Sorrow stalks Iraqi Christians in Lebanon
Families like the Yousifs, who fled persecution near Mosul, struggle with life in exile.
BEIRUT, Lebanon – In the hardscrabble Beirut suburb of Sad al Baoushriye, the narrow apartment rented by the Yousifs, a family of refugees from northern Iraq, is shrouded in sorrow.
The Yousifs were forced to flee the Nineveh region near Mosul in Iraq in 2015 amid a wave of reprisals against Christians and minorities, and persecution by extremists. The family of seven, who span three generations, first moved to Erbil. Then, still feeling vulnerable, they travelled on to Lebanon, with little more than memories.
Though the security worries have diminished, life in exile has itself been fraught. Soon after escaping from Iraq, Mirna, the mother, suffered another loss – her husband, Munzer, died in Beirut of natural causes. The four children, aged between 12 and 22, who are still with her in Lebanon, were left without a father.
“First my son had to leave Iraq as he was being forced to go and fight, then we followed. It was too dangerous to stay,” Mirna told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, during a visit to the apartment alongside an Iraqi volunteer from the Catholic NGO Caritas, a UNHCR partner.
As she spoke, Mirna rustled around for a photo printout of the former family home, now just pockmarked walls encasing bricks, dust and twisted metal fragments. “We’ve lost our home. It was completely destroyed. What have we got to go back to?”
As well as keeping the immediate family together, Mirna has to care for her bereaved parents-in-law. Her mother-in-law, Faheemah, 82, is nearly blind and almost entirely bedridden, having suffered a stroke and other complications; her swollen legs only carry her from bed to bathroom, when assisted. The cost of medication has stretched family finances to breaking point.
Her father-in-law, Gorgis, 83, sometimes leaves the apartment but generally ventures no further than the local church or a plastic chair in the ground-floor car park, from where he surveys the street through glassy eyes.
“We’ve lost our home. It was completely destroyed. What have we got to go back to?”
During the visit, Gorgis broke into a mournful Chaldean chant that appeared to an outsider to be a lament for home, and perhaps the family’s current plight.
Dreams of the future are mostly on hold. The family’s daily preoccupation, like that of so many other refugees, is financial. The apartment that they rent in Beirut’s poor quarter costs US$700 a month. Food, utilities, medicine and other costs add hundreds more to monthly outgoings. UNHCR cash assistance helps cover some of this, but it is far from sufficient.
That means the two older children, Michael and Media, 22 and 18 respectively, have to work menial jobs in Beirut to keep the family afloat. Hence their prospects are dimming – something that is a preoccupation for refugee parents the world over.
As fighting continues in parts of northern Iraq after extremists were pushed from Mosul last year, many of those forced to flee – like the Yousifs – have abandoned hope of returning home, fearing sectarian tension may endure, and are looking at a protracted exile, or moving on to other countries under UNHCR resettlement programmes, though places are few and reserved for the most vulnerable.
Earlier in the day, at a weekly therapy and discussion session for Iraqi refugees run by Caritas, dozens of Iraqi Christian refugees spoke over black tea about the pain of limbo. It is a life of frustration at best, often leaving psychological scars.
“I feel I’m living on borrowed time,” said Laith, a man in his 60s. “I want to provide for my kids, but I can’t. My son used to be top of his class in Iraq. Now he’s a labourer.”
Among the daily challenges cited by Laith and other Iraqi Christians at the session were depression, health issues, lost opportunities for their children and financial hardship. Most expressed a desire to move on to a new life elsewhere, if possible.
“I feel I’m living on borrowed time. I want to provide for my kids, but I can’t.”
A study published by the World Council of Churches and Norwegian Church Aid indicates that sectarian feelings in Iraq had “become deeply ingrained” and warned that the defeat of extremists alone “will not solve these underlying dangers or ensure that minorities return to their place of origin.” It stressed the need to keep providing flexible and sufficient humanitarian funding in Iraq.
The diaspora is spread wide: Last year there were nearly 260,000 Iraqi refugees registered in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
A number of refugees at the Caritas session said they felt more at ease in Lebanon, partly because of its large Christian community.
“Although the conditions here are extremely difficult, the most important thing is that we feel safe,” said Josephine, an Iraqi mother whose son was an engineer in Iraq. “He now gets small jobs in Lebanon, and earns no more than US$400 a month.”
Minorities in Iraq have been especially affected by recent violence, not least Nineveh’s Christians. In all country offices, UNHCR has measures to ensure that all asylum-seekers, regardless of their religion or background, have access to its services.
Indeed, the Agency assists all refugee communities – including religious minorities – to register, including via mobile registration units, trained outreach teams and help desks in areas where these groups are concentrated.
Back in Beirut, one thing that provides a constant for the Yousifs is the local church, where most of the family joins other Iraqi Christians to pray for better times.
Gorgis, the father-in-law, worries about the family’s future while they are in limbo. “Every day I ask God to help us,” he said, his voice cracking as he fought back tears.