COVER STORY ARTICLE | “‘To stay is to be killed'” November

Over 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries. Victims of organized militant groups, most are traumatized into never going back—but where do they go from here? | Mindy Belz

Associated Press/Photo by Joachim Ladefoged/VII
ALEPPO and DAMASCUS, Syria—Thousands of Iraqi Christians have found threats like this under their front doors or stoops, in stairwells or shoved through their courtyard gates: “Be informed that we will cut your heads and leave your dead bodies with no organs and no heads in your stores and houses. We know your houses and we know your family. We will kill you one after the other. Depart the Muslim areas.”

Others have received text messages in Arabic like this one sent to a Christian family in Mosul earlier this month: “When your head is put over your back [an expression describing how sheep are slaughtered] then there is no chance to feel sorry for you. It will be too late. Allah is the supporter who gives swords to his warriors.”


Christians sometimes receive the threats while shopping in the market or repairing a carburetor. They are often personal and usually signed by “al-Mujahideen,” “al-Jihad,” “al-Tawheed company” or other militant groups, splinters of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Few ever identify who is behind the threats but all reach the same conclusion, as one recipient put it: “To stay is to be killed.”

(Note: This article in several places uses sources not identified or identified only by their first name. This is at the sources’ request and WORLD’s recognition that their lives are at risk.)

As a result, over 2 million Iraqis—about 25 percent of them identified as Christians—have fled to neighboring countries, mostly Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. (View the map.) Judging from extensive conversations with Iraqis living in Jordan and Syria, few want to go home. While at least 40,000 Iraqis have been killed in fighting, random violence, and terrorism since the U.S. invasion in 2003, these refugees are the Iraq War’s living casualties—psychologically damaged from the prolonged terrorism, afraid of the next text message or the letter on the doormat, and helpless before a fearful future.

“This is different from other refugee situations in the past,” Roger Winter, the former U.S. Special Representative for Sudan and past president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, told me. “The bad guys are directly stalking Christians and other targeted groups in order to kill some and get their community out. The organized stalking to drive them out makes them so vulnerable.”

How can Americans help and how should president-elect Barack Obama respond, particularly as Iraq approaches key elections in early 2009? He and the galvanized Democrat-led Congress have promised to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office—a step likely to diminish what few steps the United States has taken to ease the refugee problem.

Casualty numbers in Iraq will be much lower in 2008 than in past years, but recent violence in Mosul, where several dozen Christians have been killed in the last two months and militants have bombed homes belonging to Christians, demonstrates how quickly militants can reignite a terror campaign. For example, on Nov. 12 militants shot and killed a woman waiting for a bus to go to work, then went to her home, where they shot and killed her sister and stabbed her mother. The attackers then set off a bomb that destroyed the house and wounded three policemen who had arrived to investigate.

Syrian church leaders say these and other similar episodes are propelling newly displaced families across the border into Syria this month. “At least 120-150 families have arrived to our different churches over the last couple of weeks, adding to our lists,” wrote one in a Nov. 15 email. “Most of these families arrived with their hand bags and nothing else in their hands. It is a pitiful situation, and we feel handicapped and paralyzed and not able to help them.”

In 2007 only 1,600 Iraqis of the millions at risk received asylum to enter the United States: Humanitarian groups charged that the United States is not doing enough to resolve a refugee crisis it helped to create. In 2008 the number is set to be far larger—over 12,000—after Congress and the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security agreed to accept additional cases. But the higher number still helps only a portion of those that under the 1951 Geneva Convention for granting permanent asylum to refugees can demonstrate “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Lacking approval for resettlement, Iraqis have only temporary status in neighboring countries, little opportunity for finding work to make a living, little money to pay for housing and other necessities, and little hope for their future. That plight seems to fall hardest on Christians and other minorities, who in addition to the day-to-day hardships face discrimination and persecution in the wider Middle East.

