UNHCR starts to help hundreds of Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria
QAMISHLI, Syria, October 22 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has begun helping hundreds of Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria to escape violence and threats in the northern Iraq city of Mosul.
Thousands of Christians have left Mosul over the past fortnight. Most have found shelter in villages elsewhere in Ninawa province, but about 400 have crossed into Syria. It is still not clear who is behind the intimidation.
"Many Christians from Mosul have been systematically targeted recently and are no longer safe there. We are ready to provide support for those Iraqis that seek refuge in neighbouring countries," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's representative in Syria. "We are grateful that Syria continues to welcome refugees," he added of a country that is hosting at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees.
UNHCR has fast-tracked the registration of Christian refugees from Mosul who have turned up at the agency's offices in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, while a team of field officers has travelled to the Qamishli area close to Iraq, where some people have been arriving. Following registration, families facing financial difficulties are assessed for emergency grants and food assistance.
Field officers have met 20 families from Mosul in the Qamishli area in the past few days, while more than 20 Iraqi Christian families have sought the agency's help in Aleppo in recent days.
Those interviewed have told similar stories of sudden flight from Mosul. Many left with limited financial resources and need help extending their visas to Syria. All said they hoped to be able to return to their homes in the Iraqi city soon.
Sara* and her mother left Mosul early last week, two days after someone called one of her colleagues at work and said that all Christians should leave the city immediately or be killed. "My colleagues wept as all the Christians in the office rushed out of the building," she recalled.
Sara was unnerved, but decided to leave only after hearing reports that 11 friends had been killed at a checkpoint by militiamen dressed as police officers. "We heard that they were killed on the spot after their identity cards were examined showing the Christian faith of the person," she explained.
She and her mother escaped with a couple of bags and all the money that they had in the house - they did not dare go to the bank to remove their savings. They had visited Syria on holiday earlier in the year and met the ancient Christian community in the city of Saidnaya, north of Damascus. The two women, who felt the Church would support them, approached UNHCR in Damascus.
Nina*, a nurse by profession, fled Mosul almost two weeks ago. "The threats started months ago, with phone calls, letters and even messages on our door," she said, adding that she tried to ignore them at first.
But when churches closed and friends and acquaintances began falling victim to the violence, including a friend shot dead in front of his son, Nina began reconsidering her position. It was difficult because she had an invalid mother.
Nina hung on in Mosul until October 10, when she received a new threat. She immediately took her mother to a village outside Mosul and then carried on across the border into Syria with her sister's young family. Nina has no phone and has not been able to reach her mother since she left. She says she's frightened to go back to Iraq, but is very worried about her mother and is considering returning to try to bring her to Syria.
Mariam* hung on even longer in Mosul and only left with her son Farah* after a wheelchair-bound Christian man was murdered. "We were the hard core that never wanted to leave Iraq, even with the tense environment. My brother in Syria has been begging me to leave for a long time, but I never agreed," she said, adding: "As we felt the knife close to our throats, we had no choice but to flee."
Her two daughters and their families took refuge in villages near Mosul. "They tell us that there is nowhere for them to go. They are in the streets," said a softly weeping Mariam, who is trying to arrange a visa to Syria for them.
She dreams of going back, but dreads to think what she will find. She left her keys with Muslim neighbours but has heard that the homes of friends were destroyed with dynamite soon after they left. "I lived in my home for 35 years and had to pack in 30 minutes," said the devastated mother as she talked to UNHCR in the living room of her brother's modest home in Qamishli.
UNHCR has registered around 220,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, of whom 15,000 originate from Ninewa province where Mosul is located. UNHCR is mid-way through a food distribution for more than 190,000 Iraqi refugees throughout Syria, while approximately 38,000 Iraqi refugees benefit from financial assistance.
* Names changed for protection reasons.
By Sybella Wilkes in Qamishli, Syria