Hanaa Elia and her husband, Georges Habbash, sit in their home in Jdeideh, Lebanon, a year after fleeing the Nineveh Plain. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Iraqi youth attend summer camp in the mountain village of Qartaba. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Angela Yaacoub, a 60-year-old widow from Mosul, visits St. Anthony’s Dispensary in Beirut. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Good Shepherd Sister Hannane Youssef administers St. Anthony’s Dispensary, a lifeline for refugees. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Iraqi refugees celebrate the Divine Liturgy in St. Elias Church in Beirut. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Hanaa al Kass Elia flips through her son’s wedding album, eyes twinkling as she identifies those pictured. On the page, cheerful women in makeup and colorful gowns pose before a backdrop of ornate furniture. Her plain black dress and the drabness of her Beirut-area apartment — bare but for couches and a television — starkly contrast with the liveliness of the photographs.
Soon, she pauses, holding back tears. “This was my sister,” Mrs. Elia says finally, pointing at a woman in her 30’s with a tranquil gaze and styled hair. “She was beautiful.”
Mrs. Elia, 46, fled to Lebanon last August to escape ISIS’s brutal takeover of Qaraqosh, a once-thriving Christian city in Iraq with monasteries, schools and hospitals. As with thousands of Christian families who lived for centuries in the fertile Nineveh Plain, she left her home in the night with her husband and children, taking nothing but a few garments and some money.
As it had ended, so that day had begun with tragedy. Mrs. Elia’s sister, Enaam, was sitting in her orchard when a sudden shelling killed her instantly. As her family mourned, they heard calls through megaphones from the church, urging everyone to evacuate the city.
“There was a general state of panic and chaos,” says the Rev. Yousif Yaqoob Sakat, who, a few weeks before fleeing Qaraqosh, had to escape Al Khidhir — another Iraqi town captured by ISIS. There, Father Sakat had headed the Monastery of Mar Behnam, which dates to the fourth century.
For weeks, he struggled with life under ISIS rule. Militants wrote Quranic verses on the monastery’s walls and hurled stones at the building. Women were forced to wear veils and schools were suspended. Mosques began issuing denunciations of Christians.
Holed up in the monastery, Father Sakat left only in disguise to procure food from the market. One day, armed men entered the monastery and threatened the priests, finally forcing them to leave.
The priests were able to reach Qaraqosh, where they remained until that fateful night of 6 August.
“There were children still barefoot in pajamas. Many people forgot their money, their jewelry and even their official documents out of panic,” Father Sakat says.
The takeover of Mosul and northern Iraq, in addition to Hassake and other parts of northeastern Syria, has led to a mass exodus of Christians: men and women who identify themselves as Assyro-Chaldeans belonging to the Syriac Catholic or Orthodox churches or members of the Church of the East or its Catholic sister, the Chaldean Church. These communities have had a presence in the region since the faith’s earliest days, and speak Syriac, a language derived from Aramaic, the primary tongue of Jesus.
Tens of thousands fled in their cars to nearby Kurdistan. While most have found refuge in Erbil and other Kurdish towns — with some going as far as Turkey — others, such as Mrs. Elia and her family, preferred to travel to Lebanon. From there, they hoped to emigrate and take up residence in a Western country where they could lead secure, stable lives.
An estimated 1.5 million refugees, mainly from Syria, reside in Lebanon today, placing a tremendous strain on the country’s infrastructure, as well as its delicate social and political balances. A funding crisis among United Nations aid programs has led to a significant decrease in the level of assistance that refugees receive in the country. And recent popular unrest threatens to make living conditions even worse.
“It’s very hard for Iraqi refugees here,” says Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. “Their options are very limited.”
Speaking from the organization’s Beirut office, Mr. Constantin says about 3,000 Iraqi Christian families, most from the Chaldean and Syriac communities, have come to Lebanon since August 2014. Most of these refugees now struggle with high costs of living, few opportunities and uncertain prospects.
Through these hardships, churches and church institutions have been a constant source of comfort and material aid, accompanying displaced families through the most difficult time of their lives.
In Lebanon, the prospects for permanent residency for refugees are almost nonexistent. Jobs are scarce. Few have the opportunity to attend public universities. Immigration to Western countries remains an unrealistic dream for the vast majority; relatively few have been taken in by the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. And returning to their homes in Iraq could take many years.
“We are in a state of limbo,” says Adel Nouh, 71. “Our only hope is to go to the United States or Canada.”
Mr. Nouh lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife, two sons and daughter-in-law. His sons work odd jobs in construction but their salaries barely cover the rent. They rely on food donations from churches. Complicating matters further, Mr. Nouh suffers from diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
In a country where medical care is prohibitively expensive, health care centers such as St. Anthony’s Dispensary, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters in the low-income northern Beirut neighborhood of Rouweissat Jdeideh, is a lifeline to vulnerable populations.
“The challenges are very big,” says Sister Hannane Youssef, who administers the medical facility. “The number of beneficiaries is constantly increasing.”
Due to the influx of refugees to the country, the number of people seeking their assistance jumped from an average of 800 to 2,000 per month, reports Sister Hannane. Approximately 40 percent of those treated at the dispensary today are Iraqi Christian refugees. They receive free medication and consultations with specialized physicians. The medical center also offers counseling and trauma therapy.
Churches and religious congregations have taken on a central role in the provision of health care among refugees, through facilities all over the country, including dispensaries, clinics and hospitals. Many organizations have rushed to provide assistance with funding and administration, including CNEWA, Caritas and the Howard Karagheusian Foundation, which also runs a medical center in Bourj Hammoud.
“We see a lot of cases of depression,” says Venecia al Hajjeh, a social worker with the International Medical Corps. Many refugees suffer from posttraumatic stress, which can also exacerbate existing conditions such as schizophrenia.
Because of their difficult economic situation and the loss of their homes and jobs, many refugees suffer from insomnia, nightmares, loss of appetite, anxiety and feelings of isolation, Ms. Al Hajjeh says.
In extreme cases, she adds, this can lead victims to commit suicide. Ms. Al Hajjeh says she had witnessed four such cases among refugees in the two weeks prior.
Despite their hardships, many Christian refugees say they are relieved to be in Lebanon because they feel embraced by a larger Christian community. Here, there are large areas inhabited by Christians where churches and visible Christian symbols — such as statues of the Virgin Mary and shrines dedicated to saints — are abundant.
“I can wear my cross without fear here,” says Angela Yaacoub, a 60-year-old widow who came from Mosul to Lebanon with her three children. “In Iraq, we were persecuted because of our faith. When we went out we had to wear a headscarf like Muslim women. We felt invisible,” she says.
In an attempt to bring together their enlarged community, the Syriac Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut uses another church in the suburbs of Beirut every Sunday to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. It is an occasion to offer solace in the face of immense material loss, and place their collective suffering into a broader, spiritual context.
Outside the church, traditional Iraqi bread and second-hand clothes are distributed. The church also organizes outings to monasteries in the Lebanese mountains and other tourist attractions to help lift spirits. Many cannot afford to go out at their own expense.
In nearby Sed el Baouchrieh, another community of refugees seeks spiritual guidance. At the church that dominates the neighborhood that has long been home to Assyrian Christians, the premises are packed with refugees who arrived from Syrian villages earlier this year following violent raids by Islamic extremist forces.
Samir Brikha, 50, escaped his village of Tel Talaa in northeast Syria with his three children and wife. He says that with hundreds of other villagers, they fled on foot one early morning in February, crossing a wide river to save their lives.
“The river was full of discarded suitcases,” Mr. Brikha says. “People were throwing the few belongings they had carried with them because they wanted to save their lives first,” he says, adding that he saw some elderly people being carried on the backs of younger men.
Although in the past year the Lebanese government has toughened the procedures for the entry of Syrian refugees into the country, exceptions were made in March to allow for the arrival of Christian minorities — mainly members of the Church of the East.
“The church took a large number of new refugees under its wing,” says Chorbishop Yatron Koliana of the Church of the East. Today, there are 1,400 Assyrian refugee families in Lebanon; around 600 of those arrived this spring, he says.
Even though the parish tries to assist refugees with basic food and job opportunities, the challenges are staggering, especially in the fields of education and medical assistance. Chorbishop Koliana says that a private Lebanese hospital recently refused to deliver the body of an Assyrian refugee girl who died from cancer, as her family was unable to pay her medical bill.
His church had to intervene and pay an “exorbitant” sum of money so her family could grant her the dignity of a burial.
Though the life of a refugee in Lebanon is difficult, many Christian refugees interviewed say they would not return to their towns and villages after witnessing the systematic destruction of their homes and churches; even the crosses in their cemeteries were demolished. ISIS has also destroyed many lammasu statues — an important pre-Christian Assyrian cultural symbol similar in appearance to a sphinx. Many speak of feelings of betrayal from their Muslim neighbors and say they believe there is an attempt to uproot Christians from the whole region.
Mr. Brikha looks with sorrow at a picture of a wrecked church found on the internet and saved on his mobile phone.
The Church of Virgin Mary in a village near his home was a place he often attended for religious ceremonies.
“We are faithful people. My son had a rash once, so I took him to this church to receive the blessings of St. John the Baptist. A few days later, he was miraculously cured,” he says, magnifying the image on his phone and pointing to the ruins of the shrine.
Much to his consternation, Mr. Brikha says he is forced to send his two boys — one is 14 and the other 17 — to find work. The salary of $650 he makes from working at a clothing shop and factory is not enough to cover the family&Rsquo;s daily expenses. He worries they will not be able to return to school any time soon.
For those assisting refugee populations, education remains a pressing concern. Michel Constantin reports that CNEWA has opened a school in Erbil for about 550 Iraqi Christian students, but, he adds, he is awaiting approval from Iraqi education officials so classes given there would be validated in Iraq.
In August, CNEWA supported an afternoon summer school in the Don Bosco Monastery, nestled in the lush greenery of Mount Lebanon.
“These children are deprived of many things,” says the Rev. Aisen Elia, a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco, who use a style of teaching emphasizing love and honest exchange over punishment to develop values.
In this captivating natural setting, children played basketball, danced, sang and learned about Christian values through classic stories such as “Pinocchio.” Smiles were everywhere.
“We want them to know the joys of life again.”
Raed Rafei is a Beirut-based journalist and independent filmmaker whose writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Forbes Arabia and the Daily Star of Lebanon.