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September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
21 October 2019
Raed Rafei

Members of the Habib family stand outside a store they have recently rebuilt in Qaraqosh.
(photo: Raed Rafei)

In the current edition of ONE, reporter Raed Rafei revisits Iraq, two years after the defeat of ISIS, and writes of how Iraqi Christians are facing the future with Resolve. He has some additional reflections on the people he met:

It was a blazing hot August Sunday. The streets of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian enclave in Northern Iraq, were mostly empty. Compared to my last trip two years ago, there were some repaired and freshly painted homes here and there. But overall, despite the signs of improvement, heavy destruction caused by the liberation war from ISIS almost three years ago was still visible. Pockmarked walls, collapsed ceilings, piles of rubble, scorched buildings were common sights across this once thriving town.

The people I talked to during my visit to Iraq as a reporter were generally relieved to be back to their homes and felt relatively safe, but the weight of the economic crisis and uncertainties about the future were noticeable in their worried faces and resonated during the silent moments of our conversations.

As the sun started to set, I could see groups of people of all ages flocking to the Church of Saints Behnam and Sarah. Despite the difficult circumstances, it was heartwarming to see how elegantly dressed the men and women of Qaraqosh were for the Sunday Mass. To secure the area, the streets around the church were blocked for vehicles by the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a Christian Assyrian military organization formed after the invasion by ISIS. The service was being held in a makeshift tent in the church’s courtyard because the main hall was still under reconstruction. The fallen bell tower was a stark reminder of the recent tragedy of displacement. Nevertheless, I felt a sense of hope witnessing how packed the area was and the disarming simplicity of returnees resuming age-old cultural traditions.

The next morning, reality hit again. Members of a Shiite militia supported by Iran had blocked roads leading to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, to protest attempts by the government to integrate them into the Iraqi army. This was a testimony to the fragility of the situation. A vibrant, well-built local man in his late 20’s came in his gym apparel to the monastery where I had spent the night. He was going to drive me out of Qaraqosh. On the road, he told me about his taxi business and a restaurant he owned and managed. Despite economic difficulties, he said he was trying hard since his return to Qaraqosh to rebuild a life for his wife and his young daughter. I was impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit in a country where most people rely on governmental jobs.

After driving for two hours under an intense sun through alternative dirt roads to bypass the blocked highway, I was able to reach my hotel in Erbil. That night, I received a call from my driver. With a desperate voice, he asked me if I could help him find work as a concierge in Lebanon. He said he wanted to apply from there for asylum in Australia where some of his family resides. I was surprised and perplexed by his unexpected call. Compared to all the people I had talked to, he seemed to be doing well.

I answered him, reluctantly, “I will see what I can do but I can’t make any promises.” I wanted to help but with Lebanon’s ailing economy overburdened by a large number of refugees, it would be very difficult for him to find a job there.

He said that sadly, no matter how successful he was, he felt that as a young Christian man, there was no future for him and his small family in Iraq.

Read more about the plight of Iraqi Christians in the September 2019 edition of ONE.

Tags: Iraqi Christians

18 October 2017
Raed Rafei

Sister Luma, from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, enters her destroyed convent in Qaraqosh. Once a thriving Christian town, it was liberated recently from ISIS militants. On the wall is an inscription left by the militants: “There is only one God.” (photo: Raed Rafei)

In the current edition of ONE, photojournalist Raed Rafei reports on Iraqi Christians returning to their homes, and facing a very different existence along with some Hard Choices. Here, he adds some additional impressions.

Driving around the desolate town provoked an eerie feeling. How does one make sense of a once-thriving town that had witnessed for so long the daily hustle and bustle of people walking its streets, shopping from its stores and praying in its churches, now condemned to terrifying silence?

Batnaya, an Assyiran town north of Iraq, is one of the most heavily destroyed places after last year’s ferocious fighting between ISIS militants and Kurdish forces. Entering the town, one sees entire streets of one collapsed building after the other, an apocalyptic awe-inspiring scene.

Driving me through the mayhem, Rani Salam Asmaro, 31, points to a large empty piece of land. He remembers with disbelief the large soccer tournament organized on that field few years ago. It is hard to imagine how life can be sucked out of a place like this.

In the old town, we walk in the narrow streets where Islamists had left so many signs of a hateful ideology. At the entrance of a church, a handwritten sentence reads: “There is no place for the Christians in the land of Islam.” For Asmaro, a fitness trainer and an aid to a priest, the most painful aspect of the conflict is the realization that Christians who had found home in Iraqi land thousands of years ago would be “abhorred” by their Muslim neighbors and attacked so savagely because of their faith. Asmaro says that he always had Muslim friends but that he cannot trust them anymore after everything that happened.

