Catholic Iraqi refugees recall horror of militant attacks

Categories: Nation/World

By Doreen Abi Raad
Catholic News Service

The memory of that brutal June evening in his home near Mosul, Iraq, brought 48-year-old Joseph, now a refugee in Lebanon, to tears.

“These people know no limits of humanity, decency or respect for human life,” he said of the Islamic State fighters.

Meeting with Catholic News Service Aug. 8 at the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center in Beirut, he and other Catholic Iraqi refugees asked that their real names not be used to protect their identities as they shared the traumatic experiences that led to their exodus.

Joseph recalled how his wife and their teenage son, Bachar, were in their living room. Two other children were asleep around 10 p.m. when there was an explosion-like crash. In an instant, four militants barged into the house, guns aimed at the heads of father and son.

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Emil, a Catholic Iraqi refugee, hides his face during a posed photo at the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center in Beirut Aug. 8. The resident of Mosul, Iraq, fled his hometown with family members after receiving threats from Islamic State militants.(CNS photo/Dalia Khamissy)

“Give us your gold and valuables,” he said they demanded.

Filled with fear, Joseph’s wife tried to calmly gather all jewelry she had. One of the militants, noticing Bachar’s cross, ripped off the chain in a rage and started to beat the boy, accusing the family of withholding their gold.

“What’s for sure is [the terrorists] are not all Iraqis. The ones with the beards are not Iraqis,” Joseph said.

After ransacking the home for other valuables, the terrorists warned they would return in 48 hours. Their ultimatum: The family must convert to Islam, pay the Islamic jizya tax, or be killed.

Joseph knew he had no choice but to flee quickly with his family.

“We were happy, our life was good,” he said, collapsing into sobs.

“All the work of my father and myself and my brothers, all the years … gone in just a few seconds,” he said of the trading company he had to abandon. The next morning, “I went to the cemetery and said good-bye to my father, and I went to Mass in my church to receive the Eucharist. I think it was the last Mass celebrated in my village. And I thought, if I’m meant to die at this time, at least I’m in God’s house.”

The family fled to Irbil the night after the attack, eventually boarding a flight to Beirut.

Through a relative, Joseph found a furnished apartment in Beirut, but rent is $850, so he is searching for cheaper accommodations, knowing that his savings will quickly run out.

Jobs in tiny, economically strapped Lebanon are hard to find. New refugees have to compete with other refugees for work. Currently more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees — equal to at least one-quarter of Lebanon’s resident population — are living in Lebanon.

Even before the Islamist militant onslaught in Mosul and Iraq’s Ninevah province beginning in June, there were already some 9,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, most of whom fled their homeland after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Fleeing in the night 

Before the Islamic State attacks in June, 35,000 Christians lived in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and more than 60,000 lived there before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate.

Emil, 40, came to Lebanon with his father, a widower with a heart condition, and his wheelchair-bound physically disabled adult sister, both of whom he supports.

He said that on June 16, four militants broke down the door of their Mosul home and told him he had five days to pay them about $20,000.

“We know where you live, what you do, everything about you, we will find you and kill you,” he said they told him.

So Emil gathered all the family’s legal papers, the few pieces of his late mother’s jewelry — including her crucifix and Marian medal — and fled with his father and sister in the night toward Irbil, leaving behind his home and his sanitation supply shop filled with inventory.

“I want to remain a Christian,” Emil said. “Our religion is about peace, not killing.”

Rent for the apartment he found in a run-down section of Beirut is $500 a month, not including utilities. Lebanon is expensive, he said, and his savings are nearly depleted.

“I look every day for a job, but I don’t know how much longer I can survive,” said the neatly dressed man, the tips of his worn black shoes tattered and peeling away.