National Security & Defense

A Skeptic and a Priest among Displaced Christians in Iraq

Zack Bazzi and Father Douglas at Mar Elia (Photo: TentEd)

Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan — Zack Bazzi sits at a booth in a coffee shop near the U.S. consulate, a hundred meters or so from where a car bomb was detonated some weeks before, looking as casual as he might back home in Boston. He darts behind the counter to help himself before coming back to the counter to pay. “I’m a regular here,” he says. He is not at all the “quiet American” that the region has grown accustomed to in recent years, but gregarious, intense, and passionately committed to his cause. He is here on a humanitarian mission — and is a different kind of missionary. 

Zack, now in his mid thirties, was born in Lebanon, but his family moved to America when he was a child and he has never returned. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army infantry and later served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he witnessed the wars’ terrible toll on civilians, particularly children. Like many veterans, Zack could not simply leave his experiences in the past. Today he oversees a program called TentEd, which he launched with two other Army veterans “to support the education of internally displaced and refugee children.” He spends significant time in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he occasionally volunteers to teach English at Mar Elia (St. Elias) Church in Ainkhawa, a district in Erbil’s north end, now home to tens of thousands of displaced Christians from Nineveh Province who fled ISIS last year.

Over coffee Zack demonstrates a prolific knowledge of the political, social, cultural, and military situation. “I prefer to be here,” he says. “You go back to D.C. and you’re talking to someone who studied the Middle East in graduate school who’s spent little time here, and it’s frustrating.” He has just returned from the front lines in Nineveh Province, where he visited Kurdish peshmerga and Christian defense forces. Most of the refugees he works with are from Nineveh. They hope one day to return. Like many here, he would like to see the coalition air strikes intensified to defeat ISIS, though he appreciates that the administration is keen to minimize civilian casualties.

Displaced Christians at Mar Elia

“In general, I like [President Obama’s] foreign policy,” he says, “but he’s been too cautious — excessively cautious — in my view.” Our conversation turns from Iraq generally to the work that brought him here: assisting with the primary education of refugees, particularly those forced to flee ISIS. TentEd is assisting not only Christians but also Kurdish refugees.

Erbil’s Kobani Elementary teaches hundreds of Kurdish refugee children from Syria who fled the city of Kobani during a siege by ISIS. “It used to be called Garanawa Elementary School,” says Zack, “but in honor of the Kurdish victory in Kobani, they decided to rename the school.” Kobani is now a symbol of Kurdish unity across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran — a catalyst for unity for the region’s Kurds. TentEd raises funds to provide transportation for the children of Kobani Elementary who otherwise would not be able to attend, and compensates teachers with stipends (many are unpaid). The group has also provided winter coats for destitute refugee families without winter clothing and furnished the school with a computer and a printer.

“Let’s meet back here this evening and I’ll take you to Mar Elia and we’ll meet Father Douglas,” Zack says. Father Douglas, who goes by his first name, is a Chaldean Catholic priest. He runs the refugee center as a kind of benevolent autocrat. Zack may be a volunteer, but Father Douglas demands excellence nonetheless. When there is a misunderstanding and we are late getting to Mar Elia, Zack is noticeably perturbed. “It’s not a huge problem,” he says, anxious, “but I have to let him know. He’s a busy man.” 

Christian children from Nineveh at Mar Elia

We arrive at Mar Elia and enter the gate to a courtyard that looks like that of any thriving church community — only these parishioners do not have homes to return to. Their homes are now here, a few meters away: a series of annexes, color-coded by section and laid out on a grid. It is nothing like refugee camps elsewhere in the region. Mar Elia is clean and orderly, and the faces of its inhabitants, particularly the children, are joy-filled. We cross a volleyball court to get to the annex where Father Douglas awaits. “The Canadians saw what was going on here and came in and built this,” says Zack, pointing to the Canadian flag. Along with other donors and volunteers, Zack helped build the library annex in a single day. 

Father Douglas’s parish office (also an annex) is a flurry of activity. He is as advertised — blunt, domineering, and single-minded in his focus: serving the community of displaced Christians. Zack and Father Douglas joke back and forth like old friends. Zack, though not himself religious, is curiously deferential to the priest. (Zack is also correct, as he joked beforehand, that Father Douglas resembles Robert De Niro.) Father Douglas begins the discussion with an admonition: “Do not call them refugees,” he says of Mar Elia’s more than 500 displaced Christians, more than 200 of whom are students. “They are not refugees. They are relatives.” He adds with a smile, “I know you may use this word, but please do not here. And it is a ‘center,’ not a ‘camp.’” 

“When we leave, we disappear,” Father Douglas says, referring to the tendency of Middle East Christians to assimilate into the cultures of the West.

Like those whom he serves, Father Douglas has suffered terribly at the hands of extremists. Nearly a decade before in Baghdad, he was kidnapped by Shiite militias and tortured, losing several teeth in the process, which have since been replaced. He later joined the tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who relocated to Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraq’s principal problem, he believes, is a lack of leadership. “You no doubt are familiar with Ali Baba and the 40 thieves,” he says with a smile. “We had maybe 40 million thieves in my country.” The answer, he believes, is to mold young leaders, and this is the thrust of his work at Mar Elia. “We have bosses [in Iraq], but we don’t have leaders. We are raising leaders here.” 

Father Douglas believes that Christians should have equal rights in Iraq and a share, like other communities, in Iraq’s oil revenues. Further, he believes that the Christians should be entitled to reparations and that Iraq’s Christians ought to have a right to dual citizenship. This would enable those Christians who have emigrated to remain active in preserving the heritage of Christian Iraq. “When we leave, we disappear,” he says, referring to the tendency of Middle East Christians to assimilate into the cultures of the West. He hopes to preserve Christian presence in the public culture by launching a radio station; this would cost tens of thousands of dollars. It is one of several of Father Douglas’s projects. If Mar Elia is any indication, he will likely make it happen. 

Church at Mar Elia

The extremists “attack us because we are the last educated group in Iraq,” Father Douglas says. “Before us, they attacked the Jews,” referring to Iraq’s once substantial Jewish community, today all but extinct. “If we want to defeat ISIS, let’s offer books to our kids,” he says, a recurring theme that he expresses in a video interview conducted by Zack’s organization. This commitment is visible in the many makeshift classrooms in Mar Elia, where the students study English, French, music, history, and computers, among other subjects. 

Zack provides a tour of Mar Elia’s housing annexes. “Father Douglas walks the entire place a few times a day” and is intolerant of so much as a single piece of litter, says Zack. “It’s all so orderly. I always joke with Father Douglas that he’s part German.” On the Christian homes of Mosul, ISIS supporters painted the Arabic letter “n” to mark the Christian followers of the “Nazarene.” Here several Christian doors are marked with crosses and the Arabic word for “God.” There is little hope that Christians will ever return to Mosul. Hope remains among many here, however, that they might return to other cities and villages of the Nineveh Plain, particularly those closer to the relative safety of Erbil.

Zack and Father Douglas were surprised on meeting to learn that they share a common surname, “Bazzi” — though Father Douglas transliterates his with only one “z,” “Bazi” — despite coming from different regions in the Middle East. The two also share something deeper: a commitment to those in need, like the “relatives” of Mar Elia. For Zack, Father Douglas’s work is “a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable evil.” It is an evil that both are committed to fighting through education. 

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