Leaving Iraq: An Iraqi Christian

By Sahar S. Gabriel
Almost six years to the day since the American invasion of Iraq, Sahar S. Gabriel, a Christian Iraqi translator who worked for The New York Times in Baghdad, has left Iraq to move to America with her family on a refugee program.
An Assyrian Catholic who was born in Baghdad in 1985, and obtained a Bachelor of Arts from the College of Arts at Baghdad University, she will write a series of blog posts for The New York Times on her new life in the United States.
Before leaving her country she described her experiences in Iraq as a member of a minority that dates back to the earliest days of Christianity.
I will miss Iraq. I was born here. My family comes from the north of the country, which isn’t like the rest of Iraq. Dohuk and Sulaimaniya, where most of the population is Kurdish and Christian, are like the Geneva of the Middle East. They are much more peaceful, they have everything that you want and the scenery is beautiful, with mountains and lakes. That I will miss very much, because I always missed going there. Especially at Christmas time.
But I will not miss them enough to pass up this adventure. I have always wanted to study in an American university. Somewhere I don’t have to beg and grovel to get a book out of a college, or where you can’t go to the library because it doesn’t have electricity.
I won’t miss Baghdad or my neighborhood. I hate my neighborhood. As Christians we kept to ourselves mostly after 2003, except for a very, very few liberal neighbors.
Just a few days ago I was beside a mosque. I could hear the preacher saying “It is your duty as a Muslim neighbor to show your other non-Muslim neighbors the light, you have to show them the right path.” This is just “in your face” offensive. They are taking it for granted that there won’t be any comeback, that we Christians are harmless. Which we are most of the time. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t offended.
These kind of things happened in Saddam’s time, but it was more subtle. It wasn’t in your face. It’s only personal experience but at school some of my teachers preferred the students who were Muslim. Some of them were clever, but I was as clever as they were. And this was in a school run by nuns, Iraqi Franciscans.
Some of the Muslim teachers were very fundamental about their religion. They took things very literally. When I was nine years old I remember a teacher arguing with me that I couldn’t say Jesus is the Son of God, because God does not have a Son. It was like blasphemy to them. I felt like it wasn’t fair that we were singled out in that kind of way.
Some friends would try and convert us. This happened with my dad, too. In Saddam’s time we went to visit relatives and my dad got into a discussion with the taxi driver about politics, philosophy, things like that. When we got out of the taxi the driver turned to dad and he said: “You are so educated and intelligent, how come you are not a Muslim?” I think I was nine and a half. I could see that my dad’s face turned pink, and red. But I saw mum tugging at him and he turned and looked at us, turned back to the taxi driver, paid him and said, “Thank you very much.”
I think that was the time I learned that I couldn’t say what I really felt to people in Iraq. I was a child, and I thought that this is something that Christian adults do here. Not voice your own opinions, especially when it comes to religion.
The same sort of thing happened to me. Girls would come up and say, “You are so intelligent, you are so smart. You have a great future. If only you were Muslim.” I just repeated what my dad said. Not everyone was like that. Some of them were awesome to me, way over the top nice. I felt they were overcompensating. They pitied me, or felt for all the difficulties I had to face.
Christians started leaving Iraq during Saddam’s time, in 1990 after the invasion of Kuwait. People didn’t approve of what he did there. We didn’t know what happened in Kuwait through the official Iraqi media, of course, but we heard from returning Iraqi soldiers about the killings, the ill-treatment of people, the looting, breaking into houses and stealing.
I think Christians saw it coming, they figured that if someone would do that to a neighboring country, to their fellow Muslims, it was only a matter of time before he would commit those things against Christians too.
Christians started to leave from my area, very slowly. Then after the American invasion in 2003 and the rise of the extremists they started leaving very quickly.
We didn’t know that 2003 was going to be different from 1990. I had hopes that Iraq was going to be turned into Dubai or the Gulf area, so advanced and developed. I thought: “Great, America is going to come, the cinemas will be open, there are gong to be bookstores and cybercafés.”
But our relatives in America telephoned us in February 2003 and said: “You need to go, they have already set a date for invading Baghdad.” My father usually had these conversations from a post office using pay phones. He said that though he did think that there would be someone listening to them, they could not possibly pinpoint one individual who made a call because a lot of people used those phones. Also they spoke in Assyrian, not Arabic.
It became much, much more dangerous after 2003. People assumed that because we were Christians we must have millions of dollars, so the kidnappings started. I don’t know why people assumed that, but it is probably because Christians have many relatives abroad and they do send money, in dollars.
We had huge propaganda against people who didn’t wear scarves, Whether you were Muslim or non-Muslim you had to wear a scarf. I wasn’t against the scarf, I wear it sometimes as a fashion thing. But I don’t like being forced to do it. I have such a limited freedom in dressing like I want to, or wearing something that I like, and they were preying on the little freedom that I had.
Some of my Christian friends did start wearing scarves. They were scared. In their defense, they went out a lot, much more than I did. I just went from home to college to home.
After 2003 I never wore a crucifix. I didn’t want to categorize myself in that way, I wanted to see how people would react to me before I knew that I was a Christian.
The violence began when the Islamic militias started to appear in the political arena.
My dad’s cousin was kidnapped for a ransom in 2007. I think it was for $30,000. They paid, and they got him back. He was shaken up a little bit. I don’t know which side took him.
My area used to be 80 percent Christian, but is now 5 percent. My church is still there, but very few people go now. There was a time when we had to change our mass schedules on Saturdays because everyone knows Christians go to mass on Sundays, and they were an easy target.
There used to be Christian households lined along the street, but now it is only one every street. Even those people will go soon. In 10 years there won’t be a single Christian in Iraq, I think. Maybe less than 10 years. Even if they are not leaving Iraq completely, some of them will relocate up north. I think Baghdad, the center of Iraq and the south will be Christian-free.