Palo Alto’s Mothers Against Murder helps ISIS victims

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by Sue Dremann / Palo Alto Weekly
Local nonprofit extends aid to Iraqi Christian refugees facing genocide
The letter from ISIS crisply enumerated the choices “Shoshan,” 26, and her family had if they wanted to stay in their hometown of Mosul in Iraq:

• Convert to Islam

• Or pay a hefty “protection” tax

• Or be beheaded

As Assyrian Christians, they were marked both for their ethnicity and religion. Overnight, they chose a final alternative offered by ISIS: to leave literally with only the shirts on their backs, said Shoshan, who agreed to talk to the Weekly under an assumed name.

Arriving on a still-valid visa, Shoshan is seeking asylum in the U.S. with the help of Margaret Petros and Mothers Against Murder, a Palo Alto-based group dedicated to helping families of murder victims. Petros, the organization’s executive director, has offered support and translation services and helped gather documentation and navigate paperwork for victims.

On Monday, Shoshan faced her first interview with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Now seven-months pregnant, she was sent to California during the first trimester to escape being traumatized by ISIS and the ongoing displacement of hundreds of thousands of Christians in her homeland.

In Mosul alone, more than 60,000 Assyrian Christians out of 80,000 have fled to the mountains and live in makeshift tents, said Ladimer Alkhaseh, senior pastor of Assyrian Evangelical Church of San Jose and the Bay Area.

Shivering in the cold and soaked by flooding, the victims, who are the indigenous people of Iraq and come from a 6,800-year-old culture, rely on whatever aid can be dropped by aircraft into the region or funneled in through church organizations in bordering countries. It is unknown how much of the goods, including sleeping bags and clothing, has been sold on the black market before reaching the refugees, Alkhaseh said.

People who stay behind face kidnapping, slavery, rape and death, he added.

“The weapon of choice now is automobiles. They are running people over in the streets,” he said.

What is happening in Iraq is nothing short of genocide, members of local humanitarian and church groups said. When ISIS comes, Christian homes are marked with the Arabic letter “N” for Nazareth (“follower of Christ”), and the terrorist group seizes the home as its property.

“The situation is dire. Five-hundred thousand are displaced,” Petros said.

The group is working to help a few Iraqi Christian refugees, including Shoshan, gain asylum in the U.S.

Petros said that aiding these families is in line with the organization’s mission of helping families of murder victims.

“It’s 100 percent related to my work. It’s murder. When this was happening, I got glued to every bit of news,” said Petros, an Assyrian Christian and Iraqi. “I want to get the message out. There is so much disconnection.

To those people who don’t want the refugees coming to America, Petros said: “We are only talking about five families; we’re not talking about a flood of people. Very few families have a visitor visa. The embassy in Iraq does not give them easily.”

Shoshan’s family has already been the victim of murder. Her uncle was killed by terrorists while he was with an American contractor, Petros said.

Ten years of upheaval had preceded the ISIS invasion, starting with the U.S.-led Iraq War. Then ISIS, known as Daash, invaded on June 6, and by June 10, the terror group announced it had overthrown the local government, Shoshan said.

“There was fear (before), but it was unlike the fear after Daash came. When I slept, I did not have nightmares and wake up with all of my body trembling,” she said.

Shoshan had been married for a year and eight months and was pregnant when the edict came to leave or be beheaded.

“We thought in the beginning that maybe it would change for the better for the city. We realized quickly it was for the worst,” she said. “They terrorized Christians. They stole all their valuables … even all the cars and telephones (were) confiscated. They burned and destroyed all the churches. They took out the crosses and burned the statue of the Virgin Mary. They did not leave anything Christian alone.”

Mor Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, described the situation further during a recent interview posted on YouTube: “Although Mongols, Tatar and Hulagu have crossed the region … although a lot of wars happened on the land of Iraq, we did not stop praying in our churches, neither in Mosul nor in surrounding villages. Since 1,500 years, this is the first year we are praying outside of our churches.”