The problem is most evident in Syria, where approximately 350,000 Iraqi Christians out of over 1.2 million total Iraqi refugees currently live. The Syrian border is only 80 miles from Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city with at one time a sizeable Christian population. Christians in recent decades made up about 4 percent of Iraq’s general population, but according to church leaders in Syria they make up over 30 percent of its Iraqi refugee population.

That’s not reflected in the official tally of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where 14 percent of active Iraqi refugee cases across five countries are listed as Christians while over three-fourths are Muslims. Church leaders in Syria contend that locally hired UNHCR case officers, who are predominantly Muslim, routinely reject Christian applicants. UN officials deny that, but case officers who routinely refer Muslim applicants to Muslim help groups do not give Christian applicants church-based contacts. Case officers also do not tell Christians that if they have relatives living in the United States they may apply directly to the U.S. embassy for asylum. Even most church leaders in Syria, when asked, were not aware of that provision.

The Syrian government permits Iraqi passport holders to enter with a visa but does not allow them to hold jobs that could go to Syrians. Syria has no public assistance available for health care, schooling, or the legal services needed to file for refugee status. Syria also will not accept Iraqis as permanent residents. “We are suffering too much and there is no help,” said Raad Noori Yousif from Mosul. He and his family came to Syria over a year ago after his 19-year-old son was kidnapped and released. He sold his home to pay $20,000 in ransom, but a week later militants demanded more money. In Syria, Yousif said, “we get help from the UN or from churches, but not much.”

In Damascus Iraqis have taken over parts of Jaramana, an urban enclave close to Old City walls where the apostle Paul was lowered in a basket to escape Jews who wanted to kill him. Then, the dusty streets were wide enough only for two camels to pass; today, five-story buildings closely line those same streets, and cars jockey to squeeze by one another. On one corner an Iraqi changes money for evening shoppers, quickly folding thick wads of Iraqi dinars and Syrian pounds into baggy pants pockets. Behind him another Iraqi tosses dough for flat bread into the air, crouching then throwing it inside his street-front bakery.

It’s all part of the informal economy springing up among the refugees: They barter with one another as money-changers, barbers, or bakers but cannot integrate their trades into Syrian communities. In that sense it’s fitting that the nearly 500,000 Iraqis who pack the close streets of Jaramana have renamed the area Fallujah Place. In crowded walk-up apartments of not more than two bedrooms along what’s now called Tikrit Street, extended families of a dozen or more make temporary homes and subsistence livings however they can.

Water comes only once a week in this part of Jaramana, according to Abu Zaid, who arrived in the city 14 months ago and used to own a supermarket in Baghdad. The water supply, always short in late summer, is tapped out by the bulging refugee population. Zaid says some Muslim families have returned to Baghdad, but Christian Iraqis aren’t going back; in fact, many are still leaving. Zaid, his wife, and youngest son drove to the Syrian border after militants killed an older son and kidnapped his brother-in-law. The family eventually paid a $30,000 ransom for the brother-in-law’s release.

Zaid’s extended family remains far-flung: Some family members are in northern Iraq, and two of Zaid’s brothers have resettled, one in Detroit and one in Canada. Through Lutheran Social Services, a private refugee resettlement agency that contracts with the U.S. government, Zaid hopes to emigrate, but he believes it will take “at least two years.”

In the meantime, most Iraqi refugees say they have been welcomed at existing churches or have formed small fellowships on their own. At least one Baptist church has sprung up in Jaramana: A pastor from Baghdad, himself a refugee, leads in worship about 125 Iraqis who meet in a basement on Sunday evenings.

Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city at 3 million residents, is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. In 1915 it became a sanctuary for Armenians escaping the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks: Many Armenians walked across the mountains of southeastern Turkey to avoid the massacres, arriving in Aleppo naked and penniless, and the Armenian population in Aleppo between the world wars swelled from about 300 families to over 400,000. The massacres also drove other Christian communities from Turkey to Aleppo.