I heard about this feeling of betrayal from many Iraqi Christians. For centuries, Christians have been an integral part of society sharing life with their neighbors from other ethnic groups. What the latest conflict has most tragically produced is the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Christians, but also further isolation for those who remained. Beyond the reconstruction of homes and churches, this will be the most challenging aspect of life in Iraq for Christians for the coming years. How can Christians feel trust again towards their Sunni neighbors and re-establish relations with them? For the Church leaders I talked to, the time is now still too early to talk about reconciliation. People need time to heal their wounds first.

Asmaro believes that the intolerance he has experienced as a community in Iraq has only strengthened his Christian faith and his determination to remain in the land of his ancestors. Asmaro is planning to get married to his fiancé soon and start a new family. I met many young men and women who were still marrying and having children despite the many uncertainties they faced.

Asmaro comes from the town of Al-Qosh, the only Christian enclave that was not occupied by the Islamic State. The inhabitants of Al-Qosh are people who are very proud of their Christian heritage and refuse to sell land to anyone whose origins are not from that town. They believe that this policy had protected their village from losing its character.

What makes the town historically significant is the ancient tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum.

Many believe that this sacred place protected the town from invasion from Islamist militants. Others say that the strong Christian faith of the town’s people kept it safe. A more rational explanation is that Al-Qosh lies beyond an international road vital for commerce between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Regional powers would not have allowed the disruption of traffic along that road where goods and oil are transported, some say.

Asmaro’s brother, a professional singer, has composed many songs to express his love for his town. One of his video clips hails the resistance of Al-Qosh in the face of invaders and shows proud men in traditional clothes carrying arms and stationed in the mountain overlooking the town.

Asmaro remembers how, in 2014, he stayed with these men to protect their town from a possible invasion. Families had been evacuated to nearby safer towns.

“Despite the danger, with a friend of mine, we would sneak into the town to exercise for few hours at the gym there,” he said.

Read more in the September 2017 edition of ONE.

12 July 2017
Raed Rafei

Aida Yassin, a Lebanese widow, sits with her son, Eli; her daughter-in-law, Lina from Syria; and her grandson, Michael. (photo: Raed Rafei)

Raed Rafei explores the challenges Syrian refugees are facing in Lebanon in the current edition of ONE. Below, he describes one couple he met:

When I arrived to Zahleh on my reporting trip, I expected to hear the same resentful discourse toward Syrian refugees that I hear all over Lebanon. With refugees constituting more than one fourth of the Lebanese population, the public outcry over this irregular situation — one that has been continuing for several years now — is palpable everywhere.

In this pretty Christian town, people I talked to speak mainly of a stagnant economy and say that with refugees willing to earn very little, competition over jobs has been fierce. You see the impact everywhere. As in the central streets of Beirut, Syrian children, sometimes as young as five, beg on the streets. When I stopped for coffee at a random café, the waiter was expectedly Syrian. His story was one I had heard many times over. In Syria, he was a university student but because of the war, he had to abandon his studies and his country.

So when I finally met Eli and Lina, my encounter with the couple was heartwarming. Eli is a struggling Lebanese technician who supports his aging mother, Aida. Lina is a Syrian refugee who fled with her family from the bombing of her hometown in Syria. A couple of years ago, they met at a clothing shop in Zahleh and swiftly fell in love with each other. Today, they are married and have a child, Michael.

It was delightful to see that, despite the surge in racism against the Syrians among the Lebanese, love between people from these two neighboring countries was still possible. Relations between Lebanon and Syria have traditionally been very complicated. During the Lebanese 1975-1990 civil war, Syria was heavily involved in the conflict. People in Zahleh in particular still harbor animus feelings towards Syria because their city was placed under siege for weeks by the Syrian army during that period. It is true that since then, the proximity of Zahleh to the Syrian border has turned Syria into a vital trade partner and calmed the minds. But the conflict in Syria has strangled the city’s economy. And with the influx of Syrian refugees, relations between the two cultures entered a complicated new phase.

When I asked Eli and Lina if they heard disapproving comments from friends or neighbors about their marriage, they simply shrugged their shoulders. To them, their love story came about naturally. On my second visit to their modest home, I saw on the wall an assemblage of their photos in a frame decorated with hearts and the word, love. They looked like a happy young couple in the photos. I asked Lina about the new frame. She smiled and said it was a gift from Eli for Valentine’s Day.

