No letup in flight of Iraqi Christians into Lebanon

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The Syriac families in the Dekwaneh house arrived in Lebanon in early October after two months as internal refugees in the Kurdish capital of Erbil.(The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
Syriac girl, Sandra, rides her toy car. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
Syriac girl, Valentina, laughs while holding a potato. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
?Kareeem Shaheen| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: “What did Daesh take from you?” Nour Astifo asked his 3-year-old daughter Sandra, sitting in his lap. “My toys,” she replied.

Astifo, a Syriac Catholic, was huddled with two other families from the community who all hail from Al-Hamdaniya, a village in Nineveh Province not far from Mosul, the city which fell to ISIS militants in June.

They were gathered in a small room in a building in the northern Beirut suburb of Dikwaneh, where they took refuge last month from the ongoing turmoil in Iraq.

Astifo’s tiny apartment is beyond modest, with no beds and just a straw mat to sleep on without protection from the concrete floor. His daughter’s toys are all borrowed, donated by Lebanese neighbors who took pity on a child who left her toys behind as she fled.

Their family is one among thousands of Iraqis who have fled to Lebanon amid unending bloodshed in their homeland – primarily Christians who feared forced conversion and enslavement by Daesh forces, Arabic for ISIS.

“When I was born there was the Iran war, then a war with Kuwait, then a siege, then the 2003 war and then sectarianism,” said Mazen Bulos, one of the Iraqi refugees living in an apartment in the building with four other family members.

“Then bombings, murder, kidnappings, and now this year we have Daesh,” he added. “I swear since we have been born we haven’t had peace, from war to war.”

The flight of Iraqi Christians into Lebanon continues – the families in this house arrived in Lebanon in early October after two months as internal refugees in the Kurdish capital of Irbil. While the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees projects that Lebanon will have 6,100 Iraqi refugees by the end of the year, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said the number was up to 8,000 – back in August.

The Chaldean Bishop of Lebanon told The Daily Star in August that his church had assisted 1,350 Iraqi families. Most of Iraq’s Christians are Chaldeans. The Assyrian Church said at the time they had helped between 350 and 400 families.

The families that had fled Al-Hamdaniya did so twice. The first time was in late June when Mosul fell to a lightning ISIS advance, but they returned in August to their village with assurances from the Kurdish paramilitary force, the peshmerga, that they would be protected.

But days later they found themselves in an artillery crossfire barrage that lasted through the night, and news that the peshmerga was planning a retreat in the face of the ISIS assault. Those who could flee to Irbil, by car or foot, did so, fearing slaughter at the hands of jihadi fighters who saw them as infidels.

“How can you not fear a man who beheads?” Bulos said. “And we are 15 minutes away from him.”

“Who was going to protect us?” said Salar Amer Habib, a 52-year-old man who heads a family of six that fled that day.

Their fears appeared founded as stragglers, elderly men and women who were allowed to leave the village days later, told them their churches had been vandalized and desecrated.

Habib’s family stayed in tents and churches in Kurdistan, until they secured six airplane tickets to Beirut for $3,000.

The families sold their jewelry to keep up with the exorbitant rents of largely sparse homes in majority-Christian Dikwaneh, where many other Iraqi Christians live.

“We left only with our clothes,” Bulos said, holding a small wad of bills from selling his wife’s gold. “Once this is gone, we will only have these straw mats.”

The families said they have had little help – as their savings dwindle and they struggle to find employment, they receive little assistance from the UNHCR, hobbled as it is by providing for over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. They said the Chaldean Church asked them to seek assistance from the Syriac Church of Lebanon, which was only able to provide them with some blankets and some basic food staples like rice and oil, in addition to the occasional item from generous Lebanese neighbors.

The refugees said they hoped the U.N. would help resettle them. They fled to Lebanon because they believed the country was more moderate, and because it has a sizeable Christian community. They find it hard to contemplate going back to live with their Muslim neighbors.

“If your neighbor takes away your money, how would you live with that person? If he is cooperating with these people, and the one who eats alongside you betrays you, how?” Bulos said.

And for many of the Iraqi Christians who fled to Lebanon, the loss of their ancestral homes sting deeply.

“He had a home, I had a home, this man also had a home, and they’re all gone,” Habib said. “The toil of a lifetime.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 26, 2014, on page 4.

The Syriac families in the Dekwaneh house arrived in Lebanon in early October after two months as internal refugees in the Kurdish capital of Erbil.(The Daily Star/

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