In Limbo in Lebanon

Iraqi Christian refugees struggle to stay afloat

by Raed Rafei with photographs by Tamara Abdul Hadi

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Hanaa al Kass Elia flips through her son’s wedding album, eyes twinkling as she identifies those pictured. On the page, cheerful women in makeup and colorful gowns pose before a backdrop of ornate furniture. Her plain black dress and the drabness of her Beirut-area apartment — bare but for couches and a television — starkly contrast with the liveliness of the photographs.

Soon, she pauses, holding back tears. “This was my sister,” Mrs. Elia says finally, pointing at a woman in her 30’s with a tranquil gaze and styled hair. “She was beautiful.”

Mrs. Elia, 46, fled to Lebanon last August to escape ISIS’s brutal takeover of Qaraqosh, a once-thriving Christian city in Iraq with monasteries, schools and hospitals. As with thousands of Christian families who lived for centuries in the fertile Nineveh Plain, she left her home in the night with her husband and children, taking nothing but a few garments and some money.

As it had ended, so that day had begun with tragedy. Mrs. Elia’s sister, Enaam, was sitting in her orchard when a sudden shelling killed her instantly. As her family mourned, they heard calls through megaphones from the church, urging everyone to evacuate the city.

“There was a general state of panic and chaos,” says the Rev. Yousif Yaqoob Sakat, who, a few weeks before fleeing Qaraqosh, had to escape Al Khidhir — another Iraqi town captured by ISIS. There, Father Sakat had headed the Monastery of Mar Behnam, which dates to the fourth century.

For weeks, he struggled with life under ISIS rule. Militants wrote Quranic verses on the monastery’s walls and hurled stones at the building. Women were forced to wear veils and schools were suspended. Mosques began issuing denunciations of Christians.

Holed up in the monastery, Father Sakat left only in disguise to procure food from the market. One day, armed men entered the monastery and threatened the priests, finally forcing them to leave.

The priests were able to reach Qaraqosh, where they remained until that fateful night of 6 August.

“There were children still barefoot in pajamas. Many people forgot their money, their jewelry and even their official documents out of panic,” Father Sakat says.

The takeover of Mosul and northern Iraq, in addition to Hassake and other parts of northeastern Syria, has led to a mass exodus of Christians: men and women who identify themselves as Assyro-Chaldeans belonging to the Syriac Catholic or Orthodox churches or members of the Church of the East or its Catholic sister, the Chaldean Church. These communities have had a presence in the region since the faith’s earliest days, and speak Syriac, a language derived from Aramaic, the primary tongue of Jesus.

Tens of thousands fled in their cars to nearby Kurdistan. While most have found refuge in Erbil and other Kurdish towns — with some going as far as Turkey — others, such as Mrs. Elia and her family, preferred to travel to Lebanon. From there, they hoped to emigrate and take up residence in a Western country where they could lead secure, stable lives.

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