Like all parents, Lina and Eli worry mostly about the future of their child. The brunt of the devastating war in Syria is still present, But, as Lina explained, the only focus today is on how to provide the best education for Michael, who is set to enter school next year.

Life, she said, goes on.

Read more about Hardship and Hospitality in Lebanon in the June 2017 edition of ONE. And meet Eli and Lina in the video below.

30 March 2016
Raed Rafei

Father Haddad collects medicine from a storage unit outside his parish church in Zakho.
(photo: Raed Rafei)

Writer Raed Rafei reports on a mobile clinic serving displaced Iraqis in the Spring 2016 edition of ONE. Here, he offers some personal insights from the time spent with the Iraqi priest who runs the clinic:

The moment the Rev. Yousif Jamel Haddad, 31, picked me up to take me to the church he leads, I knew I was up for something special. This energetic, witty and well-rounded man greeted me wholeheartedly before we hastily drove to Zakho, a bustling small town in Kurdistan close to the majestic mountains separating this part of Iraq from Turkey and Syria.

“The further north you go in Iraq, the harsher people become,” he warned — echoing, probably, the bitterness of his own experience as a pastor in this lost land. He was raised as a city boy in the capital Baghdad. Father Haddad generously shared everything with me, from personal stories about how he has become a priest to bold theological views as well as sound geopolitical analysis regarding the future of Iraq.

On the road, we drove past a big mall, dozens of housing projects — some completed, but the majority still under construction — and an imposing neo-classical building, adorned with columns and a dome. That turned out to be the campus of an American university, not yet inaugurated. Everything I saw was evidence of the growing wealth of Kurdistan (growth now significantly put on hold since ISIS took over nearby territories) even if the signs of another reality, rural and destitute, can still be felt while passing through the bare landscape.

In Zakho, my first stop was the Virgin Mary Church, the Syriac Catholic establishment dating back to 1612, as Father Haddad proudly noted. The evening of my arrival, the pastor was celebrating a liturgy in this newly renovated church. He himself had overseen the restoration of the building and the display of some of its treasures, like a series of ancient stones with biblical inscriptions. That was one of his first missions when he arrived almost four years ago to preside over a small community of Christians here. Father Haddad confided that he was first appointed as a bishop in the United States, but said that he could not adapt to the American way of life. After a year in Boston and other parts of the country, he decided, against all odds and resistance from his superiors, to move back to his beloved Iraq.

For four days, Father Haddad, the mastermind behind the mobile clinic that I was reporting on, invited me many times for meals and tea to meet with displaced Christians from his community and discuss practical matters pertaining to refugee life as well as historical information on the Christian presence in the region. I was touched to see that he shared the rectory with displaced families. He seemed happy to see the place buzzing with the voices of children playing. He told me that when the refugees first arrived, he had to accommodate the men inside the Church and the women and children in a hall annexed to it. This situation lasted for several days before families could be relocated to rented apartments.

After a year and a half of displacement, Father Haddad understood that what his community really needs is not just assistance with food and medicine but hope for the future. He said that the church is offering computer courses to help the displaced find work. He has also helped families open a bakery and other small businesses to start generating income. Among all the problems facing refugees that I witnessed here, unemployment seemed the most pressing one. I repeatedly saw looks of discomfort and shame in the eyes of the men I interviewed when they revealed they had not been working for months.

The last thing that the two companions of Father Haddad, Wissam and Youssef, told me before dropping me at my hotel in Erbil was: “You know, we are educated people. We all have college degrees.” One had studied tourism and the other, drama. They had good jobs in the Nineveh Plain before ISIS occupied their homes. One worked with the local government and the other had a thriving business.

But now, as they bitterly said, they were doing nothing of value.

Read more about Father Haddad’s mobile clinic in Health on Wheels in the Spring 2016 edition of ONE. Meantime, check out the video below, which gives an intimate look at a day in the life of the clinic.

16 November 2015
Raed Rafei

Hanaa Elia and her husband, Georges Habbash, sit in their home in Jdeideh, Lebanon, a year after fleeing the Nineveh Plain. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)

In the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE, journalist Raed Rafei looks at the plight of Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon. Here, he adds some additional thoughts from his experience reporting the story.

