Fleeing terror, their lives shattered, Iraqi Christians struggle to start over

by Don Duncan

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Editors’ note: Some names have been changed at the request of the families to protect their safety.

Before he goes to sleep at night, Wissam Abdul Hadi, 21, watches videos on his mobile phone for comfort. His favorites were taken just two months ago and depict him acting with his friends in a comedy on stage in Qaraqosh, his hometown in northern Iraq — the largest Christian town in the country, with a one-time population of some 55,000.

In the videos, Wissam stomps across stage in a red and white keffiyeh, or headscarf, waving his arms in vaudeville style, berating another character for misbehavior. There are giggles and guffaws from the audience. On stage, he seems to be in his element.

But now, expelled from his hometown and stranded with his parents and two brothers in a camp for the internally displaced in the city of Suleimaniyah, some 170 miles away, these videos of comedy have become a tragedy.

“I feel like it is all a bad dream,” says Wissam. “Losing my house, losing the community I was a part of, losing my friends. It feels like it is not real somehow.”

For two months, Wissam and an estimated 120,000 other displaced Christian Iraqis have been slowly coming to terms with a harsh reality: They are now a displaced people, they have very little money, and there is no sign they will be able to go home any time soon.

On talking to many Christian families and individuals who have taken refuge in cities across Iraqi Kurdistan, the master narrative is the same: ISIS, the jihadist Islamic terrorist movement seeking to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, had made rapid advances across large swaths of Iraq, and by early August, seized the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq — a historic Christian stronghold.

The sixth day of August promises to be a date that will be seared into the Iraqi Christian psyche for quite some time: That is the day Iraqi Christendom finally — and maybe definitively — succumbed to extremists and much of the population was sent fleeing.

The exodus was rapid and frantic, beginning in the evening of 6 August. Families recount how they had 15 minutes to half an hour to grab what they could and leave, ahead of the rapid arrival of ISIS. The roads were choked with families in cars and on foot — Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Copts and Armenians, but also Yazidis and Shiite Muslims from all over Nineveh — all fleeing the particular brand of ISIS fundamentalism. They headed east, to Iraqi Kurdistan and the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces there. By the next morning, the heartland of Christian Iraq was firmly in the hands of ISIS.

“My father sold his own mother’s gold and took a loan from the government so he could build our house, and then everything was gone in 15 minutes,” says Wissam Abdul Hadi. “He worked for years and lost everything in a few minutes.”

The sense of loss and the incomprehension of the sudden, new reality are common to many of the displaced families. Beyond the shared narrative of expulsion, the personal stories issuing from the camps, church grounds and repurposed schools and social centers housing displaced Christians are varied and many.

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