With the rise of Arab nationalism following World War II, and later radical Islam, many Armenians moved east to Soviet Armenia (now independent) and west to the United States. Today more than 100,000 Armenians live in Los Angeles County; 60,000 live in Aleppo. A generation ago one-quarter of Aleppo was Christian, but today it is less than 10 percent. Thousands of Iraqi Christians taking refuge in Aleppo have helped those sagging numbers, but there are “more conflict-displaced people in the region than at any time since the Palestinian exodus in 1948,” said Rasek Siriani of the Middle East Council of Churches.

At Aleppo’s Armenian Orthodox church Father Dativ Michaelian and his team are working with over 200 Iraqi Christian families. Michaelian says about 50 families in the last year have emigrated: 46 to America, four to Armenia, none to Iraq. His church is providing school fees for 2,000 Iraqi children (including some Muslims), assisting with housing and other necessities, and taking part in a once-a-month food distribution to refugee families. Michaelian’s grandparents fled Turkey for Aleppo: “We know what it means to leave everything. We take the responsibility. It is not something new to accept refugees and take care of them.”

Most of the families from Iraq that attend Armenian churches are from Baghdad or Mosul. Parsegh Setrak, his wife and three children, along with his brother and his family, are Mosul residents who came to Aleppo in 2006 after working with U.S. contractor Bechtel for three years. Setrak, 54, received threats against his family by letter. He said militants tried to kidnap his daughter, now 19, on her way to school, and later followed her home: “Many girls were being kidnapped and killed from school because the girls are Christians.”

When Bechtel closed Setrak’s construction project after several bombings, Setrak decided it was time to leave. The family sold everything it had in Iraq and now lives off those proceeds, paying $330 a month for a fourth-floor apartment in a building where the elevator only goes to the second floor. Setrak said he assumed he and his family could emigrate to America because of his involvement with a U.S. contractor (technically he is right; a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet says that Iraqis who worked for a U.S. contractor “can apply directly without a UNHCR referral”—but only in Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq). Two years after applying for immigrant status with UNHCR his family has heard nothing and was turned away from applying at the U.S. embassy.

“Here life has stopped,” Setrak told me—and Michaelian interrupted, “We as Middle Easterners don’t want Christian churches to empty.” Setrak’s 21-year-old son Masis quickly replied, “But we want to live, too.” Later Michaelian concluded, “The bridges are broken to go back to Iraq, especially for the Christian.”

For now the Iraqis have nearly doubled the size of some worship services, Michaelian says. He welcomes the change and recognizes that the Iraqis have questions and special needs, so once a week he holds a meeting just for them. It includes a time for devotions or Bible study and for questions about medical care, schooling, and other matters. Usually about 125 Iraqis show up for the Wednesday night gatherings, which often become a time to recount tragic experiences.

The refugees at the meetings are from as far away as Basra in southern Iraq, from Baghdad, and from the predominantly Christian towns in the north. “You try to talk about this as a subject, but when your life is the subject, it’s very scary,” said a refugee from Mosul. The refugee says his father received multiple letters, one containing a bullet, threatening to kill his two sons, both in their 20s. At one point the family paid protection money to militants to keep the sons from being taken, and also borrowed $50,000 to pay ransom after militants kidnapped an uncle.

Historic churches in Aleppo—Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean, Baptist—have formally banded together to share responsibility for the Christian refugees. The U.K.-based Barnabas Fund provides a monthly stipend for the Iraqis, underwriting church-based food distributions, medical care, and other services. Barnabas also is working with churches to purchase land in Aleppo to build additional housing for Iraqis. Caritas, the Catholic charity based in Rome, provided funds for Iraqi families via the Catholic churches in Aleppo, but the support ended in August. No other international charity organizations that typically show up in refugee camps are at work in Syria with the Iraqis.

“George” is a lay leader in the Syrian Orthodox church who helps to distribute monthly food rations and to run a medical clinic for Iraqis. On a balmy Thursday night in October he and a team of workers gather in the lower offices of the church while Iraqi families line up outside in a walled courtyard, passports and ration cards in hand. Everyone needs documents to receive a cash stipend and a black plastic bag containing rice or bulgar, oil, tea or milk powder, and frozen meat. On this particular night school children also received backpacks donated by Barnabas Fund: Young families get diapers and formula, and new arrivals receive a room fan.

