Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon do not live in camps under the media spotlight. They stay in substandard housing barely visible from the street.
Since 2014, Lebanon has harbored thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees. Those refugees were fleeing from the terrorist Islamic State Group (ISIS).
When the Islamic State Group invaded the Nineveh plains
In June 2014, after a few days of fighting, ISIS subdued Mosul. It is the capital of Nineveh plains, northern Iraq. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph. Mosul became ISIS’s “capital”. A few weeks later, Jihadists seized Qaraqosh, not far from Mosul. This is the largest Christian city in Iraq. They also invaded other cities crowded by the Chaldean community like Batnaya. For two thousands years, the region has been a Chaldean sanctuary. In July 2014, ISIS forced Christians to pay a tax on the caliphate and to convert to Islam. A refusal to obey was punishable by death.
Doomed to exile
Like other minorities, since 2007 Christians in Iraq have been persecuted. Some have had already at this time little choice but to flee. ISIS’s breakthrough in the summer 2014 will force more a large numbers of them, more than 100,000, to go into exile. They fled to Iraqi Kurdistan or abroad, mainly in neighboring countries, in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey. Jihadists confiscated abandoned houses.
In August 2014, ISIS seized Erbil, Kurdistan Autonomous Region’s capital. Jihadists made the plight of Iraqi Christians worse. As a result, Christians who had already fled Mosul and Qaraqosh earlier had to find another safe haven. In December 2017, Iraqi army announced it has driven out of the country the last remnants of the Islamic State Group.
Lebanon would host currently nearly 3,000 Chaldean families refugees from Iraq and Syria. Compared to the million and a half of other refugees in Lebanon from Syria, it is a small figure. Many of Christian Iraqi refugees in Lebanon feel to be left-behind. They say they are left-behind and ignored by the media and the international community.
Struggling against deprivation of identity
Hayfaa is a Iraqi Christian refugee. She is a militant. She helps the Chaldean community to improve daily survival in Beirut. She introduced me to a few other Christian Iraqi families in Beirut. All of them had enjoyed a more comfortable situation in Iraq. They since lost everything. They only brought back one or two suitcases to their exile land. In Lebanon, they face disenfranchisement. Some of them have also important health issues. But all long for a fresh start. Their struggle is not against deprivation of property. They have already lost it. Their struggle is against deprivation of dignity. Their struggle is against deprivation of identity. That includes the religious identity. This is all they have left.
In Beirut, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has granted them the refugee protection. But Iraqi families say they receive little help. They do not live in camps under the media spotlight, but in unhealthy and discreet apartments. And still they live below the poverty line. Their homes are all based on the same model. They are tiny and consist of one single room. They are dark, cold, and non-functional. As for sole ornament, holy images, rosaries or other objects of worship are pinned on the walls. These accommodations are not only sinister, they are also expensive. And refugees self-finance the rent.
All the four families I have met with were living in Beirut’s district of DEKWANA, RAJ. They did not live far from the Christian Church of Our Lady of Deliverance. Together with their Lebanese cousins and exiled Iraqi and Syrian brothers, Iraqi Christian refugees pray there regularly for a better future. And because they are very pious, the most vulnerable families facing health issue receive the visit at home of the priest.
No real future for Iraqi Christian refugees, neither in Iraq nor in Lebanon
Chaldean Patriarchate has urged refugees refuse to return to their native land. But none of the refugees I met expressed the wish to return to their Iraqi home country. They only see a dark future there. They say ISIS is still a threat. And by the way, they do not feel welcome anymore in their own country. Today, remaining Christian minorities in Iraq still face persecution and threats.
Lebanon’s population is composed of more than 30% displaced persons coming from conflict areas. Lebanon has become a home for many refugees. However, Iraqi Christian refugees have not found there living conditions that could ease the pain of uprooting.
These families are eager to resume their exile journey. They wish to reach a new promised land, a land far from Nineveh homeland. They are awaiting resettlement. They mention several possible host countries, including the US, Australia, Germany and France. The individual story of these four families is portrayed below.
Solange Paradis, Beirut, March 2019
The story of Haifa Rasho
The story of Mountha Dado
The story of Victoria Youssif Estan
The story of Danial and Fanar Bachir