When you see a man in his mid-thirties, a father of four children, crying, you cannot but have a twinge in the stomach. Sarmad, like all the refugees I interviewed for my story on Christian minorities who fled their towns in Iraq and Syria because of invasions by extreme Islamist militias, feels completely hopeless. After a year in Lebanon barely surviving, relying on charity from his Catholic Assyrian Church and philanthropists, he is at the edge of a breakdown. It is very harsh to witness people in limbo, especially ones who are responsible for their families. Many told me they are unable to picture the future unless they are granted asylum in a western country, a chance that only a small percentage of refugees here will eventually have. In Lebanon, refugees lead a very difficult life in the absence of stable jobs and social and medical public care.

I remember vividly the look in Sarmad’s eyes when I asked him if he would go back to Iraq. It was a very bitter gaze. He said, “Iraq! I hate my parents for being born there.” His honest answer made me very uncomfortable. It’s only when people are in their most desperate moment that they renounce their origins this way. But I could not blame him. What the refugees I’ve met told me is that they had witnessed a carefully studied plan not only to drive them out of lands they had lived in for centuries but also to wipe out their entire heritage. These refugees, who are very proud that they speak the language of Christ and practice ancient Christian rites, seem nevertheless hopeless that they could ever go back and rebuild their homes and towns. The sense of betrayal from their Muslim neighbors is strong. Many showed me, on their mobile phones, videos and images of ancient churches and convents purposely damaged and desecrated by fundamentalists. These were the churches where they held all their happy and sad ceremonies. I was particularly touched by the story of a father who told me how blessings from a saint in a shrine in his hometown in Syria cured his ill son.

Despite all the desperate stories I heard, I was moved by the unity I witnessed at a Sunday liturgy for exiled Catholic Assyrians. The church, which is rented for a couple of hours every Sunday to absorb newcomers, was packed with hundreds of people praying with their children. Even after having lost everything they had built throughout their lives, they were, at least, grateful they were now alive and safe. Afterward, the scene was very cheerful in the front yard of the church, with children playing and adults chitchatting.

I felt a real sense of solidarity in a community thriving and still standing; a bruised community, yes, but one that has not given up just yet.

Below is a video produced by Raed Rafei, showing the life of one refugee family in Lebanon:

18 May 2015
Raed Rafei

Many Lebanese, such as Joseph, struggle to make ends meet and find jobs in an economy that has become more strained because of the influx of Syrian refugees. (photo: Tamara Hadi)

Journalist Raed Rafei shares some impressions of Lebanon after covering a story about refugees there for the Spring 2015 edition of ONE magazine:

It has become a very familiar chorus of complaint in Lebanon. “There are no more jobs anymore. The Syrians took them all.” So before I started reporting on the story, I was aware of the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on the job market and people’s morale in Lebanon.

I knew that the poor classes in the country have been particularly suffering because of the crisis. But I did not know the extent of the problem until I spoke to families struggling on a daily basis to send their children to school and put food on their plates.

I heard many heart-breaking stories of families receiving warnings from schools because they were not paying tuition fees and subsequently had to keep their children at home for days until they could pay. There were also many stories of families who could not afford their rent anymore and who were scared of losing homes they lived in for decades, in some cases.

What touched me most was to see people keeping a very tidy and even elegant appearance knowing that in reality they were worried about sleeping hungry. These were people who were able to sustain themselves and even live rather comfortably few years ago but who are, today, increasingly uncertain of the future.

I was particularly moved by the sad look of Tony, an impoverished contractor, who is anxious about the possibility of having to move his daughter from a private school to a public one. Children’s education is still the single most highly valued thing for Lebanese parents. Public schools in the country can be notoriously bad. So most parents pay a large part of their income to ensure that their children receive the best education possible at private institutions.

I was also unsettled by Marlene’s story. She is a struggling nurse who went into debt to ensure that her daughter gets a good college education. Marlene keeps an elegant wardrobe despite her meager income. She told me that she hasn’t bought any new clothing items for a very long time. She said that her sister gives her some of her clothes after wearing them for a little while.

I think the most challenging moment was asking people how they saw the future. Most of the time, they responded with blank looks as if they had been avoiding thinking about that. Most said they just lived one day at a time.

Despite this bleak picture, many of those I interviewed seemed resilient. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that several said that they did not wish to leave the country despite their hardships. They said the thought that Christian minorities were being driven out of Syria and Iraq made them even more determined to stay in the land of their ancestors.

To learn more, read “Lebanon on the Brink” in the Spring 2015 edition of ONE.