Samer's is just one of many stories of intimidation collected in the temporary Syrian centres for refugees in which the new refugees have established themselves in the hopes of reaching a permanent destination. In the meantime they have received from the United Nations office in Damascus a "Declaration of temporary protection," bidding the authorities not to repatriate them forcibly. In Syria they have obviously preferred the mostly Christian areas: the Bab Tuma quarter in Damascus, but especially Masakin Barze, Duwailaa and Jrimana, all in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, and the village of Saidnaya to the north of the city.
In Masakin Barze, thirty or so Iraqis welcome me in a salon, generously offered by the Greek-orthodox parish with the typical Chaldean salutation: Bshena sietsh thelokhen, "may your arrival be in peace!" Each one of them has a destroyed life to tell about. They represent a microcosm of Christian Iraq, from the different Baghdad neighbourhoods (Karrada, Ghadir, Saadoun, al-Amin, Dora and others), to Mossul and other Assyrian-Chaldean areas of the north. Those who owned a house or land unwillingly sold everything off and moved to Syria with the money in the hopes of obtaining a visa for a western country. Those who had just enough money to pay for their family's passports (150 $ each) and the travel costs, did not think twice. They prepared two suitcases, one for summer and one for winter clothes, and left.
Like many other people, Samer's father, Raed, is looking to go to far-off Australia. In the asylum request he presented to Canberra's embassy in Damascus, he included the tape of threats recorded by the kidnappers. In the end, things went fairly well for him: he "only" paid 5,000 of the original 230,000$ demanded by the kidnappers for his son's freedom. In exchange for this "discount," the kidnappers asked him for a list of Christians more prosperous than himself. Then they gave him some advice: «You have 45 days to leave. Christians are not allowed to remain in Iraq».
Makram is the last one to have followed this advice, seeing that he only arrived in Damascus ten days ago. Under the old regime he was professor of dentistry at the University of Baghdad. He then decided to remain at home when his salary fell to the equivalent of one dollar. After the liberation he returned in vain to the department in order to take up his courses again. The rector sarcastically exclaimed in front of the teaching staff: «That Christian doesn't understand anything! He wants to come back to teaching!».
The census of Khalid
He gave me some indication of the dimensions that Christian emigration has taken on: «I was the deacon in the church of Saint Elias, one of the five churches targeted on August 1st. I noted a constant fall in the number of faithful. Four or five pews less every Sunday. The priest then confirmed these doubts. Before, he told me, he issued one or two certificates of baptism or marriage (necessary for confirmation of religious belief abroad, ed.), and now he issues at least forty».
Multiplying by the number of parishes, at least thirty in the capital alone, one cannot remain ignorant of the gravity of the situation, which has made the future of those who decide to remain even more precarious.
Other statistical information was provided by Khalid, who moved here with his wife and six children, but who still finds time to organize community life: prayer meetings or meetings for examination of the various laws on asylum, English and Chaldean language courses. Chaldean is the language spoken by the majority of Iraqi Christians and he himself offered to teach the courses. He tells me, «I have counted 300 families in Damascus and 150 in Saidnaya. But there are surely a hundred more between Duwailaa and Jrimana, not to mention Aleppo, Beirut and Amman».
Waiting for Australia
Rita Zekert, manager of Syrian Caritas, confirmed these estimates. «We have helped 700 families, mostly Christians, just in the last six months», she says, «but I am sure that the number has doubled after the attacks on the churches». Together with two assistants, and within the limits of her small budget, Rita tries to meet the most pressing needs: clothes, bedding, foodstuffs and psychological assistance. «Compared to the Sudanese Christians whom we have been helping for a long time, the Iraqis are educated and well-off people who suddenly found themselves in need». For health care needs, Caritas points out the clinics run by the Church for necessary medicines and tells patients which hospitals are equipped for surgical operations, childbirth and prosthetics, as is the Italo-French hospital. Caritas offers the refugees scholarships in electrical and mechanical work, computers, sewing, hairdressing and English. «The Iraqi pays a symbolic fee of 10$, and we pay the other 2,000», Zekert clarifies.
