By Brooke Anderson, Catholic News Service
An Iraqi Christian refugee girl holds a souvenir of the Holy Family Dec. 12 as a boy looks on at a church in Hazmiyeh, near Beirut. CNS photo/Jamal Saidi, Reuters
SED EL BOUSHRIEH, Lebanon – Aramaic, Syriac and different Arabic dialects from Iraq and eastern Syria can be heard on the narrow hilly streets of Sed El Boushrieh. Strings of Christmas lights adorn neighborhood churches and hang from balconies of apartments, whose residents many never return to their own homes in Iraq and Syria.
The religiously mixed village, once a vast pine forest just north of Beirut, has long been a place of refuge for the region’s Christian minorities fleeing war. In late 2014 it has saw a rapid increase in arrivals as the Islamic State group took over vast parts of Iraq and Syria.
As the sanctuaries of Iraqi and Syrian churches steadily empty, those of their refuge in Lebanon become more crowded by the week. Some churches in the area offer two services at different times to accommodate the growing influx of refugees.
For several months, the Assyrian Church of the East, which holds its Sunday service at 9 a.m., hosted a Syriac Catholic congregation at 11 a.m., until the Catholic parishioners found their own space.
In the days before Christmas, worshippers packed into neighborhood churches, eager to partake in familiar festivities.
Older residents recalled their grandparents’ stories of migration to the area as a result of Ottoman overthrow of Mamluk-run Iraq, then the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and, more recently, the successive Iraqi wars, starting in the early 1980s. The refugees tended to eventually return home from Lebanon.
The difference these days, said Assyrian Father Sargon Zomaya, is that these new refugees, unlike their predecessors, have lost hope that they will one day return.
“Now there’s no hope,” said Father Zomaya, who came from northeastern Syria 20 years ago to study in Lebanon. “All of the Christian refugees want to go to Europe.”
As foreigners, the refugees are limited to working odd jobs for low wages, a temporary but unsustainable solution.
“They continue to come every day, mainly from ISIS-controlled areas,” Father Zomaya said. “But it’s becoming more difficult. Lebanon is feeling the strain.”
The U.N. refugee agency says Lebanon, a country of 4 million about 70 percent as big as Connecticut, has about 1.5 million additional refugees.
Many of the new Iraqi and Syrian arrivals are second- or third-time refugees, for example, Iraqis who sought refuge in Syria following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 or who became internally displaced and are now fleeing the increasing violence in what were once relatively safe havens.
Stephene Izhak, 21, a Syriac Catholic originally from Baghdad, first fled his city in 2008 for Tel Kaif, near Mosul, where he stayed until late October. He left after Islamic State militants overtook the area and robbed his family, taking all their possessions, including their mobile phones, causing them to lose contact. He fled on his own with little more than the clothes on his back to Dohuk, Iraq, where he lived in a church for two months. From there, he took an airplane from Irbil to Beirut. He has not seen his family since.
“I’m staying here with a friend, and we’re helping each other,” said Izhak. “I’ve made some Iraqi friends that I see at church on Sundays.” Other than that, he said, he barely leaves his small apartment in Sed El Boushrieh, which he chose because he heard about the area’s large Iraqi Christian community.
His roommate, Arnous Derawish, 21, a Syriac Catholic originally from Tel Kaif, first fled to Turkey when Islamic State overtook his town, but he found the conditions there, particularly the paperwork and the language difference, too complicated. He then settled on Lebanon, as an Arabic-speaking country with a substantial Christian community.
“It’s over. There’s no place left for minorities, especially Christians,” he said.
“I won’t return to Iraq. There’s nothing left for me there — no school, no future,” said Izhak, who left school during the war at 15 to help support his family by selling CDs. He still hopes to complete his education so that he can one day open his own business. For now, he’s worried not only about not only his own situation but also that of other Iraqi youths.
“We need help, not just with food but also psychologically. Youth is the most important stage of life. We’ve lost everything. We’ve seen people die. There should be more focus on youths. Refugees are tired,” he said.
“I just want to live comfortably. I’ve only seen this neighborhood (in Lebanon.) I can’t go out and go shopping. I didn’t come here for tourism. May God help us. There are thousands of people like me, I’m sure.”
Derawish added: “People our age are supposed to be studying and going out. I’ve never had that.”
He said he still dreams of one day studying computer engineering.
Syriac Catholic Father Firas Dardar, originally from Baghdad, said no one ever anticipated such a mass migration from Iraq or such an influx of refugees to Lebanon. Since August, he said, many of the churches in Iraqi towns with once-thriving Christian communities now sit empty. This was the first time for many of these churches to not hold Christmas services.
For Christmas, he planned an outing for Iraqi Syriac Catholics to visit Christian holy sites in Lebanon. To try to meet the needs of the community, he said the church will be opening a school for around 350 Syrian Catholic children ages three to 14 in Dekwaneh, near Sed El Boushrieh. They also will be opening a soup kitchen in Dora, just north of Beirut.
Father Dardar, still shaking his head in disbelief at what has happened to his country, said: “Our culture goes back thousands of years, and ISIS only just came along. They’ve been there for such a short period, and they’ve destroyed everything.”