Thousands of Iraqi Christians find refuge in Lebanon

200892522840.jpgFamilies face tough times after fleeing their homeland
By Raphael Thelen

BEIRUT: Hundred of thousand of Chaldean Christians have fled Iraq because of violent threats against their community, and thousands of those refugees have arrived in Lebanon during the last few years, searching for a better life or resettlement in other countries. “The situation of the Chaldean community in Iraq is very difficult. Many receive threats by Muslim fundamentalists and criminal gangs via telephone, get kidnapped or killed,” Michel Kasdano , coordinator of the Chaldean church, told The Daily Star.

The Chaldean community has lived in Iraq since the time of Christ. Settling mostly in the northern districts, particularly around Mosul, their population is estimated to number around 1,300,000, but almost half of the minority Christian community has already fled Iraq in several waves over the last 50 years, leaving whole villages almost deserted. The exodus reached its peak in 2007.

The Chaldean Church in Beirut coordinates the work of various non-governmental organizations that are trying to help the displaced Chaldean community in Lebanon.

“When I started my job, the different NGOs almost competed to offer their help, so we called them together to manage the complementing efforts,” Kasdano said.

These NGOs and volunteers from the Chaldean Church provide the incoming refugees with everything from food parcels and health care to blankets and housing.

“We always try to vary the provided help. This month every family receives two packs of milk powder extra,” said Kasdano, who served as a general in the Lebanese Army until two years ago.

Most refugees arrive in Lebanon with only a few belongings packed in a suitcase, leaving almost everything else behind. The Lebanese government offers them a one-month visa, but most of them overstay the duration and their status becomes illegal, meaning that they face the threat of detention.

According to Kasdano, “The Christians of Iraq would do almost everything right now to leave the country; they do not feel safe anymore.”

However, the situation of the refugees has improved over the last month, with the government allowing them to stay in Lebanon as unrecognized refugees under the supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The situation improved, but they are still scared every time they pass a checkpoint or go to work,” Kasdano said.

A young Iraqi from a village near Mosul, who wished to remain anonymous, arrived in Lebanon two months ago.

“I received repeated calls on my cell phone, threatening to kill me if I do not quit my job and leave the country,” the 30-year-old, who had worked as a police officer, said. “I tried to keep my phone number secret, but they probably got it through grilling other kidnapped persons.”

The young Chaldean Christian followed the instructions almost immediately, fearing that the threats were real. His nephew Raymond was abducted only few days after his marriage.

The kidnappers demanded several thousand dollars for his release, warning that they would kill him if his family did not pay. The family did not have enough money, but many people of his community contributed, so Raymond was freed after one month of captivity.

But the young man faced additional dangers. His father-in-law, an accountant at an oil company, was kidnapped on his way to work, and then released within one day after converting to Islam under threat.

“I still have a lot of family in Iraq, my two married sisters and a married brother, but most of the people already left. From originally 5,000 people in my village only 1,000 are left” the young refugee said.