BEIRUT, Lebanon — A small and spartan apartment above the Mar Elias Church in East Beirut is Iraqi refugee Nohoud Najib’s latest temporary home, a place she hopes will be no more than a way station to resettlement in a Western country.
“We don’t mind where we go, so long as it is safe. Some want to be close to the diaspora, but, for us, that is second,” she says, speaking a decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime.
The optimism that accompanied the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, soon was drowned in the bloodletting and sectarian mass murders that ensued.
Though Iraq’s Shia Muslims felt the brunt of Sunni militant wrath to a greater extent than Iraq’s Christians, the latter were largely defenseless, and hundreds of thousands ended up fleeing their ancient, ancestral homeland.
Britain-based organization Iraq Body Count recently estimated that at least 112,000 Iraqi civilians died in the decade after the invasion, while thousands of soldiers and policemen were also killed. Around 1,000 Iraqi Christians are estimated to have been killed during that time.
“I liked my country; I didn’t want to leave,” says Nohoud, wringing her hands, as if to emphasize the wrenching toll of exile.
The family is Iraqi Chaldean Catholic, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, descendants of converts said to have been made by Thomas the Apostle as he made his way east from Palestine to India.
In the years following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of Christians living in Iraq has dropped from an estimated 1 million to around half that now, going by various estimates, though no precise or official numbers are available.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2012 annual report, the long-term future of Iraq’s Christians is precarious: “Large percentages of the country’s smallest religious minorities — which include Chaldo-Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans and Yazidis — have fled the country in recent years, threatening these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq.”
Flight From Baghdad
But some people had to flee more than once. This is the Nohoud family’s second refugee stint, after fleeing for Damascus from Baghdad on Christmas Day 2009. Before leaving Iraq, they first were internal refugees — or “internally displaced persons” (IDPs), to use the humanitarian agencies’ jargon.
In 2007, they moved from their family home in Baghdad to Dora, once a majority Christian district in the Iraqi capital, hoping to find sanctuary and safety there.
The impetus for their move was a series of threats against Walid, Nohoud’s now-20-year-old son.
The kindness of some Muslim neighbors, however, meant the family was aware of impending danger. “A man on our street told us his name was on a list at a mosque. He said that this meant he was in danger of being kidnapped or killed,” recalls Nohoud.
“We left everything behind; we moved around Baghdad with just the clothes on our backs,” Nohoud says.
But the demographics in Dora were changing, in keeping with the plummeting Christian numbers elsewhere in Iraq.
“We felt threatened; there was pressure to dress like Muslims. They started to call us ‘crusaders’ and seemed to want to blame us for what happened after the Americans invaded,” says Nohoud.
A minority in a Muslim-majority country, Christians depended on commerce with the wider Iraqi population for their livelihoods. That too came under duress in the post-Saddam era. “There were boycotts,” says Nohoud. People were saying, 'Don’t buy anything from the Christians; they will be gone soon enough.'”
Nohoud says her main concern, however, was for her two children. “As well as being worried for their safety, I was lost when I thought, 'What will become of their future in this place?'”
Before the bloodletting across Iraq in the mid-2000s, Nohoud says that life was relatively peaceful. “The kids were doing well at school, but, later, I was afraid for my family, and we had to get out of Iraq.”
After they left their original home in Baghdad, Nohoud says, one day, she got a call from another former neighbor, growling a menacing warning. “Don’t come back here or your blood will be shed; forget you had a house here.”
Nohoud didn’t give the man’s name, only saying that “we knew him quite well; we used to be good friends.”
No Sanctuary in Syria
The family had left Baghdad — and Iraq — before the single most gruesome attack on the country’s Christians, carried out at Our Lady of Salvation Church in October 2010, after which 50 worshippers and two priests lay dead.
Despite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani issuing public condemnations, unknown thousands of Baghdad Christians left the city in the following months: for Jordan, Syria or for Christian-populated towns in the Kurdish-majority north of Iraq, the historic homeland of Iraqi Christianity.
But Syria did not offer a long-lasting respite from the region’s widening violence. As protests against the long and authoritarian rule of the Assad family in Syria turned into an armed insurrection, the Najib family once more could hear the grimly familiar cracks and thuds of shooting and shelling, as Syria’s gruesome civil war edged closer to the Christian districts of Damascus.
“We saw the same scenario coming back, with shrapnel and bombs,” Nohoud says. “We knew by last year we had to get out.”
Lebanon was the nearest and easiest escape option, a country itself trying to overcome its own violent past and reclaim its old standing as “the Paris of the Middle East.”
But Lebanon and Syria have a tangled history, with the Syrian Army only departing Lebanon in 2005, amid street protests known as the “Cedar Revolution” and after accusations of Syrian government complicity in the murder of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim businessman-turned-politician.
