Imperiled Christian family abandons its cherished homeland to start new life

By Rebecca Rosen Lum / STAFF WRITER / Contra Costa Times
Life in Fallujah was already dangerous before Samiya Bashir, her three daughters and son learned American and Iraqi forces were coming to “clean” their neighborhood.
Men with unfamiliar accents would stop them in their car and demand to know why the women didn’t cover their heads. One day, two men sideswiped them, forced them to stop and tried to pull one of the women from the car.

They were Christians in a once-diverse society increasingly dominated by violent Islamic extremists.

In 2005, when American fliers dropped leaflets on their neighborhood warning of a coming air attack, the family threw together some pillows and blankets, documents and a laptop. They rented a car and drove to Diyarbakir, 60 miles inside Turkey. From there, they took a bus to Istanbul, and to a Catholic church.

Recognized by the U.S. State Department as members of a vulnerable minority, the Christians nonetheless waited for two years in Turkey before the U.N. high commissioner accepted them as refugees. The women were given passage to the Bay Area, where they joined a brother in Dublin. Another brother, Raed Toma, still waits in Turkey.

The first of several Iraqi families to be resettled by Catholic Charities of the East Bay, Bashir and her daughters have moved into a sparsely furnished apartment in Fremont and now spend their days running to Social Security, the DMV and other agencies to accomplish the tasks it takes to establish a working life.

Her son, Shamil Toma, a testing engineer, has been in the West for 15 years and is helping them learn to make their way in the United States.

When these refugees look back home now, they see a beloved country torn by harsh ethnic and religious rifts.

Twenty years ago, Hana Toma, 50 — the eldest of Bashir’s daughters and a former translator for the Ministry of Culture — worked happily with a crew that included a liberal Shiite, a Turkman, a Christian and a Muslim, and she knew of many mixed marriages.

Wafa Toma, 45, a primary school teacher, and Sena Toma, 37, a teacher at a technical institute, enjoyed friendships with people of different faiths in Fallujah. In fact, faith was seldom discussed, they said.

Although they were Christians in a conservative Muslim neighborhood, they enjoyed mutual respect.

“Christmas, we set up our Christmas tree,” Hana Toma said. “At Easter, mother would color eggs.

“Until 2003, nobody knew who was living next to you religionwise. After 2003, everything just fell apart.”

As the bombs began falling, the minority Wahhabis — a Sunni revivalist sect that advocates separation of the sexes and other fundamentalist mores, enforced by a cultural police — began asserting themselves. Other Wahhabis began pouring into the city.

“It was a catastrophe,” Hana Toma said. “People thought there would be democracy and freedom. Those terms are comparative. How can you apply them when everything collapses?”

Freedom of religion has been all but lost in Iraq, according to a U.S. State Department report. The 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom blames the ongoing insurgency and “conservative and extremist Islamic elements” for the sharp decline in religious tolerance.

“We are a minority,” said an Iraqi priest on an interfaith tour of California. He asked not to be named for fear of retaliation when he returns home. “We suffer maybe more than other minorities. Why? Insurgents say America is majority Christian. This is the logic.”

Christians in Iraq — Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians — still use an ancient liturgy. Although they are a small minority — 3 percent — many are doctors and engineers, the priest said.

Chaldean priests have been threatened, kidnapped, tortured and killed. More than 500,000 Christians have fled the country since 2003, according to the State Department report.

“In Iraq, we have the same problem as here — the silent majority: Muslim clergy don’t speak out because they are afraid,” the priest said.

“It’s ironic because there have been Christians in Iraq since year zero, but Christians are associated in many people’s minds with the West,” said Kathleen Newland, director at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization. “Their asylum claims are less likely to be challenged and there is advocacy on their behalf.”

Three months after the attack on their neighborhood, Raed Toma returned to Fallujah and photographed the ransacked ruins of their home.

Now, they sit at a bare table in a room with few other accommodations sorting through the photographs showing a comfortable living room — then the same room with a hole punched in one wall. Other photos show scorched walls of rooms that looters emptied.

Despite chaos, displacement and destruction, they laugh a lot. They have always been a close family, pouring their salaries into a single pot. They built their family home together “brick by brick,” Hana Toma said.

Late in the morning on a weekday, the sisters poured Turkish coffee into espresso cups donated by a friend of Shamil’s and served visitors helva candy.

“We don’t like to just sit here and go shopping,” Hana said. “That is not our life. We want to be active again.”