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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Escaping ISIS: Iraq's Christians find refuge at Jordan church


They arrived at the church with only what they could carry: clothes, pictures and a few family heirlooms. 

It's all that is left of a life before the Islamic State terror group swept into northern Iraq, giving the Christians of Qaraqosh and Mosul an ultimatum: Convert, leave or die.
Most, like Ammar Zaki and his family, fled first to the relative safety of Iraq's Kurdish capital of Irbil and then made their way to Amman, Jordan, where they found sanctuary in a church.
Roughly 100 Iraqi Christians are being sheltered at St. Mary's Church in the Marka neighborhood of Amman. Their sanctuary offers little more than floor mats and a roof, but it's a welcome haven after fleeing ISIS persecution.

"Jesus Christ told people, 'leave everything and follow me,' " Zaki said, cradling his 9-month-old daughter, Athena. "So we did."
The stress and strain of the journey show in Zaki's tired eyes.
"We had to leave everything and go ... to be Christian, to stay in my religion," he said.

Safe haven
Jordan's capital of Amman has become a magnet for many refugees in recent years trying to escape war or persecution. More than 1 million Syrians fleeing a civil war have poured into the tiny desert kingdom, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis -- many of them Christian -- have sought haven from the sectarian fighting and later ISIS.
The country's population has swelled, with the U.N. Refugee Agency estimating more than 645,000 refugees have made their way to Amman, according to 2014 figures.
That number does not include the refugee camps that have been set up near its border crossings with Syria and the West Bank, home to a large number of Palestinians.


The influx of refugees has put a strain on the country, and nowhere is that more evident than at St. Mary's Church, where about 500 refugees, including some Muslims, have walked through the doors, Father Khalil Jaar said.
Many are children who arrived sick "because of the trauma of the incidents they suffered in Iraq: fear, insecure, no food," Jaar said.
"They left their homes in a few hours ... leaving everything behind them. It's a very big shock. That's why I do my best to help these people to overcome this situation and to (help them) look for a better life."
The church helps the refugees as much as it can, with charity from nonprofits, but mostly private donations.
Some of the Christian refugees live in the church, on the floor. Others live in nearby apartments rented by the church until they are granted asylum, a process that can drag on for years.

"We don't know how many days or months they stay with us; that's why I think any kind of help is welcome," Jaar said.
Jaar rests little these days, spending his time welcoming visitors, helping new arrivals and, sometimes, taking the children on excursions to help them forget.


He does it all with a big, wide smile.
Still, he knows it will be difficult for the refugees, who after months on the move need rest and time to apply for visas to relocate to Europe, the United States or Australia.
"I learned so much from them, their patience and solidarity. I am very happy to be with them, to be serving these people," he says, just minutes before he comforts a woman -- a refugee -- in tears over the frustrating process of applying for asylum.
"When someone knocks on my door, I cannot say no. I have to say yes and give any kind of help," Jaar said.
"My church, my school, my heart is open for every single one who comes to ask for help," he said.

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