A letter had been slipped under their apartment door with the short sentence, “I’ll get you, if you stay.” On the page, there was a drawing of a Kalashnikov rifle plus a warning that the family had one day to get out.
With her husband Fathel, their three children and five grandchildren, Fawziyya Ghassan, 58, set out for Telskuf, in semi-autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq. She hoped she and her family would be safe there, but her husband survived only six days. His heart gave up, unable to cope with the troubles and turmoil. Now, the family has to get by on its own.
The Ghassans are Christians, and this was their undoing.
Telskuf is a well-secured small town and home to about 1,000 families, just over half of whom are so-called IDPs (internally displaced persons), who have been made homeless in their own country. There are heavily armed security forces on every street that leads into and out of Telskuf. Only authorized people are allowed in. To absorb the many refugees, up to three or four families sometimes share a house.
Still, at least there are sometimes opportunities to work. “We feel we are 99 percent secure,” says Fawziyya Ghassan. She is happy that one of her daughters has found a job as a teacher.
Her son, Asmat, has set up a small workshop in a neighboring house, and is producing exhaust parts for cars. He has got work and is happy to provide an income for the family. Previously, in Mosul, Asmat was a taxi driver, “with my own vehicle,” he says, proudly.
One morning, a man put a gun to his head through the vehicle’s open window. Asmat had to hand over the car, as well as his driving license and identity card. He remains in a state of shock, and is still unable to get into a car.
In the apartment next door, other relatives of Mrs. Ghassan are also attempting to get by. One of them, Amak Foud, has found work as a driver. He is 32, and his family comes from Baghdad. His eldest son, Fadi, is 12.
One morning in Baghdad, and on his way to school, Fadi was dragged into a car, kidnapped and held for a week. His family received a message that they could have their young son back if they paid a $10,000 ransom. The family put together what they had but it was still not enough. The rest of the money came from their church.
Fadi was released and the whole family fled to Telskuf. The boy’s kidnapping, during which he was threatened with a knife, beaten, and held in a small room, has left its mark on the lad, who is now in the first year of secondary school. His experience still haunts him, and from being a lively and cheerful boy Fadi has become a quiet and introspective young man.
Other frightened Christian families keep arriving in northern Iraq, not only from Baghdad but also from the much nearer city of Mosul. The people say they feel safe here, and many of them have relatives in the region because earlier generations sometimes lived here, so they go to the villages from which they or their forebears originally emigrated. For those who have no roots in northern Iraq, homes are made available in the towns and cities.
Until 2003, Christians accounted for roughly 3 per cent of Iraq’s 29 million people. Approximately 70 per cent of the Christians belonged to the Chaldean Church, which follows the ancient Chaldean rite but is in union with the Roman Catholic Church. About 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, while about 35 percent are Sunni Muslims.
Christian leaders in Iraq say that the five years of terrorism that followed the 2003 U.S.-led occupation of the country has forced tens of thousands of people, many of them Christians, to flee Iraq or become refugees in their own country.
The government of Kurdistan, which controls the northern part of Iraq, makes its newcomers welcome. It says it wants to create a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, with Kurds, Muslims, Christians, and the small band of Yazidi, a religion that goes back to pre-Islamic times, living together.
Bishop Michael, the Chaldean Church leader in AlQosh, 30 kilometers north of Mosul, says of the current situation, “We have to accommodate our Christian brothers and sisters. We belong to this country. This is our home. We speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. We want to remain here.”
Bishop Michael preaches to his congregation that they should accept their Christian brothers and not increase rents. Christians should not exploit the plight of other Christians, he tells his people.
The bishop knows what he is talking about because many Christians have already fled abroad to Syria and Jordan. Lea, who belongs to a Christian youth organization, explains: “Every day we talk about emigrating. Those who have money leave. We have none.”
Those who want to visit Bishop Michael in his AlQosh monastery have first to get past a heavily armed guard. Security is a booming industry and creates jobs. Roadblocks and checks at public buildings are normal. Politicians in the Kurdish capital of Erbil say this is the only way to maintain the high standard of security in northern Iraq.
Kurdistan’s finance minister, Sargis Aghajan, who is a Christian, meanwhile valiantly keeps building more settlements for Christians. Some of these houses are in the middle of green fields. Aghajan knows time is running out, and that if Christians do not stay in the country, the church has no future here.
The Christian theological college in Baghdad is the central training facility for Christian theologians in Iraq. For security reasons, the college is moving to Erbil.
Northern Iraq is booming, and one of the people who is benefiting from this growth is 32-year-old Juan Samir Toma. In Erbil, she runs a Christian kindergarten that an Assyrian Church relief agency, AAS, sponsors.
Samir employs teachers from Baghdad and Mosul to help look after the 70 children who currently attend her institution. She says that as a young woman and a Christian, she previously had increasing problems in those two cities before she came to Erbil. “You know what I mean,” she adds knowingly.