.- Threatened by forced conversion or death at the hands of the Islamic State, many Iraqi Christians have had to flee their homes – but one refugee family sheltered at a Jordanian church has declared their continued faith.
“We are nearly every day going to the church here. We are praying. Still we have the faith,” Dr. Imad Ibraheem Daood, a 47-year-old surgeon and father of four, told CNA Oct. 28.
“We lost many things, but still we have the faith. Still there is hope.”
“We trust in God,” added Yusif, his 13-year-old son.
Daood and his family used to live in the Christian town of Bartella, a little more than ten miles from Mosul in Iraq.
“We lived in very big houses,” he said; Valentin, his energetic teen daughter, described their homes as “palaces.”
Now they live in a refugee shelter: the church hall across from Our Lady of the Assumption Armenian Catholic Church in Amman.
Families of five or six sleep in areas not much larger than an office cubicle. Colorful sheets mounted on bland wooden partitions about four feet tall provide some privacy. A few festive decorations, hung along the walls, try to lighten the mood.
The refugees maintain an organized dignity. Their beds are simple, but neatly made. Purses and other items hang on hooks. But the 80 people who now live here share one only bath in common.
“It’s not enough to wash my children,” lamented Sajida, Daood’s wife. They can bathe only once or twice a week.
“We are living in a very bad situation,” Daood said. “We are afraid of diseases, getting sick. There is some difficulty in our food supply.”
“Every day becomes less and less,” he said of the food. “Especially the dinners. Most of the time we don’t have one.”
Outside the church hall, old men played backgammon to pass the time. One of them strikes a playful grin, takes out his dentures and displays them to entertain visitors and children.
Some of the young men helped paint the church.
Among them was Mareo. Daood’s 20-year-old son Ibad introduces him: “He lose his father in church in Baghdad. By explosion.”
Mareo, who speaks in uncertain English, said his father was killed in 2006. He was a policeman at Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Cathedral in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad. The cathedral has been the site of many deadly attacks since 2004.
Mareo believes his father died for the faith, and prays to him.
“We pray to make the situation more calm,” he said.
The young man and his mother left Iraq Sept. 10 thanks to funding from Caritas Jordan, a Catholic humanitarian agency.
“Caritas will help us buy food, buy water. Thank God!” Mareo exclaimed.
As of late October, Caritas Jordan helped about 2,000 Iraqi Christians fly to Jordan from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The agency is assisting them and another 2,000 who came from Iraq by other means. Caritas has helped the refugees find shelter at churches or at rented houses, when available.
The U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services has provided about $350,000 to prepare several Jordanian church facilities to receive the Iraqis. The agency also supplied blankets, mattresses, and modest furniture.
Local Jordanians, both Christian and Muslim, have reached out to help the Iraqis. Prince Hasan has visited some of the church shelters.
Daood voiced gratitude for the help, but still worried: “It is not enough.”
Even so, the shelters are less dangerous than home.
“We didn’t feel safe there. We were afraid to be killed. Our houses, our things have been stolen. They threatened us (either) to be killed, or to become Muslim.”
He was speaking of “Daesh” as it is known in Arabic. English-speakers call it the Islamic State, whose violent expansion across Iraq and Syria has killed thousands and driven millions from their homes. Those who do not convert to its vision of Sunni Islam must pay a tax or flee for their lives.
“The situation is becoming worse and worse, especially for Christian people,” Daood said.
Many Christians had alreadsy fled to his home town due to the instability following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the later withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Daood and his family had already left their home several times for fear of violence. But the last time, in early August, was different.
“The invasion was sudden. No one even fought against them,” Daood said, questioning the inaction of the Iraqi government and its allied defense forces that had promised to defend Bartella.
“They just wanted to leave us, I think, to be killed,” he said, snapping his fingers: “Just like that.”
“They should have prepared for withdrawal, to protect the people. They should have announced it. Actually, they announced ‘we will not leave’.”
Some people in Bartella had asked whether they should carry weapons to defend themselves. According to Daood, the armed forces had replied: “No, we are ready to defend you. We will never leave you.”
“But what happened was exactly the opposite. They left us.”
“If we didn’t leave within hours … something terrible would have happened to us.”
Daood and his children had a harrowing flight from home. The Islamic State had cut off supplies and utilities to the town two months before invading in August.
They had no more than a few hours’ notice that Islamic State forces were on their way. Some people left behind the ill, the handicapped, and the elderly. They left at night with hundreds of other people, whose cars clogged the roads.
“We spent about five hours to go less than 60 kilometers,” Daood said. “We were afraid that a bomb might reach us, or Daesh might reach us. We were fighting with time, just to be away from them.”
“You have to stay, obey, and never say anything. Otherwise they will not accept you,” he said. “These people will not accept the other. This is the problem. In any country, there are many different kinds of people who live there, different religions. They are living together.”
“But these people, they want only themselves.”
He said Iraq was different before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion: “We had many Muslim friends. We were talking with them. There was no problem.”
“After the war, and this situation, probably they are starting to change,” Daood explained, adding that some Iraqi Muslims are adopting “these bad ideas about the Christians.”
He said some Muslims began to accuse Christians of not believing in God and said they needed to change their religion.
“You cannot defend (yourself), because there is no one to protect you. Anyone can kill you, hurt you, no one will care.”
Daood has given up on returning home, even if peace is reestablished.
“After a few months, everything will change again, and the crisis continues, and again and again. This is not a good situation, especially for my children.”
His two eldest children both hope to be doctors like their father.
Daood asked Americans to help him and his family.
“If they can help us to start a new life, in our new country…”
Valentin interjected: “A new future!”
“There is no future here,” her father continued sadly. “In Iraq there is no future. We want to go to some safe country, start a new life.”
“A new beginning,” Valentin said.
The future may be delayed.
Jordan hosts not only thousands of Iraqi refugees, but 1.4 million refugee Syrians. Millions more refugees are spread across the Middle East, and Western countries are reluctant to take in asylum seekers.