The arrival of these Iraqis has been like manna from heaven for the usual profiteers. A small flat in Damascus which normally costs 60$ is rented to them for 200$. The Iraqis have no alternative, but many remain apprehensive about the day when their savings will dry up. This is because not everyone works and some resent having to accept just any job under any conditions whatsoever. Ziad, 25, was attending university and he does not complain about working in an auto shop. But doctor Karim feels exploited: the Syrian hospital he went to for work offered him a salary of 100$ a month, compared to the 500$ that a local doctor makes. For the often numerous families, school expenses make up a consistent part of the budget. Even though it is true that Syrian schools are free and the government has decided to accept Iraqi children, that still leaves textbooks and school uniforms to purchase, and they are fairly expensive.
The refugees constantly follow events in their homeland, but their gaze is fixed on another objective, much farther off. Every attempt I made to convince them to cease from adopting this extreme solution was useless. «I have two children in Australia, what am I doing here alone?» said one sixty-year-old man from Arbil. «The problem is that Australia requires a security deposit of 60,000$, held for two years in order to prevent fraud». I observed that the abnormal situation in Iraq cannot last much longer. It is much easier to start from zero in your own country than in a foreign one. «At least the foreign country guarantees our rights», says one woman. «If it were a question of waiting months or a few years, we might have the patience. But here we are talking about waiting for the formation of a new generation with a new mentality», adds a neighbour. But this is not the first difficult trial in history for Iraqi Christians, I say. «I have never been through such a trial», replies Zakaria. «We stood through 35 years of dictatorship and wars. We can take acts of violence and terrorism, but not kidnappings and blackmail. The radicals even threaten our clergy. We feel unprotected. Our wives and daughters are insulted if they go out without the veil. On the walls of Baghdad there are writings such as: "Every uncovered woman is a prostitute"».
«They treated us as if we were the Americans», Adel said regretfully. «But it was not us who called the United States, it was the Shiite parties. When Saddam ruled, if a preacher dared to cite the "crusades", the security men blocked him immediately. But now Islamic protesters go around yelling that there is no room for Christian infidels in Iraq».
A painful choice
I try again by recalling the two-thousand-year history of Christians in Mesopotamia that they would leave behind. «We are conscious of our mission and our message of love», replies Shawkat. «But when our homeland becomes a land of violence, there are not many alternatives left: either we let them massacre us or we go away because no one, neither the government nor the religious authorities, has the means to protect us». «For us the choice was difficult», explains Fouad. «Only one percent of the kidnappings affect Muslim families. If a Muslim is kidnapped, his entire clan is mobilized to free him, sometimes even with force. This is not the case with us. Christians do not have a clan structure and therefore we are the weakest link in Iraqi society».
In Saidnaya, where they still speak the language of Christ, the same desire to emigrate is found in the families who are guests of the Greek-orthodox monastery of the Madonna and the Syrian monastery of Saint Ephraim. Seven years ago Gabriel fled to Syria because he was accused of distributing films on the Chaldean cultural inheritance. There he obtained political refugee status. Now he supplements the support offered by the UN by organizing folklore evenings while waiting to leave for the United States with his wife and children. «At the US consulate they asked me if we are willing to live with black, Jews or mixed-race people, then if I respect all religions and I answered yes». Fayez came here two years ago, but has not been so fortunate. At the Canadian consulate, he was told that «since Saddam is no longer in charge, there is no longer reason to grant asylum». But he wants to try again. 65-year-old Karim shows me his legs which were burned in the explosion of a hand grenade thrown at his liquor store. «It is difficult to start a new life at my age», he says disconsolately. «My brother sends some money every month and is working to bring me to Germany where he lives».
The lights of Lebanon
In Beirut, Sunday mass at the Chaldean church of Hazmiye is packed with the faithful. It is difficult to know how many of them are Iraqis who arrived illegally in Lebanon. Bishop Michel Kassarji does not want to give me any numbers, but he points out a group of families seated around a table in the oratory. I accompany one of them to their house in the Karm al-Zaytun quarter of Beirut. An empty room, except for the mattress that, rolled up, serves as a sofa during the day. «My neighbours gave it to me, together with a small wardrobe», says Umm Raed. Her husband stayed on in Baghdad to take care of his sick brother. She paid 1,000$ to smugglers to cross the Syria-Lebanon border with her six children one cold night at the end of May. «The youngest, Yussef, is 12 and handicapped. I had to carry him on my shoulders. I felt I wasn't going to make it when I ran into branches and got my feet wet in freezing streams». The smugglers explained to her: «When you see the light at the end, you will be in Lebanon». And she made it. But the light at the end of the tunnel in which the Iraqis are submerged has yet to appear.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal