Escape from ISIS: Iraqi Christians start over in Warren

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Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press
Waseem Ilotte, left, and his wife, Lara Al Aso, load their son Aras Ilotte, 18 months old, all from Warren, into their vehicle after receiving aid at the Chaldean American Ladies of Charity Center in Troy on Oct. 10, 2014.(Photo: Tim galloway, Special to Detroit Free Press)
On the road fleeing their hometown in Iraq, the Ilotte family was packed tight in a black sedan as ISIS forces advanced behind them.
“They’re going to kill us, they’re going to get us,” 4-year-old Frans Ilotte cried in the backseat.

“No, we’ll protect you. It’s OK,” the boy’s parents assured him.

But with their gas tank running low, they weren’t sure what would happen. The Catholic family was among thousands of other Christians that day in August fleeing Bartella, a small Assyrian village near Mosul in northern Iraq. The four lanes of the highway — including the two westbound lanes — were jammed with cars headed east.

As non-Muslims, the Ilotte family knew they would either be killed or oppressed by ISIS, a militant group that seeks to dominate the region with their interpretation of Islam.

“The sounds of bullets were coming from everywhere,” recalled the boy’s father, Waseem Ilotte, 35.

“Imagine someone chasing you, trying to kill you,” he said. “It’s hard to describe that feeling.”

Now living in a Warren apartment with his wife, Lara Al Aso, and two young boys, Ilotte is trying to restart his life, but the narrow escape from ISIS and the loss of their life in Iraq has stayed with them. His 4-year-old son and wife are still shaken up, suffering from anxiety, and they worry about other family members now scattered across the Mideast.

“We left our history,” Aso said. “We left our past lives in the middle of the night.”

The story of the family’s escape from ISIS is echoed by thousands of other Christians and others who have fled in recent months the advances of ISIS, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State. Their account offers a glimpse into how ISIS has systematically cleansed villages of minorities and others who aren’t Sunni Muslims. They’ve killed, abducted and tortured Iraqis, according to community leaders and news reports.

Most minorities who have fled ISIS have ended up in other parts of Iraq, neighboring countries, or in Europe. A few, such as the Ilottes, have ended up in the U.S. because they had previously applied for residency through family members.

As much as they miss Bartella, the Ilottes said they have no plans to return. While they’ve lost their homes and possessions, they feel lucky to have escaped with their lives and freedom, unlike many others.

“There’s no going back when even the military is fleeing,” Ilotte said recently inside the Chaldean American Ladies of Charity Center in Troy. “They don’t want Christians there.”

Small-town life

Up until 2003, life for the couple in Bartella was relatively relaxed.

He was an electrician, as was his father, in a place that “had a small-town feel,” he said.

They were Chaldeans, Iraqi Catholics, part of a religious community that stretched back almost to the start of Christianity 2,000 years ago.

But the start of the U.S.-led Iraq war brought changes, with Iraqis of various groups such as Sunnis and Shi’as now moving into what was predominantly Christian place.

“Women started to feel uncomfortable,” Ilotte said. “It wasn’t safe for them to walk around.”

Then in June, ISIS swept through Mosul, threatening the small Christian towns nearby.

The morning of Aug. 6, Aso had woken up in Bartella looking forward to the marriage of her brother, who lives in Texas, but had come back to his hometown in Iraq for his wedding celebration.

Early in the morning, Aso and others in Bartella heard the sound of a missile, but they didn’t know where it was coming from and put aside their concerns. Some guests had already decided to leave out of fear, but “we didn’t believe (ISIS) would come in” to Bartella, she said.

A few hours later, Aso went to a hair salon to get ready for the wedding party. But she started hearing chatter there about ISIS advancing.

“We have to leave now,” a stylist at the salon told them, recalled Aso in Arabic through a translator at the Chaldean ladies center.

Soon, the “bride stopped the wedding,” Aso said. “Everybody had to leave.”

Aso went back to the home of her brother’s family where she was staying for the wedding, got her two sons, ages 4 and 18 months, and soon, they were off along with her husband, father, mother and a brother.

“It was an eerie scene,” Ilotte said. There were cars everywhere, headed in the same direction, thousands of them, but you couldn’t see any people, just cars, he said.

Waseem didn’t want to look out the window as they drove east because, he said, he didn’t want this last memories of his hometown to be a negative one.

They drove to Erbil, a town in northern Iraq that’s under Kurdish control. The drive would normally only take one hour, but ended up taking them 11 hours. Exhausted, they found Erbil packed with other Christians who had fled, sleeping in churches, on the streets, wherever they could lay down and rest.

They found a tiny room to sleep in for a few nights, a dozen crammed into one room. It was so crowded they couldn’t even close the door because one person needed the extra legroom.

That first night, Aso had nightmares that woke her up; confused, she started attacking her husband, thinking he was an ISIS militant.

“I was choking him,” she said. “I couldn’t see him.”

They eventually made their way further east to the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, where they stayed for a weeks in an apartment.

‘Future is here’

After her brother immigrated to the U.S. last year, Aso had applied for her and her family to move to the U.S. Forced out of Bartella, they tried to get their applications expedited and got visas.

They arrived in the U.S. in September, settling in metro Detroit because of its sizable Chaldean population.

“Our future is here,” Aso said. “The most important is our children, not ourselves.”

Local Chaldean groups are trying to help families like the Ilottes resettle in Michigan. At the Chaldean ladies center last month, the Ilottes received free food and a car seat for their children. Waseem Ilotte is trying to find work as an electrician.

Many other Iraqi minorities like the Ilottes have been forced out, said Joseph Kassab, head of Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield. Many of the small cities, like Bartella, have been emptied of Christians. ISIS forces have taken over the houses, he said.

“The Arab neighbors of our community betrayed our community members,” Kassab said of the Muslim neighbors of Iraqi Christians in Iraq. “They looted all their homes. This is not just ISIS, this is the Arab community, the ones considered neighbors.”

Christians “are still under siege, and people are unable to go back,” Kassab said. “Their lives are shattered, destroyed.”

The parents of Bashar Bakoz of Waterford were forced to flee their hometown of Qaraqosh in August, the same week that the Ilottes left. Like Bartella, it’s now been cleansed of Christians and other minorities.

A month after fleeing, Bakoz’s father, Behnam Bakoz, suffered a stroke while at a military checkpoint, dying a few weeks later at age 75. Bakoz said his dad’s health deteriorated after he was forced to flee.

“There’s no more future for Christians in Iraq,” Bakoz said. “It’s so sad.”

Ilotte agrees, saying that the Christians forced out “are not going to go back.”

He and his wife struggle to understand why extremists want Christians out.

“We are the foundation of that country,” he said. “Why do they want Christians out? We’re the ones who helped educate people. We’re never in jail, we didn’t bother anyone.”

Contact Niraj Warikoo: or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo.

The Chaldean Church created a website,, for people to donate to help Iraqi refugees