Four hours after the distribution begins George and other church workers have given away nearly 180,000 Syrian pounds ($4,000) and about 110 food ration bags. It’s too late to finish: Workers tell the remaining Iraqis to come back on Saturday.

George has been helping Iraqi families for over 10 years, starting after the first Gulf War. He says the UN and many private relief groups helped refugees then but have done comparatively little this time; meanwhile, rents have gone up “and food prices have doubled this year. We help them but we don’t know how long we will be able to.”

George makes regular visits to Iraqi families. One routine stop is with Nisreen, a widow whose husband died from injuries in the Iran-Iraq war. Mosul terrorists after Sunday evening services on June 3, 2007, murdered her 24-year-old son and sole financial support, church deacon Besman Yousef, along with a Chaldean priest and two other deacons. She grieved the traditional 40 days, she said, then left for Syria. She has relatives in Sweden and hopes to move there, but like many Iraqis who register with UNHCR in Syria, she waited six months for her first interview with the agency and since that time, now nine months later, has heard nothing else about her request for asylum.

George also visits Raad Ghanem Youssef, who came to Aleppo with what remained of his family three months ago after his son and daughter were kidnapped: Terrorists already had killed his brother and another son. “We are looking for leaving Iraq and Syria for good, and going to Europe or America,” Youssef told me: “We have applied to the UN and have had two interviews, but we count only on God.”

Youssef has tried unsuccessfully to get medical treatment for his son, who has memory lapses and shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder following his kidnapping. Like many heads of families, Youssef keeps copies of the family’s refugee documents in a plastic Ziploc bag tucked inside his shirt—ready at a moment’s notice should there be a sudden break in his case.

Despite the trauma and well-founded fear for families like Youssef’s, the numbers are against their being accepted for emigration to the United States. And so is U.S. policy.

Even a decade after the Vietnam War ended, the United States accepted refugees from Indochina at a rate of about 14,000 per month, according to refugee expert Winter, who at that time worked on refugee resettlement at the State Department. Back then the United States interviewed refugees and processed asylum cases directly, taking into account U.S. interests as well as adherence to the Geneva Conventions on refugees. Now contact with refugees seeking asylum in the United States is likely managed by UNHCR, and because the agency employs case officers from the region, asylum cases are more likely to be determined based on local conditions—or bias—than U.S. interests. Officers do not have to say no to applicants; they simply do not process their applications. “This international approach makes refugee resettlement the last option,” Winter says. “In other words, it is supposed to not happen.”

For all the hardships, in many ways that is just fine with longstanding church leaders in Syria. They see dwindling church populations in Syria, Lebanon, and now Iraq, and know they are fighting for the survival of Christian orthodoxy in the Middle East. Their dilemma: They want to help Iraqi refugees, just not all the way to Europe or America.

“It is very important for us as oriental churches to have this presence in the lands of revelation of our faith, for ourselves and for other Christians,” said Antoine Odo, president of the Chaldean bishops of Syria. “We as churches have the experience of living with Islam. It will be very negative if we go abroad, and if we no longer have the presence of Christianity with Muslims. It is important to give Islam the opportunity to live with another religion.”

Odo predicts that when the Iraqi refugee crisis subsides, 70 percent of those living in Syria will have emigrated to other countries, 15 percent will remain in Syria, and 15 percent will go back to Iraq, where Odo traces his own family history to the town of al-Qosh, once the ancient Jewish town of the prophet Nahum, later a Christian village, in a region now majority Sunni Muslim and Kurdish. “Even the Muslims need historical references. Even if they are in opposition, Christians represent something that comes before them,” he said.

But a return to Iraq requires more protection from remaining militant groups, something dependent on continued U.S. military presence and a commitment to rebuilding broken communities. As Winter says, “No one wants to see Christian communities out of Iraq but to ask families to stay, that’s more difficult.”