Pauline is working with refugees from Irak and Syria in Beirut. She collected these stories of Iraqi Christian families from Mosul area.
From 5 June 2014, ISIS led a major offensive in Northern Iraq to push back the Iraqi government authorities and establish an Islamic State. They entered Mosul on June 6th and gained total control on it by June 10th. Despite the fact that their forces were outnumbered by the governmental 15 to 1, they took the city in a few days by the violence and atrocity of their methods. They spread terror through suicide bombing as well as hanging, crucifying and burning the soldiers they captured in full view of hundreds of thousands of viewers. Moreover, their ranks grew larger and larger as they were joined by sleeper cells hiding in the city. Most of Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons and fled with civilian’s clothes to escape these atrocities. Mosul’s inhabitants were abandoned to the terrorists who sent an ultimatum to Christian people, giving them the choice to either convert to Islam, pay taxes or prepare to die. They actually destroyed their religious sites and kidnapped many of them. The horrible means they used to kill them dissuaded the others to resist and remain in the land of their ancestors. A half-million residents fled the city between June and July. Most of them joined Kurdistan, a safe area which was soon crowded with refugees. Their goal was not to stay in this Kurdish area where they didn’t understand the common language and had no other option than living in tents. The hope of the Christian families was to flee to foreign countries where they can rebuild their lives without worrying of religious persecution. Thousands fled to Lebanon, a common first stop where they wait for resettlement from the UNHCR to a third country of exile. The condition to enter in Lebanon: showing USD 2000 per person. These families give all their savings to enter the country and pay enormous rent, waiting and hoping for a better future.
A daily life of waiting, Racha’s story
We meet the young Racha in front of her building. Her new born baby is sleeping in her arms, rolled in a blanket. We follow her on the dark dirty stairs of an old building where many Iraqi families have found refuge. Walking in her apartment, we have a moment of hesitation about where we should sit. The room, which seems to be the living room, is only filled with a thin foam mattress on the floor and a damaged chest of drawers bearing an old television. After putting her child to sleep in the bedroom, Racha joins us in the main room, pulling an old damaged chair behind her. She sits with a sigh of relief and pulls back her bleached hair. Sitting on the mattress, we listen to her story.
She comes from a small village in the Mosul area. In June 2014, the ultimatum launched by ISIS to the Christians, pushed she and her husband to flee their village and seek refuge in Kurdistan. She was pregnant at the time. They spent four months of transit in this region, waiting for their passports to be done and watching her belly grow. A farer exile was in their mind. When their traveling documents were ready, they packed all they could in their one piece of luggage and fled to Lebanon. It was in October 2014. The relief they felt taking their first steps on Lebanese soil didn’t last long. The entrance was refused to both of them. They began to argue and Racha could finally enter because she was about to give birth, but her husband was sent back to Erbil. She registered to the UNHCR immediately, but it was not early enough to get her delivery expenses covered by the U.N. agency. The 25 year old Racha gave birth to her first child sixteen days after her arrival, alone, in an unknown environment. Her savings were driven down after giving USD 500 to the hospital and paying a lawyer who could help her husband to finally enter Lebanon one month later.
The apartment that they pay USD 550 per month reflects their life of waiting. No furniture, no decoration, only this old TV to kill the time. They are uprooted, in transit, not willing to invest their energy and money in a country from which they hope to escape soon. The foam mattresses will keep serving as sofa, beds and crib until they leave for a better world – at least that’s how they see it.
UNHCR is not giving any material help to Iraqi refugees for now, investing their resources in their resettlement in a third country. But how long will this transit last? When she reached Lebanon, Racha got her two interviews with UNHCR really quickly because of her situation as a lonely pregnant woman. However, four months later, she’s still waiting for her refugee card. Meanwhile, they are spending all their savings in a rent that the low salary of her husband can’t afford and the TV is there to make the days end faster.
Olivia and Mario, two uprooted kids
Olivia and Mario’s family live in one of these small and deteriorated apartments that became livable thanks to their efforts to buy nice furniture and decorate the walls. The dank humidity still reminds us of the primary state of this place. We sit on couches facing two beds. The space of this one room apartment is used to its fullest extent, as is the labor force of the family members. We meet oldest son, 20 years old, coming back from work.
The two youngest go to the nearest Lebanese public school funded by the UNHCR. Olivia seems really happy to go to school but Mario takes an angry look when we mention school. Her mother explains to us that he doesn’t want to go to school and he is attending it irregularly. He suffers from other kids laughing at him and can’t follow the classes given in Arabic.
