Christian IDPs sheltering above Erbil bazaar threatened with eviction

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By Robert Edwards and Zhelwan Z Wali
Iraqi Christian IDPs have been living rent-free inside the apartments above Nishtiman bazaar in downtown Erbil, March 5, 2019. Photo: Robert Edwards / Rudaw

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraqi Christian families left homeless by the war with Islamic State (ISIS) are being threatened with eviction from an apartment building in downtown Erbil where they have been sheltering rent-free since 2014.

Families who spoke to Rudaw English say their homes were destroyed when ISIS militants swept across northern Iraq, forcing thousands of Nineveh’s Christians to seek shelter in the Kurdistan Region.”We have to pay for the house to be rebuilt, but we cannot afford it,” said Suhaila Yaaqub, whose family fled to Erbil from Bartella in 2014. “If there’s no house, where can we go?”

Yaaqub showed Rudaw photographs of her home before and after the war. It has been reduced to a mound of rubble.

“Even if we did go back, there is no security… Even if we go out, we have no money,” she added.

Suhaila Yaaqub, an Iraqi Christian IDP, shows photographs of her home in Bartella which has been reduced to rubble, March 5, 2019. Photo: Robert Edwards / Rudaw

Around 200 Christian families from both Iraq and Syria live in apartments above Nishtiman Bazaar, a stone’s throw from the city’s iconic citadel.

The majority of the Iraqi Christian families are from the villages of Bartella and Qaraqosh.

Families living in the complex are under the guardianship of La Rocher de Neshtiman – an aid organization backed by the French foreign ministry, L’Œuvre d’Orient, Centre de Crise et de Soutien, and Action Humanitaire France.

With the Syrian civil war still raging, Syrian families living in the complex have been allowed to remain. However, with the declaration of victory over ISIS in Iraq at the end of 2017, the Iraqi Christian families have been told to leave.

The case highlights the ongoing plight of Iraq’s IDPs and vulnerable religious minorities.

Iraqi Christian IDPs have been living rent-free inside the apartments above Nishtiman bazaar in downtown Erbil, March 5, 2019. Photo: Robert Edwards / Rudaw

During the ISIS war, the building’s owner, Nizar Hanah, allowed the families to stay in the apartments as an act of charity. Now their villages have been liberated from ISIS, Hanah has asked the Iraqi Christian families to move on. Residents have been told they have until June 2019 to leave.

“We will have to go to Ankawa. But we cannot afford the rent there,” said Munira Shaun, one of the block’s Iraqi residents, referring to northern Erbil’s predominantly Christian neighborhood.

Churches in Ankawa took in thousands of displaced people in 2014 before they were resettled in IDP camps or emigrated abroad.

“We cannot leave. We have children studying in the schools here,” said Shamran Majeed, cradling her baby daughter.

Roughly 30 Iraqi Christian families remain in the apartments above Nishtiman bazaar. They have been asked to leave by June 2019. March 5, 2019. Photo: Robert Edwards / Rudaw

Many of the Iraqi Christian families have already vacated their apartments – some returning to their villages, others securing alternative accommodation.

The roughly 30 Iraqi Christian families who remain in the building are left with few options.

“Their homes have been burned… there is nowhere for them to go. They will end up sleeping on the streets,” Rabeel Yousif Soran, who works for La Rocher de Neshtiman, told Rudaw, confirming the evictions.

Iraqi Christian IDPs Shamran Majeed (L) and Tara Ablahd in their apartment above Nishtiman bazaar, March 5, 2019. Photo: Robert Edwards / Rudaw

He is lobbying Bashar Warda, the Archbishop of Erbil, to intervene in support of the families.

Rudaw English tried multiple times to contact Hanah, but has been unable to reach him for comment. Soran says the building’s owner is currently in Lebanon.

Asked to comment on the issue, Hoshang Mohamed, director of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Joint Crisis Coordination Centre, said the KRG does not tolerate evictions or the forced return of IDPs.

“Our policy is constant that we do not support any forcible repatriation or returning of IDPs,” Mohamed said.

“We only support voluntary return with dignity and respect. We have zero tolerance for any mistreatment, eviction, and abuse of displaced people,” he added.