ISIS also confiscated some Christians’ official identification, Shoshan said.

“Once that is taken, how could you prove who you are? It is extremely difficult to travel without identification. How do you prove who you are to claim asylum or that you are a refugee?” Shoshan said.

Shoshan’s family left Mosul on July 19.

The family took two cars: Shoshan traveled with her mother- and father-in-law, youngest brother-in-law and sister-in-law while her husband and his brothers drove in a car behind them. They planned to go to Shoshan’s parents’ home in Erbil, which is in Kurdistan and receives support from Western countries and is not under ISIS control. The one-hour trip took nine to 10 hours because of the number of people fleeing the town at the same time, she said.

At a check point, armed ISIS men ordered them out of their car, and Shoshan was forced to surrender all of the gold she received for her marriage — a woman’s security in her country — and her wedding ring. ISIS took all of her mother-in-law’s gold and the family’s money.

“We just left with whatever we were wearing,” Shoshan said.

She watched in terror as the armed men pulled her husband’s car aside.

“We tried to see what was happening, but we were told, ‘You better leave or we are going to kill you,'” she recalled, adding that she still gets traumatized reliving the moment.

Her car tried to stop and wait for her husband, but others along the route told the family not to stay or they would be killed.

“In my mind, I thought they were going to kill them,” she said of her husband and his brothers. The men did not arrive at her parents’ home.

With Shoshan pregnant, the family thought it best to send her to stay with relatives in California. Since arriving in the U.S., she has been shuttling between relatives at opposite ends of the state.

But for awhile, her husband’s fate was unknown.

“One month and three days,” she said of the period of her husband’s disappearance before she heard from him again.

ISIS had confiscated his car at the checkpoint and forced him and his brothers to walk away. They hid in homes in controlled territory until air strikes forced ISIS to pull out, then they walked nine hours to Shoshan’s parents’ home, she said.

Shoshan is torn.

“I really want my family to be with me, especially my husband,” she said.

But if she can’t get asylum here, he won’t receive a visa. And if she returns to Iraq, she fears that she could be kidnapped, raped and murdered. With her light complexion and hair, she “looks like a British girl,” people in Mosul used to say.

Anyone thought to be a foreigner or who is known to have relatives in the West is particularly vulnerable, said Father Ninos Oshaana of Ascension Cathedral in Oakland. His church has been helping people from the region and has heard many stories.

“They become a target and are kidnapped, and money is demanded from the family as ransom. Even after it is paid, people are still not returned. There are horrific cases. People are returned in bits and pieces,” he said.

And families who pay a ransom to the terrorists are automatically barred from immigrating to the U.S., since paying the ransom is considered aiding and abetting the terrorists, he added.

Asked what Shoshan would she do if she had to return to Iraq, a determined look crossed her face.

“Would anyone want to go back to their death with his own legs?” she said.

Palo Alto’s Mothers Against Murder helps ISIS victims
A displaced Assyrian Christian family that fled ISIS in Iraq looks at the mud in their tent after flooding. Photo courtesy of Shawqi Shamoon
Palo Alto’s Mothers Against Murder helps ISIS victims
An Assyrian Christian man who was displaced by ISIS in Iraq cleans mud and water from his tent after Oct. 20 rains and flooding. Photo courtesy of Shawqi Shamoon
Palo Alto’s Mothers Against Murder helps ISIS victims
Margaret Petros, left, executive director of Mothers Against Murder, listens to Shoshan, who agreed to talk to the Weekly under an assumed name, during an interview with the Weekly on Nov. 10. Shoshan, who is an Assyrian Christian, fled from her home country of Iraq to escape the violence and persecution of ISIS when they took control. She has become separated from her family who have taken refuge in Kurdistan, and Petros is helping her navigate paperwork in the U.S. as she seeks asylum and hopes to bring her husband into the country. Photo by Veronica Weber.