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week job in a sewing factory that pays $250 a month. Khodr landed a job in a juice factory carrying containers around the factory floor for $350 a month, half of what a Lebanese worker earned for the same job. Working illegally was a tough adjustment for a university-educated, middle class Iraqi. He quit in disgust over the wages, the back-breaking labor and the 12-hour days.

“I would work from seven to seven. But pay me a salary for this hard work,” Khodr said.

The danger in staying in Iraq is twofold. If Khodr runs into the wrong people or reopens the family shop, he probably will be killed. The second threat is that the young family might live their entire lives waiting in vain for a free and democratic Iraq where they can hold jobs that match their education and their daughter can have a proper education.

Even the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does not believe Iraqi Christians can safely return to their homeland.

“Conditions are not yet ripe for a voluntary and sustainable return to Iraq in large numbers,” said the commissioner’s annual Regional Response Plan for its largest active refugee crisis.

The Iraqi government claims more than 32,000 Iraqis did return in 2009. The UNHCR helped 2,400 of them. An Iraqi government program that runs an on-again-off-again monthly bus from Damascus to Baghdad is supposed to help refugees resettle with an $850 payment, but the experiences of returning refugees tell a different story.

Families report never getting the payments or being unable to return to their own homes or their old neighborhoods because they have been taken over by armed groups. Some families who boarded the bus for Baghdad have ended up right back in Damascus.

Hearing such stories poses serious questions for people such as the Khodr family.

“There is no future in Iraq,” Diana said.

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