Nohoud Najib now fears a repeat of the family’s Baghdad and Damascus ordeals in Beirut, joking that the region’s wars are following the family. Syrian aircraft have struck inside Lebanon in recent weeks, while murky tit-for-tat kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon, often in the Bekaa Valley — of Alawites (the minority Shia sect of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad) likely taken by Sunni rebels and of Sunnis likely taken by government forces — have added to concerns that Lebanon is getting sucked into Syria’s war.
Lebanon’s political divides are a good pointer to which side Lebanese Muslims take on Syria’s civil war, with Iran-backed Shia militia Hezbollah and its allies accusing jihadist groups in Syria, such as the Nusra Front, of not only playing a major part in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, but of infiltrating Lebanon.
In turn, Sunnis in Lebanon largely support the uprising in Syria and accuse Hezbollah of fighting with the government side in Syria, sending men and weapons across the border. Lebanon's Christians are divided politically too, with some remaining neutral and others aligning both with the Sunni faction and with the Shia/Hezbollah side.
For now, for Nohoud and her family, it means struggling for attention and resources amid a massive Syrian refugee influx into Lebanon.
The United Nations puts the Syrian refugee numbers in Lebanon at 400,000 people. Other estimates, however, including one by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, say there are around 1 million Syrian refugees, equivalent to a quarter of the population of Lebanon itself, where already around 400,000 Palestinian refugees have spent decades in camps around the tiny country.
Many refugees avoid border checkpoints when crossing to Lebanon, so a precise tally of the numbers is impossible.
Since the Najib family arrived in Beirut on Aug. 1 last year, life, though peaceful, has not been easy.
Husband Khaled has not yet found a job, leaving son Walid as the sole breadwinner in the family for now, driving a delivery van for a pharmaceutical company.
“In Syria, there were agencies that used to help us,” Nohoud says, “here there is not the same support.”
Najla Chahda, director of Caritas Lebanon’s Migrant Center, which is assisting around 100,000 of the refugees around the country, says that the Syrian influx has meant less interest in and less support for the 8,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.
“After almost two years, and a difficult economic burden, the welcome for Syrian refugees from Lebanese is less and less,” she says. “And there is tension between Iraqi and Syrian refugees, with the Iraqis accusing the Syrians of taking attention from them.”
Another Forced Move?
And amid valid fears that Syria’s war could lead to violence in their current refuge, Nohoud Najib fears that they might be forced to flee again before resettlement. “We will have nowhere to move to now,” she says with a sigh.
Nohoud Najib and her family want to emulate the tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees who so far have been accepted in Europe, Australia or North America.
Her father, who was a refugee in the Netherlands, died in 2007. “I wanted to go for the funeral, but it was impossible. I hope I can at least visit the grave sometime,” says Nohoud.
She has brothers in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden and the U.K. — some of whom fled Iraq after the 1990 Gulf War and some who left during the post-Saddam era.
Several of her siblings convened in Istanbul last year, a long-overdue family reunion. “Some of them traveled from far away, from Canada, Australia,” she says. Not Nohoud, however, for whom it has been 20 years since she’s seen some of her brothers and sisters. “I was so close, closer than some of them who traveled so far, but it was impossible to get there,” she says, eyes down.
One brother, currently an engineer in Canada, was sent to Jordan on a work assignment. He was able to travel north to Damascus to visit his sister.
“It was so nice to see him after so long not seeing many of my family,” says Nohoud.
Daughter Nour, age 19, cuts in. She takes English lessons at the American Center in Beirut during the day, partly for something to do, partly to improve her language skills in anticipation of resettlement in an Anglophone country, and, she hopes, eventually finding work there.
“I would like to be an accountant, as I think I will need to get a job soon, so I have to qualify in something where I can get work quickly,” she says. “But if we go to somewhere like England or America, I need to be able to speak better English,” she adds.
However, even as she looks to the future and prepares as best she can for a life in another country, she says that the family’s recent history has left her cautious: “I don’t have a lot of plans, as things can change, as I have seen. I had plans in Syria, but then everything came apart again.”
Prior to the Syrian civil war’s advance to their part of Damascus, Nour says that she had started to feel settled. She had a lot of friends in Syria, she says, just as she had in Iraq; but now she feels like she has to start all over again.
“Many of them are resettled already,” she says of her friends. “I keep in touch online, from time to time, so I see the pictures and read some of their stories.”
“We were in school in Damascus, we were starting to feel like life was normal again, but then, when the fighting started there, all hopes disappeared,” she says, adding despondently, “I am afraid there will be the same here, as before,” referring to the prospect of political violence in Beirut.
However, even if the family is resettled soon, their worries will not end there. One of Nohoud’s sisters is still in Baghdad.
The thought of her sister’s family in the Iraqi capital has Nohoud on edge.
“They are staying until her son is finished with medical university, as he cannot easily find a school outside, and then they will all leave,” she says. “They are very scared, every day.”
Register correspondent Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia and the Middle East for several publications
and was in Lebanon in early April. He’s on Twitter @simonroughneen,
and his articles can be seen at SimonRoughneen.com.