Ainkawa, Iraq — A half-built concrete structure across from a Chaldean church has become an unlikely refuge for Iraqi Christians, displaced as the Islamic State ravages their homes.
The building resembles the Tower of David, minus several dozen floors. The property is dingy and dirty, and foul-smelling puddles proliferate. There’s no running water, no privacy, and absolutely no quiet; occupants tell me they can’t remember the last time they heard silence.
Refugee children are everywhere, playing and roughhousing and running and crying and proudly reciting English alphabets for visitors and even somehow sleeping amid the din. Some clamber giggling up steep flights of cement stairways that have no railings, and their parents don’t blink: For Iraq’s Christians, this grim setting is as close to safe as it gets of late.
“This place is like a grave,” says Samar Hana, 34. She’s from Bartella, a Christian town that itself lent safe haven this summer to around 400 fleeing believers after the Islamic State seized Mosul, only 13 miles away, and issued an order to convert. Less than two months later, the Islamists focused their sights on Bartella and other surrounding settlements, so Samar and her family had to run, too.
Though it’s impossible to get a precise count of how many Iraqi Christians have fled, the hazy numbers reveal enormous suffering and upheaval. Nationwide, Iraq — in 2003, home to around 1.4 million Christians — has seen between half and two-thirds of this population displaced. From Mosul alone, Iraq’s second largest city, an estimated 6,000 Christians fled this summer.
“Because I am Christian, I live in constant fear,” Samar’s 22-year-old sister Sara tells me. “Here, just because I am Christian, they kill us. They want to ‘clean’ us. What is our guilt?” Iraq’s Christians have “lost everything,” Sara says. “We even lose our personalities because so much pleasure is gone. Every day, we cry about our situation. I couldn’t imagine it would be like this.”
Samar says she worries most for her two sons. Her baby, born just four months ago, has respiratory problems that are probably exacerbated by their insanitary living conditions, she says. Because of the turmoil, Samar says she hasn’t even been able to register his birth. And her older son is also in poor health and will likely need surgery.
Even if they recover, Sara says, her nephews face poor prospects. “I am an Iraqi young girl,” she continues, and “from the time I was born until now, I have had no good days. We had a bad past, and we have a bad future. We lose our lives.”
Of the Islamic State, Sara pauses a moment before offering her assessment. “I hate them,” she finally says. “They burnt our church, they broke our cross — and this is our love. And they do terrible things to women.”
Now, Sara says, her only hope is immigration. A third-term history student who dreams of becoming a lawyer, she says she knows Iraq holds no future for her. Even if the Islamic State hadn’t stolen her home, her country doesn’t protect rights or freedoms, especially for women, she says.
Yosra Salim-Hana, a 36-year-old woman, shares Sara’s sentiment. She tells me about abandoning her home with her husband and children. Until she can permanently leave Iraq, sharing her story, “my soul,” with foreign Christians is the best she can do, she says.
“We fled at midnight,” Yosra says. “The kids were asleep. We didn’t bring anything with us, [and we knew] they would kill us because we are Christian. We are not afraid for ourselves. We are afraid for our kids. . . . All of us were crying. The kids were crying, and [my husband and I] were praying looking for a safe place along the way.” While she’s thankful for respite in the Kurdish part of Iraq, especially because she lacks a passport, Yosra says, “we’re just looking for a safe, clean place for immigration.”
Many refugees say they know they stand no chance defending themselves and their families against the Islamic State. But it’s not just this band of fanatics, they say. Given Iraq’s decades of turmoil, some tell me, periodically fleeing religious persecution has become a way of life. They are simply tired of it.
The departure of Iraqi Christians would be a major cultural loss. Though Christians account for only 1 to 3 percent of Iraq’s total population, the territory has been their home for more than 2,000 years despite numerous eras of hardship, from the Mongol invasion to Ottoman conquest to the recent decades of war.
The Islamic State is brutal, and Iraq’s Christians have already endured bloody millennia. For many Iraqi Christians, the remaining options today seem simple: Leave Iraq behind, die, or continue a perilous life on the run. As Sara tells me, Iraq’s Christians cling to the hope of emigration because they won’t consider the marauding Islamists’ demands to convert.
“Religion is something that you choose — if you’re free, you choose it,” she says. “The [Islamic State] people tell you, ‘You must convert.’ But people are free to choose two things: our honor and our religion.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.