Children play in one of the stairwells of an unfinished building opposite St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil. (photo: Don Duncan)
Sister Nizak Matty walks among families in the basement of an unfinished building in Erbil now used as a shelter for displaced Christians. (photo: Don Duncan)
Christians gather for Evening Prayer outside St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil. (photo: Don Duncan)
Displaced Iraqi Christians pray inside a school being used to house refugees in Erbil. (photo: CNS photo/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters)
Editors’ note: Some names have been changed at the request of the families to protect their safety.
Before he goes to sleep at night, Wissam Abdul Hadi, 21, watches videos on his mobile phone for comfort. His favorites were taken just two months ago and depict him acting with his friends in a comedy on stage in Qaraqosh, his hometown in northern Iraq — the largest Christian town in the country, with a one-time population of some 55,000.
In the videos, Wissam stomps across stage in a red and white keffiyeh, or headscarf, waving his arms in vaudeville style, berating another character for misbehavior. There are giggles and guffaws from the audience. On stage, he seems to be in his element.
But now, expelled from his hometown and stranded with his parents and two brothers in a camp for the internally displaced in the city of Suleimaniyah, some 170 miles away, these videos of comedy have become a tragedy.
“I feel like it is all a bad dream,” says Wissam. “Losing my house, losing the community I was a part of, losing my friends. It feels like it is not real somehow.”
For two months, Wissam and an estimated 120,000 other displaced Christian Iraqis have been slowly coming to terms with a harsh reality: They are now a displaced people, they have very little money, and there is no sign they will be able to go home any time soon.
On talking to many Christian families and individuals who have taken refuge in cities across Iraqi Kurdistan, the master narrative is the same: ISIS, the jihadist Islamic terrorist movement seeking to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, had made rapid advances across large swaths of Iraq, and by early August, seized the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq — a historic Christian stronghold.
The sixth day of August promises to be a date that will be seared into the Iraqi Christian psyche for quite some time: That is the day Iraqi Christendom finally — and maybe definitively — succumbed to extremists and much of the population was sent fleeing.
The exodus was rapid and frantic, beginning in the evening of 6 August. Families recount how they had 15 minutes to half an hour to grab what they could and leave, ahead of the rapid arrival of ISIS. The roads were choked with families in cars and on foot — Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Copts and Armenians, but also Yazidis and Shiite Muslims from all over Nineveh — all fleeing the particular brand of ISIS fundamentalism. They headed east, to Iraqi Kurdistan and the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces there. By the next morning, the heartland of Christian Iraq was firmly in the hands of ISIS.
“My father sold his own mother’s gold and took a loan from the government so he could build our house, and then everything was gone in 15 minutes,” says Wissam Abdul Hadi. “He worked for years and lost everything in a few minutes.”
The sense of loss and the incomprehension of the sudden, new reality are common to many of the displaced families. Beyond the shared narrative of expulsion, the personal stories issuing from the camps, church grounds and repurposed schools and social centers housing displaced Christians are varied and many.
Take Sister Maria Hanna, mother superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, who said a final prayer in tears in the Qaraqosh convent’s chapel before fleeing it with 40 of her sisters.
Then there is Basmina Rahimo, who fled Mosul for Qaraqosh in July and then had to flee Qaraqosh for Erbil. Her son remained in Qaraqosh as it was seized by ISIS. She has heard no word from him since.
“I cry every day,” she says. “I pray and I am fasting, but still there is no sign of him so I am simply hoping.”
Tissa Raffo, 34, who was paralyzed in 2006 when she was caught in the crossfire between U.S. forces and insurgents, suffered disturbing flashbacks as she and her family fled in the dark of night, surrounded by artillery fire.
Ibtihaj Rifo, a mother of three from the Christian town of Bartella, remembers having to climb out of the car and crawl beneath it at one point of their exodus to avoid the gunfire exchanged between ISIS and the Peshmerga.
Christians from the major towns of Qaraqosh, Bartella and Tel Afar, as well as from villages all across the Christian plain of Nineveh, are now scattered across cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, such as Erbil, Dohuk, Kirkuk and Sulimaniyeh.
At a distance of 46 miles, Erbil is the nearest Kurdish city to Qaraqosh and, therefore, received the largest number of displaced people, currently estimated at more than 60,000. Most of them descended on the Christian neighborhood of Ain Kawa over the span of just a couple of days. Because of the overpopulation, living conditions for displaced Christians are the worst in Erbil.
Any and all resources were tapped so as to offer the displaced shelter and food. The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, the Ephremite and Franciscan sisters, the Little Sisters of Jesus as well as Chaldean and Syriac priests and bishops were all mobilized. For the first week, many people were sleeping in churchyards without shelter, using each other’s stomachs as pillows. They complained of the scourge of ants at night and of the strong, beating sun during the day.
