ROME — Imagine fleeing your home in the middle of the night to escape anti-Christian violence, spending years stranded as a refugee in a neighboring country, and watching the pope visit your home city.
“The pope’s visit to Iraq was a message of love and peace,” said Karmen, an Iraqi refugee that only provided her first name.
“Terrorists wrote on the walls: We will open Rome with swords, but the pope came to their lands carrying a dove of peace. My feeling was a mixture of joy and sadness, the joy of his visit to my beloved town,” she said. Karmen is from Qaraqosh, which Pope Francis visited on March 7.
Through the help of Della Shenton, founding trustee of UK-based charity 5th Gospel Christians, Crux spoke with several Iraqi refugees who are currently in Jordan. All are UNHCR refugees in transit, which means they cannot legally work and are waiting for resettlement.
An estimated 30 percent of the refugees arrived in 2014, after the Islamic State group, or ISIS, took control of most of the Nineveh Plain, where many Iraqi minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, lived..
Out of concern for their safety and to not put their refugee status at a risk, they only provided their first names and a brief biography, but they all come from Qaraqosh, which was the largest Christian town in Iraq, with over 50,000 people, before the arrival of ISIS.
When Pope Francis was in Qaraqosh March 7, he visited a church that the jihadists used as a shooting range.
“Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word. The last word belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death. Even amid the ravages of terrorism and war, we can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death,” he said.
An estimated 45 percent of those who fled the town have gone back, but many headed towards Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, with Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States as their intended final destinations.
For many of those who fled, the mistrust is hard to shake, and despite the joy they felt from watching the pope visit their town, fear is engraved in their hearts
“I felt goose bumps when I heard the women of my town, Qaraqosh, cheering,” Karmen told Crux. “I wished to be there and be happy with the people of my town and my people whom I love.”
Francis’s visit, she said, was a blessing for a country that has suffered for too many years. She said hopes for peace, safety and reassurance.
“But for us, for my family, we will not return because we lost a lot, got hurt and lost too much of our life … if we return to Iraq one day, know that we will return against our will,” she said.
Inaam, 43; Fada 19; Bassam, 40; and Rivin, 24, all agreed: Seeing the pope visit their town, be with their loved ones, was a bittersweet moment. They wish they could go back but are too afraid to do so.
“I was so happy to watch our Holy Father visiting my country and especially my lovely town,” Inaam said. “I wish I had been there celebrating and welcoming him with my people. It was a dream for all Christians and finally came true. We hope that his visit will bring peace and blessings to our country.”
He said he wanted to cry tears of joy when he saw the pope enter the Church of the Immaculate Conception, while still being afraid for Francis’ safety.
He said his life and that of his family is at risk, so he cannot go back. But Inaam is also convinced that even those who haven’t been singled out by terrorists but have managed to flee Iraq won’t return either: “the situation is very difficult, and people don’t trust politicians and the government, and the economy is very poor.”
In addition, he said, “we can’t trust Muslims anymore.” During the papal visit, he monitored comments on Facebook, and those from Muslims, he said, were vastly negative. “They don’t like us, and they think that Iraq isn’t our country.”
Fada left Qaraqosh with her parents and siblings when she was in her early teens, and for the past seven years has been leading an unstable life, with no certainties as to where she will be next year, either still in Jordan, or in her final destination.
She regretted the fact that with her family, they couldn’t share in the joy of the papal visit, because they’re far from home, and “we can never return.”
“The wonderful visit of Pope Francis has made me sadder than ever at what happened,” the violence they witness and the challenges they have faced since ISIS took over Qaraqosh.
“I rejoiced at their joy,” over the papal visit, but at the same time, “was disappointed, sad and heartbroken” over everything she has lost.
Bassam, who fled Iraq in 2016, called the pope’s visit a message of love and peace.
“The Pope’s message was clear: Iraq is still an insecure country and Christians are persecuted. Our churches and homes have been burned and destroyed, which is what prevents us from returning, and this made me sad,” he said.
“We cannot go back because Iraqi law is an Islamic law, and a Muslim cannot live with other religions,” he said, adding that he hopes the “safe countries” will soon open their doors to those who have had to fled persecution.
Rivin defined the visit as “great, unforgettable, historical” event. He shared his joy at seeing Qaraqosh coming back to life “after a long time of dark days,” but as the rest, said he wished could feel safe enough to return.
“Watching them on TV made me feel sad, because they deserve to live a peaceful, happy life but they cannot, because the security situation is still very bad, people go back to Iraq, but they can’t stay,” Rivin said, claiming that eventually most of those who go back try to migrate.
On the pope’s appeal for Christians to go back, the refugee said he simply can’t, because there’s no job opportunities, no safety, and the economy is too unstable.
“There’s no future” for Christians in Iraq, Rivin said.
“In Qaraqosh we were confident people in God; we had great feasts involving the whole town at Christmas, Easter and on Palm Sunday, all dressed in our best traditional clothes,” he recalled.
“We danced and sang and were so happy. We fasted through Lent, eating only rice and vegetables and drinking water, except on Wednesdays and Fridays when we had fish. We wore black, especially on Fridays. I miss it here in Jordan, especially among my generation,” he continued.
“When I saw the Pope, and looking at my lovely town, I asked myself, why are we here? Why are we in Jordan as refugees? If I had the opportunity, would I go back? And I know I won’t, because my country is not safe,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk, but nothing is really changed. The Government does not help us.”
During the pope’s visit, Rivin too monitored social media, particularly YouTube. The comments he found there, are in a nutshell, the reason why he is convinced he will never go back to Iraq.
“There were posts criticizing Christian girls for not wearing hijab, making bad comments about Christians, and Jesus and Pope Francis. That is what it is like to be Christian in Iraq. We are not wanted.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma