International News

Fleeing Iraqi Christians Live in a Park Tent

Iraqi Christian refugees
Catholics who fled Islamic State militant attacks on their home in Iraq in August, Abu and Um Sabah, pose outside their tent in a park in Ainkawa, Iraq. One of their sons, Saleh, has traveled to Jordan with his family in the hope of moving elsewhere in the West, far from Iraq’s continuing violence.

by Dale Gavlak

AINKAWA, Iraq (CNS) – The last thing Abu Sabah ever pictured in his life was being homeless and living in a tent in a park somewhere.

But that is exactly what he and his family are experiencing in this Christian enclave outside of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq.

Abu Sabah, a Syriac Catholic from the predominately Christian town of Qaraqosh, a 45-minute drive away, had a good job, a big house, a car and was surrounded by a strong family community until Islamic State militants swept through the town Aug. 6, turning their world upside down.

“Islamic State forced us out and that’s why we’re here,” Abu Sabah explained, pointing to the haphazard array of canvas tents strung along the now ragged park grounds. He is using the familial Arabic name meaning Sabah’s father.

“We really had no warning at all that Islamic State militants were coming for our town,” he said. “They attacked and we fled that same day. Some people were kidnapped. Others were killed because they refused to convert to Islam.”

Abu Sabah tries to keep a positive attitude about his family’s situation. Family members are pinning their hopes on a son’s chance to travel to Jordan as the first stop on the way out of Iraq and onward to the West – and the start of a new life.

The son, Saleh, is joining a growing number of Christians who continue to leave Iraq, saying that as long as Islamic State militants are around, they do not feel safe remaining in their homeland.

By early November, about 4,000 Iraqi Christians had fled to Jordan, according to Caritas Jordan, the Church’s humanitarian organization. Other Iraqi Christians traveled to Lebanon and Turkey, Catholic officials in northern Iraq said.

Saleh said a Catholic priest arranged for his family of four to travel to Jordan under the auspices of the Catholic Church, which along with the country’s ruler, King Abdullah II, has facilitated the Christians’ safe passage.

“I don’t have money. Life is really difficult as it’s impossible to work after we had to flee our homes,” the carpenter explained.

“After Jordan, I am open to going anywhere else we can get asylum, whether in Germany, Australia or America,” he said. “It was a very tough escape out of Qaraqosh.”

Abu Sabah, his wife, Um Sabah, and other family members expect to be camping in the park for the foreseeable future.

“Churches are providing us with food and there is a medicine dispensary nearby. Others are bringing clothing,” he said, while neighbors distributed trays of rice and beans in the makeshift tent community.