Mosul Christians seek harbour in Jordan
AMMAN - About 1,200 Iraqi Christians, having fled persecution by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Mosul, are sheltered in Jordan, some holed up in churches that are trying to deal with the added financial burden and staffing hitches.
Mosul’s Christians, estimated at 3,000 among a population of about 2 million and deeply rooted having lived there for more than 1,900 years, escaped the city when ISIS seized it in June 2014.
They had been given the choices of converting to Islam, paying a penalty tax, leaving the city or death.
They headed to Jordan by the hundreds, with some continuing on to resettle in France, Canada, Australia, the United States and other Western nations. Many, however, remained in Jordan.
There are no Christians in Mosul for the first time in nearly two millennia — a serious blow to its tightly knit social fabric, which allowed its various communities, including Sunni Muslims and rival Shias, to live in peace and coexistence despite sectarian violence that ripped apart communities across Iraq.
Cash-strapped Jordan said it could not provide financial assistance to the Iraqi Christians except to give them a safe haven away from ISIS. Jordan is grappling with an influx of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, a situation that stretched the country’s services and meagre resources.
Jordan-based Greek Orthodox Catholic pastor George Sharayha said more than 500 Iraqi Christians took refuge in seven churches in Amman and the eastern city of Zarqa. They are sponsored by the Caritas Jordan Association, a humanitarian non-governmental organisation affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
The rest leased apartments across the country, according to Sharayha, who said his church sheltered 23 Iraqi families, totalling 85 individuals at least half of whom are younger than 18.
“There were needy Iraqis who fled to Jordan with neither money nor personal effects. They left everything behind so we had to provide them with urgent assistance,” Sharayha explained in an interview with The Arab Weekly. He said the assistance included cash, food, clothes, medical care and shelter.
“With help from the Caritas, we were able to host them since they arrived in August 2014,” he said. “But this turned out to be a big challenge because we initially thought they’d be here temporarily but a year has passed and they’re still here.”
The challenge is not only to meet their needs and allocate funds to shelter them but also to deal with their physiological state, he said.
“They all come from good families who lived well and had their own businesses but now they have absolutely nothing except their faith because they know that God will not leave them alone,” Sharayha said.
Sharayha explained that the cost of hosting one family of four is about $230 per month. “But the real cost is much higher because we pay thousands for electricity, water and other utilities,” he said.
The priest also noted that additional volunteers were needed to help the families adapt in Jordan. “Their children need to go to schools and the families need to mingle with the local community,” he said. “Some Christians and Muslims in Jordan are helping by providing food, clothes and even cash assistance. Still, this is not enough.
“They’ve been through a lot and we cannot give up on them now.”
One of the Iraqis, Ziad Behnam, 54, who owned a turnery shop in Mosul, is seeking resettlement in Australia. He insisted in an interview with The Arab Weekly that he will not return home.
“ISIS threatened to kill us if we did not manufacture silencers for their pistols. When we refused, they killed my brother. So, we were forced to leave Mosul and headed for Jordan,” he said.
“It was either leave or be killed,” Behnam said tearfully. “It took us a while to heal and overcome our fears.”
Zaid Imad, 26, left Mosul with eight family members after ISIS announced that Christians should convert to Islam, or pay the jizyah — a tax levied from non-Muslims in return for social protection.
“We heard that although some Christian families paid the jizyah, ISIS asked them later to convert to Islam or leave,” Imad said.
“We cannot go back to the unknown that is why we need a country that can sympathise with us and accept us,” he said in an interview in a church hall that was separated by fabric of false walls to provide relative privacy to each family.
“What we have here isn’t much but we call it home until things get better.”
On the side of the hall, two women sweat in the heat of a small kitchen as they cook rice for other families. In an adjacent room, filled with plastic bags and torn carpet, a psychologist volunteer talked with the Iraqis about their dreams and hopes.
Ban Moayad, 50, said sharing space with other families brought about an “effective system for cleaning, preparing meals and even praying; with each family being committed to making this hall a home for all”.
Reyadh Hazem, a 42-year-old businessman who owned several furniture shops in Mosul, said his plight made his faith grow stronger.
“I know that God is with us and He will never abandon us,” said Hazem, who wore a bracelet with a cross on his left hand. “This is just a phase that will go away.”