Members of the Rifo family gather in their temporary dwelling in Sulimaniyeh, Iraqi Kurdistan, in September 2014. (photo: Don Duncan)
This year, 19-year-old Nour Rifo had repeated his final year in high school. His overall result on the state exam last year was 82 percent, and Mr. Rifo hopes to improve his grade, with an eye to gaining entrance to medical school.
However, his plans didn’t factor in the arrival of ISIS and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of his hometown, Bartalla, and the largely Christian plain of Nineveh that surrounds it. By the time Nour and his family fled their home, on 6 August, he had already completed a few of his final exams in Bartalla. But the exam manuscripts never made it to Baghdad for correction. ISIS burned them, Nour says.
Nour completed the exams again in Sulimaniyeh, the city in Iraqi Kurdistan where he and his family have settled. Without books or notes, he worked entirely from memory. His grade this year dropped to 74 percent.
“I feel like my future is lost,” Nour says, sitting in the family’s living quarters — a former classroom for hairdressing training in the Chaldean Community Center in Sulimaniyeh.
Nour’s mother, Ibtihaj, was a teacher back in Bartalla and the entire family places a strong emphasis on the value of learning.
“I don’t care if we are naked and starving of hunger,” says Ibtihaj, “the most important thing for me is my kids’ education.”
Around her and her family are posters and decorations suggestive of a classroom: illustrated charts for hairdressing techniques, tables and photographs of graduating classes from the Chaldean Community Center’s hairdressing program in years past.
The Rifos are one of a dozen or so Chaldean families that have found shelter at the center in Sulimaniyeh. During the day, they sit in the common area, watching news on TV or discussing events back home, notably the ongoing war between ISIS and the Kurdish defense forces, known as the Peshmerga. For meals and at night, each family retires to its own room and lays out foam mattresses. There, they bed down for the night. In the Rifos’ area, there are six people, including the grandmother, sharing one room.
“The moment we crossed the checkpoint into Iraqi Kurdistan, I didn’t know if I should cry or if I should laugh,” recalls Ibtihaj Rifo of their nocturnal exodus. “The first thing I said to my family is: ‘We have become displaced people. Now we will be receiving food and aid from people. We will have to queue for the shower and the bathroom.’ ”
While this is true, the queues are shorter in Sulimaniyeh than in Erbil, the Kurdish city closest to the occupied Christian areas. For this reason, Erbil is currently the most overburdened and chaotic emergency response zone. Many families arriving to Erbil, like the Rifos, found no space to stay comfortably there and so they moved deeper into Iraqi Kurdistan, to Sulimaniyeh.
It’s been over two months since the Rifo family fled home and, like many others, they are still coming to terms with the trauma.
By the time they finally left their home on 6 August, the front line between Peshmerga and ISIS had reached only a few hundred yards away from their door. Nabil, the father of the family, and Issam, his eldest child, were tracking the progress of the battle from the roof of their house when the word came in that the whole area must be evacuated immediately.
On their way through the warzone towards the safety of Kurdistan, Peshmerga forces stopped them at one point due to a “movement” in the area. ISIS was gaining ground, and it was not wise to proceed for the time being. All the while, bullets flew.
“The scariest thing for us at that moment was not knowing who was shooting, where these bullets are coming from, and what exactly this ‘movement’ would turn out to be,” says Ibtihaj. “We didn’t have a clear idea of our destination. We knew we had to head towards Kurdistan. That was the only place we could head to.”
Now that the dust is settling on their new situation, the Rifos are beginning to consider what they can do, moving forward. They are not yet able to accept the possibility of emigration.
“We all agree that this is something we don’t want to think of,” says Ibtihaj. “We will go back to our houses. Even if the house is destroyed. Returning home is the only possibility we are thinking of and we don’t want to think of any other possibility.”
For his part, Nabil is a little more aware of the real risks that exist now for Christians in northern Iraq, risks that did not exist a few months ago.
“Even if we go back to our houses, we have lost our sense of security,” he says, adding that some of his erstwhile non-Christian neighbors and colleagues were responsible for looting of abandoned Christian houses back in Bartalla. Others have joined ISIS. “Will we every return to normal?”
Like many other families, the Rifos are adjusting to the tragedy in increments, slowly letting go of a more innocent past that, regardless of what happens, cannot be brought back.
“Even if we go back, we will not feel safe,” says Ibtihaj. “Either Christians are going to live in fear and insecurity, remain as internally displaced people in camps or compounds or leave Iraq altogether.”
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.