Within a week, all had been given temporary housing. Tent cities sprouted around most churches in the main cities of Iraqi Kurdistan. Social centers were converted into improvised shelters. After the first week, the Kurdish authorities lent some schools in a bid to ease the situation. In Erbil, several unfinished buildings have been used as temporary shelters, where improvised tents made of tarpaulins and plastic sheeting have been set up to offer families some semblance of privacy.
In one such unfinished building, the living conditions deteriorate markedly as you descend each floor, like Dante’s Inferno. In the basement, people subsist in poorly lighted quarters separated by plastic sheets. They live with the constant smell of their own excrement, which is collected in an open sewer not far from their dwellings. Their morale has eroded so severely that many simply aspire to attain living quarters on the first or second floor of the same building.
Around camps and churches across Iraqi Kurdistan, an improvised network of commerce and retail has sprung up. Displaced Christians have opened little shops for the new tent communities. Some offer ice-cutting services. Others cut hair. The gold merchants of the major cities have seen a boon in gold at rock bottom prices; Christians who have arrived are desperate to liquidate their few heirlooms in what has quickly become a buyer’s market.
At night, above this landscape of abjection reigns a scattering of glimmering crosses. On the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, celebrated on 14 September, Iraqi Christians erect illuminated crosses on top of their buildings and leave them there for several weeks. The crosses they left behind in Qaraqosh and Bartella have most likely been taken down or destroyed, but crosses seem to have redoubled across the recently overpopulated Christian enclaves of Iraqi Kurdistan.
While the presence of the crosses certainly brings hope to the faithful, the harsh reality grinds on: It has been months since their expulsion and they are still languishing in churches, tents, abandoned basements, unfinished buildings, repurposed schools and social centers.
“The most difficult thing for us is to handle this psychologically,” says Faraj Abdul Hadi, Wissam’s father, who brought his family to a temporary shelter in the basement of St. Joseph’s Chaldean Church in Suleimaniyah.
“We feel like we are in a prison. This is a small room we live in and we are a big family. All we can do with our days is to go out and walk around the church. That’s it.”
Not surprisingly, health care has become a major issue. The health center established at Martha Schmouny camp, next to St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil, is inundated with cases related to the poor living conditions of the displaced: fevers, diarrhea, stomach aches, headaches and respiratory problems.
“We have some tuberculosis cases as well,” says Sister Diana Momeka, a Dominican who helps run the center along with the Rev. Behnam Benoka, a Syriac priest. “We also had a leprosy case a few weeks ago but, thank God, we were able to overcome it.”
The center treats between 400 and 600 people a day with a rotating staff of 20 doctors and three cabin-clinics for children, men and the general population respectively. CNEWA provided funds for two of the cabins as well as a large tent, which is used for taking blood samples and blood pressure readings.
What is conspicuously lacking, however, is psychosocial care for a population that is traumatized.
“We have situations where we don’t have psychologists to treat people,” says Sister Diana, “and now we have lots of people breaking down.”
Fights break out easily. Tempers fray quickly. There are cases of domestic abuse.
As the various church groups and NGOs on the ground struggle to contain and improve the situation, more displaced arrive. Usually, they were trapped in their hometowns with the arrival of ISIS and have managed only now to escape. On their arrival, they are often mobbed by the media and by other displaced people, all desperate for news of their towns and homes.
Savio Yakob arrived in Erbil just two days prior to our interview, in full Islamic beard and dress. His children did not recognize him initially. During the mass exodus on 6 August, his wife and children were given the last spaces in a departing car, and he vowed to follow them in the morning. By daybreak, ISIS had taken over Qaraqosh and he was held prisoner in the city for 33 days. He witnessed a man endure 20 lashes of a whip for smoking. He saw statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary beheaded. He saw bodies of dead people in the street left to rot. He himself was forced to convert to Islam under threat of death. He acquiesced and uttered the Shahadah, the Islamic profession of faith.
One of the other Christian men who was also coerced to do the same told Mr. Yakob that while saying the Shahadah verbally, he was simultaneously saying his Christian prayers internally.
Once a Muslim in the eyes of ISIS, Mr. Yakob was free to move. He escaped to the safety of Kirkuk, where he went to confession and recanted his conversion to Islam. He then moved on to Erbil, where he was reunited with his family.
“I have made peace inside myself that I am a Christian,” he says in a small schoolroom he now shares with another family in Erbil.
“I belong to Christ.”
Except for occasional escapees such as Savio Yakob, there is an almost complete lack of information from Qaraqosh and the surrounding plain of Nineveh since ISIS occupied it. Occasionally, voices come from the void to some of the displaced Christians, via their mobile phones. On looting a house or shop, ISIS fighters will call mobile phone numbers they find written near the landline phone where they are looting.
“I am in your shop and I am robbing it, and I am taking everything with me,” was one such call a displaced Christian retailer received from his own shop in Qaraqosh.
“They call just to be nasty and to press on our throats,” says Sister Maria Hanna.
But even out of ISIS’s reach, there remains a boot of sorts firmly placed on Iraqi Christians’ throats. They had to flee very rapidly; most of them could only bring a change of clothes and some important documents. Before, the Christians were relatively prosperous, but most of their wealth was invested in land, livestock and buildings that now lie beyond their reach, confiscated by ISIS. What money they had in banks is inaccessible because the banking system in Iraq requires they deposit and withdraw from the same local branch. In short, these displaced Christians face a major liquidity problem. The sub-zero northern Iraq winter is approaching and despite military efforts by the United States and its “core coalition,” there is no immediate relief in sight for the tens of thousands of displaced Christians.
For now, most of the families are surviving on aid from the churches and a small number of NGOs and international aid organizations. The response, however, has been slow. Many of the Christians interviewed for this article spoke of a feeling of being forgotten or neglected by the world.
“Why aren’t we eating better? Why aren’t we staying in a dignified place?” yelled a woman to Sister Nizak Matty, a Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena, as she conducted her rounds in the putrid basement shelter of an unfinished building opposite St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil. The woman was soon joined by a group of other women, echoing her grievances. “Why are we in this miserable situation, living in dirt and sickness, not knowing where we can leave or when? Why is everyone ignoring us?”
Charities such as CNEWA are rushing what they can for the relief effort, along with international organizations such as IOM, UNHCR and UNICEF.
Aid is indeed coming, but not enough of it and not quickly enough, says Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Boutros Moshe of Mosul, who himself had to flee ISIS and relocated his entire administration to a prefab container in the Martha Schmouny camp in Erbil.
“We expect a faster and definitive solution, and we are not getting that,” he says. “It’s slow and the situation is larger than we thought.”
What’s more, now children have returned to school for the year. Pressure is mounting to move the displaced Christians living in schools to other accommodations.
Beyond the material needs — housing, clothing, food and medicine — many of the Christians are beginning to run low on perhaps the most precious commodity of all: hope.
“Even if we do eventually go back to our houses, we have lost our sense of security,” says Nabil Rifo, who fled Bartella on 6 August with his family and ended up in a shelter run by the Chaldean Church in Suleimaniyah. “People from Mosul have robbed our houses. How will we ever feel secure there again?”
“For minorities and Christians, Iraq is over,” says Faraj Abdul Hadi.
These may seem like alarmist statements until the current upheaval is put in the larger context of the fate of Iraqi Christians since 2003. At the last Iraqi census, in 1987, the country’s Christian population measured 1.4 million, 5 percent of the total population. By 2003, before the second U.S. invasion of Iraq in a dozen years, that number had dropped to an estimated one million. In the decade since the U.S. invasion and the security crisis that has ensued, it is estimated Iraq’s Christian population has dropped to fewer than 300,000.
With about half of that remaining population now displaced, and with no feasible return home in sight, emigration is now a growing concern for church leaders.
In the archbishop’s prefab office in Erbil, a priest is busy stamping marriage and baptism certificates. The archbishop explains they are for Christians who left their original certificates back home and who will need such paperwork for the United Nations, so they may be resettled to third countries.
The thud of the priest’s stamp punctuates the archbishop’s speech.
“I love my country, really. I love my ministry,” he says with his head bowed, “but if I don’t have a community to minister to, what would it mean for me to stay here?”
Peals of music and laughter enter the container from outside, as children commence the evening’s fun and games, coordinated by several Dominican sisters.
The hope of return to their various towns and villages is becoming a rare sentiment.
“We will go back if it gets better and if Bartella is safe again,” says Nabila Salem, a mother of four who did not manage to flee her home on time and arrived in Erbil after a month of house arrest with her husband and children.
“We want to stay, but we need security.”
But the growing doubt among many of these displaced Christians, is whether a sufficient level of security will ever return.
In Suleimaniyah, Waseem Abdul Hadi, Wissam’s older brother, has given up on the prospect of a return of stability. He has decided, as have many others, to move to Amman, Jordan, with his wife and child, to start the process of permanent resettlement through UNHCR. The Abdul Hadi family has decided to put what money it has left on his exodus, as it may represent their only solid chance of survival as a family. To help sustain the family until his brother can send for the rest of them, younger brother, Wissam, has found a $600-per-month job as a waiter in a local hotel.
At night, he still watches his videos from happier times in Qaraqosh, a glimpse at a world that has all but vanished — a sort of Pompeii, a potential Atlantis. People wonder if what is happening now is the beginning of the end of Christianity in Iraq. But they refrain from reaching any conclusion. There is still, perhaps, a glimmer of hope.
As for Wissam, he says he will continue to work at the hotel until the whole family can leave Iraq.
“Emigration is not an option that I am choosing,” he says on a break from his duties making tea and coffee for the hotel’s guests. “It is something we have to do because we don’t think we will really be able to go back, and we can’t remain living the way we are now.
“It is a choice that has been made for us.”
A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.