This family comes from a small village where all the inhabitants speak Aramaic, Jesus’ language. The schools there taught Arabic but at a lower level. Mario can’t understand his teacher and make friends. He’s not integrated and prefers to remain bored at home than attend school. His sister Olivia was the best pupil of her class back in Iraq. She was in third grade. Here, she went back to the first grade because she can’t follow the English and French classes.
Coming from a small historical village where people have been speaking Aramaic for more than 2000 years, this family is now dropped into a world where speaking a minimum of three languages is a basis to be part of the society. Olivia and Mario are young. Despite their present hardships, they will learn fast. Then, will they still remember the language of their ancestors?
A sad honeymoon
When Fadi enters the room where we are sitting with his family, his father burst out: “This is him: the lucky groom! Ten days after his wedding he had to leave his new home and all the wedding gifts to seek refuge in Lebanon!”. His mother adds, laughing: “it’s like his honeymoon now!”. This family has some dark humor…
They were at the summit of their happiness when ISIS invaded their village. The father had just finished building their new house, after five years of hard work. They enjoyed it for one month before being forced to leave all the fruits of their labor. Who is now living in it? They prefer not to think about it. The wedding of their oldest son, ten days before this invasion, shows how sudden, unexpected and brutal this ISIS invasion was.
The bride shows us a picture on their computer. One day, they came back home and found their apartment upside down. ISIS came in their absence searching for something. They don’t know what. Actually, they didn’t try to understand further than this. They packed and left the area for Kurdistan. They tried to enter the safe region through three entry points, where they have been rejected each time. The Kurdish military told them the area was crowded with refugees, that they would not find any space available. The fourth attempt worked. The family finally entered and settled for a while in Dohuk, waiting for an opportunity to take a flight to Lebanon, where they are now living. “Life here is very expensive,” tells Fadi. “Back in Iraq, all the family could live with only one person working. Here we all need to work to afford this little apartment and our living expenses.”
They are now waiting for resettlement, hoping for a better honeymoon.
Better than sleeping outside
The view of Rana’s house strikes me the second we enter in it. From the outside, it looks like a shop, but the inside looks more like a garage or a warehouse. We are caught by the cold, as a breath of wind is entering the place through the holes of the drilled iron curtain.
Rana has lived here since the end of December with her three sons. Her husband disappeared one week before ISIS entered their village. He left their house to buy gas and never came back. Did a terrorist sleeper cell in town capture him? Is he still alive? They have no idea and try to keep thinking of the best. As the saying goes: “Hope is what makes us live”. In light of the ISIS threat, they couldn’t investigate much as they had to leave Mosul area in a hurry for the sake of the rest of the family. They stayed in Erbil for four months, trying to gather information to find the father. In front of the hardship to make contacts with Mosul area and the lack of news they finally lost their hope of finding any clue and left Iraq for Lebanon.
When they came to this country, they found an apartment that was far from deserving the USD 1100 per month they had to pay. They didn’t stay more than one day as water was dropping from the roof. The owner never gave them back their money. They were in hurry to find another place to at least have a roof for Christmas Eve and they were happy to finally find this cheaper place, where they live now. Two of the three sons are working to pay the USD 550 rent. Rana tells us it’s the best place she’s found thus far. The price is enormous for this place, but owners are taking advantage of refugees who have no other choices than paying high prices if they don’t want to sleep in the streets.
When I met these families, I realized that the compassion I felt for them was limited by experience. I can’t understand or feel what they are going through. I don’t know what it is like to be forced to leave the place bearing all my memories and everything I built without knowing if I’ll be able to see it again one day. I can’t truly understand a life of such uncertainty, waiting for an answer from UNHCR that will decide the next exile country. And I’m not able to feel the emotions of this family who lost its father. Living without knowing what happened, the anguish of thinking about the worst without being able to mourn.
However, these people are like you and me. They too had dreams. They also couldn’t imagine being forced to leave their country one day. They grew up with the hope of doing better than their parents. They studied hard, saved money to buy houses. They got married and thought about the names they would give to their kids. War caught them in full flight. They learned they couldn’t build all their lives on what is here one day and disappears the next. They learnt to seek for the things which last and for the true meaning of life. That’s what I chose to keep from their life stories.
 All names has been changes