Christian refugees languish in camps, looking for hope

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By Arina Moradi yesterday at 04:16
An elderly Christian woman peers into the courtyard of the former Qalb Muqaddas (Sacred Heart) Assyrian Church which now serves as a refugee camp for some 70 displaced families from Bartella. Photo by Farzin Hassan
Marolin Sabri is angry. The 28-year-old mother of three says she is sick and tired of local officials who have made promises to her community of Assyrian Christian refugees that nestles together in a former church in Kirkuk.

“I have to laugh. So many people have come from the government saying they will help us, but we are only surviving on the help from NGOs and the church,” she said.

Sabri is one of thousands of Christian refugees who were brutally driven from their homes by the Islamic State, or ISIS, and sought safety in cities and towns across the Kurdistan region. Sabri’s home town of Bartella is still held by ISIS, and she wonders if she’ll ever return.

Her frustration is common among displaced Christians, many of whom share the same everyday worries and deep fears for the future of their families.

“Our kids keep asking, ‘When will we go home? It is like a prison for them,” Sabri told Rudaw.

Sadly, Sabri’s story is also all-too-common. Bernan Petros, 47, also fled Bartella with his family as ISIS bore down on the Christian community.

“We were almost the last family to leave. We left everything behind, even our money. Without my money, how can I make plans? Everything I had is under the control of ISIS,” Petros said in the single room he shares with his six-member family at the former Qalb Muqaddas (Sacred Heart) Assyrian Church in Kirkuk.

Also like Sabri, Petros and his family first went to Erbil’s ancient Christian quarter of Ainkawa but found no room in the camps and churches. He said the price for a hotel room for one night was $150; too much for a family running for their lives.

Now, among the 70 or so families staying at Qalb Muqqaddas, Sabri and Petros worry about attaining the jobs and residency permits they will need to build a new life.

“We don’t have work. We just survive on what they give us,” Petros said, speaking under a poster of Jesus Christ that had been taped to the wall.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) reports that 1,160,000 internally displaced Iraqis had arrived in Erbil by June. Life for Christian refugees in overcrowded Ainkawa is little better than in Kirkuk.

Anoutha Ishak is among hundreds of Christian women who spend their lives in Mar Eillia Church at the heart of the Christian neighborhood.

“We became depressed and psychologically unwell,” Ishak said. “I was a nurse. I left my job, my belongings, my house, and all our money. Of course after we came here our life changed.”

Christians are among the many minorities and Kurds who have flooded the region. The government says all groups have been treated equally.

“We are dealing with refugee issues—Arabs, Christians, Yezidis, and all other minorities—without any discrimination. For those who are living in the Kurdistan region, we are trying to help them stay inside the country,” said Shakir Yasseen, general director of the KRG’s Bureau of Migration and Displacement.

A sharp increase of Iraqi refugees fleeing ISIS into Europe became a concern for the European Union as well as local governments of Iraq. According to CIA World Factbook, the pre-2003 Christian population in Iraq was as high as 1.4 million. Since the ISIS war, estimates put the population between 260,000 and 350,000.

“We are trying to prevent illegal immigration of all Iraqis including Christians. We want them stay inside the country, but for those who have been given a visa by European embassies in the region, we cannot do anything about it,” Yasseen explained.

For refugees like Petros, leaving Iraq and the ongoing violence is all he can think about.

“There is no hope in this country. We have no hope here. We are so tired of this situation, and now we are thinking of leaving–all Christians together–to seek another place in Europe,” he said.

“That is our only dream: to leave this place forever.”