“Miserable. We are miserable.”
Faten, a young Christian refugee, confided her feelings with a shrug and a weak smile. Her English wasn’t the greatest, so she made sure I understood that she wasn’t criticizing the church that provides shelter for her and other family members.
She was simply stating the facts.
A colleague and I were visiting the Mar Yousef church compound in the Ankawa district of Erbil, Kurdistan. Ankawa is a Christian enclave in a mostly Muslim city, and it is packed to the rafters with refugees and their meager possessions.
In an odd way, it is rather colorful.
The church’s roofs and ramparts are strung with random items of laundry. Several classrooms have become sleeping quarters for 10 families each – 40-50 women and children per room. During the day, the rooms are piled to the ceiling with brightly printed mats that serve as mattresses by night. A huge pot of rice simmers just inside each door.
Male refugees, even fathers and husbands, sleep in a different section of the compound. They mingle with their families during the day.
It was raining, and the air was damp and heavy with human smells – food, sweat and latrines. Bathing takes place in a cubicle with peeling paint, a rickety door and a cold water tap about three feet from the ground.
Two other cold taps on the grounds provide water for drinking, laundry and dishwashing. Beyond that, there is no running or hot water, no heat and the barest essentials to eat.
“We have no money to buy food,” Faten, who was once a schoolteacher, told me. “Daesh took everything ….”
Faten related that she has been a refugee twice. She grew up in Baghdad and lived there until after the U.S. invasion, when terrorist attacks on churches grew deadly. Around 2005, she fled Baghdad’s anti-Christian violence. She left her teaching job and made her way to Qaraqosh.
Then, just three months ago, the Islamic State – commonly called Daesh in Kurdistan – swept into Qaraqosh after decimating Mosul’s Christian community.
The invaders offered Qaraqosh’s Christians the usual three options: Convert, pay the jizya tax, or get out.
Otherwise, they would face the Islamist’s sword.
Needless to say, they fled. And they left with nothing. “They took everything,” Faten said. “ID papers, money. They looted our houses, our shops. Everything.”
An old woman, one eye obscured with the opaque whiteness of disease, interrupted us. She began to shout in Arabic or Kurdish – I wasn’t sure which.
I thought she was angry about our intrusion into her broken world. But no, she just wanted us to know that she, too, had lost everything. Her brief outburst ended in bitter weeping.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil, which includes Mar Yousef church, describes an unforgettable Saturday in July when, as he put it, “5,000 refugees came knocking on the church door.”
By the end of the next day, 12,000 families had arrived in Erbil. “This was after the ISIS/Daesh attack on Mosel and Nineveh,” he said.
The refugees from Qaraqosh arrived about a month later. “Today we’re caring for 150 families.”
Now there are approximately 120,000 Christian refugees in Kurdistan, representing nearly a dozen denominations. Hosting a total of 1.8 million homeless people, the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] certainly has its hands full.
For one thing, winter looms large on the minds of many. And it poses a deadly threat.
“I think it’s a disaster in the making,” a security expert told us. “Winterization of the tent cities is the most essential and urgent issue for the refugees. Somebody needs to replace the tents with ‘caravans’ [pre-fabricated dwellings with foundations] before the rain and snow start up and the mud starts to flow. But how’s that going to happen in a month’s time?”
And, of course, there are other dangers.
Before arriving in Erbil, we heard conflicting stories about atrocities in the West – beheadings, crucifixions, massacres, photos of which have circulated wildly through social media. We asked the archbishop about these reports.
“Yes,” he said. “Those things are indeed taking place. But not against Christians.”
According to ISIS/Daesh’s interpretation of Islamic law, Christians who leave their homes and possessions behind and obey their expulsion orders are spared physical injury.
Those who flee are not permitted to take food or water, a terrible hardship on children and the elderly. Some are injured in crossfire or other violence.
But it is primarily the Yazidis who continue to suffer the most cruelties, Archbishop Warda told us, “because they are not ‘People of the Book,’” which is how the Koran describes Christians and Jews.
Shiites and Sunni tribesmen who oppose the Islamic State also face horrendous abuses.
Kurdistan is a safe haven for refugees of myriad religious groups. At first glance, traveling from the airport to a hotel, Erbil appears to be an oasis of peace. And so it is – to a point.
But ISIS/Daesh has ventured dangerously close to Erbil and is within 10 miles of Dohuk, one of Kurdistan’s largest cities. Hundreds of thousands of people are safe today, but they may well be in grave danger tomorrow.
If ever an “autonomous region” deserved the West’s support, it is Kurdistan. The rest of Iraq is split in two parts – the floundering and inept Shia regime in Baghdad and the marauding Islamic State.
Thankfully, there is a third option – a sane, humane alternative to those two unappealing options. Kurdistan is pro-Western and genuinely hospitable to minorities, and its Peshmerga militia has proved itself courageous and valiant.
Let’s hope our oft-myopic Western leadership doesn’t foolishly overlook Kurdistan while continuing to prop up Baghdad. Kurdistan is a natural ally in a troublesome region and a budding economic force.
But that’s not all.
For the more than a million refugees who have taken shelter there, greater American support for Kurdistan could soon become a matter of life and death.
Lela Gilbert is author of "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians." She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her website: www.lelagilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert.