Loai Behnam Toubia pulls up his shirt, uncovering a thick, dark scar – probably 10 inches long – that tears vertically down his large, round belly.
With a cockeyed arm he points to three smaller scars that decorate the left side of his misshaped abdomen, marking the times he was shot when ISIS opened fire on his car last year.
I stand in the dust surrounded by rows of boxy prefab trailers listening to his story. I focus on the scar marking where the bullet that landed just centimeters below his heart entered his thick body.
My translator recounts the terrifying story of how Toubia’s car burst into flames in the middle of the road he had been driving between Qaraqosh and the small village of Shikhan when ISIS opened fire.
He was pulled to safety by passersby just in time. Now, having barely survived the ordeal, he says that “it was grace that saved me.”
Toubia had been a taxi driver in Qaraqosh – the former Christian capital of Iraq now in the clutches of ISIS after the militants stormed the city, lighting up the night sky with bombs and gunfire Aug. 6, 2014.
Like the 120,000 others who fled with him, Toubia heard late that night that ISIS was coming and crammed his family and a few belongings into his taxi and sped toward Erbil in stop and go traffic alongside the thousands of others who were headed to the same destination.
Since then Toubia has been among the 5,500 Christians, including more than 2,000 children, living in the city’s Aishty 2 camp for the displaced. He had attempted to continue working, driving people from one city to another for income until his car was shot up by ISIS. Now, after losing his home, his livelihood, and with a body marred by gruesome scars, he tries to carry on, and says that he is “happy to be alive.”
This is Erbil, Iraq – home to nearly 70,000 internally displaced persons, most of them Christians.
Toubia’s is just one among the many similar stories I came across last month when I spent six days in Iraq as part of a media delegation accompanying Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York on a pastoral visit to Erbil and Dohuk. The two cities are where the majority of those who fled their homes are now living in camps after ISIS swept across the Plains of Nineveh in the summer of 2014.
We as a delegation spent our time visiting various schools, projects and camps set up for the hundreds of thousands of refugees – internally displaced persons (IDPs) – who left their homes, and in many cases their livelihoods, behind in one night. Most of them are Christians and Yazidis from Mosul and Qaraqosh.
The trip was nothing like I had expected.
There were moments when what I saw and heard took my breath. I smiled. I choked back tears. I found myself fidgety, nervous.
As an American I have to admit that I was anticipating some hostility and a fair amount of blame from the people for their present situation. But that was not at all what happened.
Instead, what I encountered from the people was the opposite: I was received by them warmly with open arms: women embraced me, kissed me on each cheek and pulled me into their trailers, forcing fruit and Pepsi into my hands. The men were quick to shake my hand and the children all ran up and asked for their picture to be taken.
A woman dying from cancer – who may or may not have access to pain meds – welcomed me into the small trailer she has now been confined to living in and beckoned me to her bedside. Wincing and short of breath, she grabbed my face, kissed my cheeks and whispered “thank you.”
Not once did I experience a moment of hostility, but instead my eyes were met by the tearful gaze of so many who feel completely alone and abandoned, but a gaze which at the same time was filled with joy because my presence there, however brief, brought with it the hope that the world had not forgotten them, and that maybe soon help would come and they would be able to return home.
What it’s really like to live in a refugee camp
Erbil itself is a city frozen in time. Only a few years ago it was on the fast track to becoming the next Qatar or Dubai of the Middle East: construction was booming and everywhere new buildings and condominiums were popping up in what was a promising upward economic tilt.
However, after the rise of the Islamic State and the sharp fall of oil prices, the construction came to a screeching halt and building projects, highway remodels and construction renovations were simply abandoned. Incomplete edifices, one of which was to be a large new shopping mall, are scattered throughout the city.
As investors, homeowners and contractors suddenly found their pockets empty and their hands tied up in litigation, families fleeing from ISIS poured into the unfinished buildings and took refuge. Some have been living there ever since, while the majority have gone to one of the many camps that have been formed throughout Erbil.
Once the grim reality set in that it would be more than just a few days or weeks before the people could go home, the Church acted swiftly and aggressively in setting up the camps. Most of them are overcrowded, with families packed into prefabricated trailers between 1-3 rooms each, at times housing 8 people or more.
The largest Christian camp in Erbil, called the Aishty camp, is located in the Christian suburb of Ain Qawa, and is divided into three smaller camps: Aishty 1, 2 and 3.
Fardos, who lives in a squashed, two-room trailer in Aishty 1 with five other members of her family, including her mother and children, worries that the snakes and insects that creep into the trailer will get to her infant daughter.
As I squeezed in with the family around their humble kitchen table, Fardos told me they all escaped from Qaraqosh Aug. 6, 2014, when ISIS attacked. When they got to Erbil, they initially took refuge inside a church hall, where they slept on the floor along with 14 other families, numbering more than 100 people in total.
There was barely enough room to walk between the people, and at night they couldn’t get up without disturbing the others. After moving into the camp, problems abounded. Bathrooms were few and hard to get to, there was little space inside their flimsy trailer, they had no water and “the room stunk a lot.”
While the majority of the issues have been taken care of, the stench of sewage from where the water is hooked up under the trailer wafts into the rooms every now and then and coats the air. Many of the 250 families in Aishty 1, roughly 1,000 people, live in 1 room compartments set up inside a warehouse with no windows.
Though they now have bathrooms, the camp still doesn’t have showers, leaving residents, including many elderly, the option of either not bathing, or walking long distances to other camps where they can freshen up.
On our second day in Iraq we as a delegation took the long, bumpy road to Dohuk, which sits near the Iraqi border with Turkey, and near Mosul. The city is where the majority of the Yazidis fled and is the closest we came to ISIS territory.
As we walked into the Dawodiya camp – which is about 60-70 percent Yazidi, followed by Christians and a few Muslims – the smell wasn’t initially obvious. The stench of sewage sets in only after a few minutes. It comes in waves with a gust of the breeze that carries the scent of the murky water flowing in thin canals carved into the dirt pathways that snake through the camp for drainage.
Suffering abounded in each of the “homes” we entered. My heart ached as I walked into the trailer of a grieving mother whose son, just one month after being married, joined the Kurdish army forces, known as the Peshmerga. He was killed after only a few weeks of fighting ISIS on the front lines, and is referred to as one of “the martyrs.” His picture now hangs on the wall of his mother’s trailer with a rosary draped over it.
Another story that made my stomach churn was that of Hazar Namir, a 32-year-old Yazidi woman born in Sinjar. As our delegation crammed into her trailer, we were told that she, her husband and their three sons were all abducted by ISIS when the militants stormed the city Aug. 3, 2014. While Hazar and their sons managed to escape in November 2015, after more than a year in captivity, her husband remains in the hands of ISIS.
As the rest of our delegation piled out of her tiny home, I lingered for a few moments and asked to take her picture. Once the men had left (I was one of only two women in the delegation), she lowered the black fabric covering the lower half of her face and flashed me a confident, yet reserved, almost bashful smile. As I smiled back and captured her flawless beauty in digital form, I couldn’t help but wonder why she felt so open with me – did she trust me? Why? How could her eyes still sparkle so brightly and familiarly when her family had experienced such terror and undergone so much suffering? What had they done to her? Did she know where her husband was? Did she have nightmares about what was happening to him, or what had happened to her and her sons? Does she feel safe?
These are the questions that raced through my mind over and over as I met with different families and spoke with different people, most of whom are desperate and confused.
Should they stay or should they go? What the displaced really want
What most of the displaced want is to go back home. But with the situation showing precious little improvement many have become fed up, and are thinking of going abroad. While hopes of returning might have been higher after the initial displacement in 2014, they have significantly diminished now that the situation has drug on for some 20 months. The people are conflicted and have steadily become more and more impatient. The future is no clearer than it was two years ago – if anything, it’s foggier, especially for Christians.
“If we were not believers, half of us would be suicidal.”
This is what Ibrahim Shaba Lalo, the director of Ain Qawa’s Aishty 2 camp told me when asked about the mental state of the people living in the camps and how they are handling the situation. For many hope is small and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, he said, explaining that many are thinking about leaving, fueling growing concerns that within a few years Iraq will be empty of Christians if their land is not liberated.
However, despite the growing sense of desperation among the people, I also found a surprising resilience and determination on the part of many to stay; to return to their land and their homes. But the solution to getting these people home isn’t an easy one, especially since liberating the cities taken by ISIS has proved to be a much longer task than anyone initially thought. Most thought they would be home in a few days, or a week at most. Instead, the days became weeks, weeks became months and the months have now become years.
A parish priest in Alqosh, the only remaining Christian village on the Plain of Nineveh not captured by ISIS, told me as he sipped from a typical Iraqi glass teacup that in the time that’s passed, “we have understood now that ISIS is a game.”
“It is the world’s game” in which it has become clear that certain nations “want ISIS to stay” either for the economic benefit of selling them weapons, or to keep the war out of their own territory. Even if entire nations are crumbling in the process, it’s not a concern for those whose pockets are being lined, he said.
The majority of locals I spoke with share the same anger and frustration, and pin the majority of the fault for funding ISIS on neighboring Middle Eastern nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Despite their open sense of welcome and generosity toward me, most Iraqis do blame the United States for the rise of the Islamic State and for the chaos that has ensued since the end of the war in 2003.
Yet, in my time there I also discovered that they believe the U.S. is one of the only nations that has enough influence in the international community to do something about it. The religious leaders in the area practically begged Dolan to advocate to the U.S. government on their behalf once he returned to New York.
Many of the displaced hold out hope that a current offensive to retake the city of Mosul will be successful, and that Qaraqosh will be liberated soon after. There is hopeful buzz in the community that within a year both cities will be taken back and made livable soon after, yet a skeptical shadow of doubt still shrouds the hopes of many, who are frustrated that more action has not been taken at this point.
Ecclesiastic leaders such as Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil praised the recent decision of the U.S. government to declare ISIS persecution of Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims “genocide”, saying it “does justice to the victims.” On April 20 the UK parliament became the most recent nation to follow suit.
But while these decisions are a step in the right direction, for many of the displaced these declarations on the part of governments are too little, too late. They are thankful the world has finally decided to call a spade a spade, yet for many one question hangs densely in the air: now what?