BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Thousands of Iraqi Christians find refuge in Lebanon

BEIRUT: Hundred of thousand of Chaldean Christians have fled Iraq because of violent threats against their community, and thousands of those refugees have arrived in Lebanon during the last few years, searching for a better life or resettlement in other countries. "The situation of the Chaldean community in Iraq is very difficult. Many receive threats by Muslim fundamentalists and criminal gangs via telephone, get kidnapped or killed," Michel Kasdano , coordinator of the Chaldean church, told The Daily Star.

The Chaldean community has lived in Iraq since the time of Christ. Settling mostly in the northern districts, particularly around Mosul, their population is estimated to number around 1,300,000, but almost half of the minority Christian community has already fled Iraq in several waves over the last 50 years, leaving whole villages almost deserted. The exodus reached its peak in 2007.

The Chaldean Church in Beirut coordinates the work of various non-governmental organizations that are trying to help the displaced Chaldean community in Lebanon.

"When I started my job, the different NGOs almost competed to offer their help, so we called them together to manage the complementing efforts," Kasdano said.

These NGOs and volunteers from the Chaldean Church provide the incoming refugees with everything from food parcels and health care to blankets and housing.

"We always try to vary the provided help. This month every family receives two packs of milk powder extra," said Kasdano, who served as a general in the Lebanese Army until two years ago. 

Most refugees arrive in Lebanon with only a few belongings packed in a suitcase, leaving almost everything else behind. The Lebanese government offers them a one-month visa, but most of them overstay the duration and their status becomes illegal, meaning that they face the threat of detention.

According to Kasdano, "The Christians of Iraq would do almost everything right now to leave the country; they do not feel safe anymore."

However, the situation of the refugees has improved over the last month, with the government allowing them to stay in Lebanon as unrecognized refugees under the supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"The situation improved, but they are still scared every time they pass a checkpoint or go to work," Kasdano said.

A young Iraqi from a village near Mosul, who wished to remain anonymous, arrived in Lebanon two months ago.

"I received repeated calls on my cell phone, threatening to kill me if I do not quit my job and leave the country," the 30-year-old, who had worked as a police officer, said. "I tried to keep my phone number secret, but they probably got it through grilling other kidnapped persons."

The young Chaldean Christian followed the instructions almost immediately, fearing that the threats were real. His nephew Raymond was abducted only few days after his marriage.

The kidnappers demanded several thousand dollars for his release, warning that they would kill him if his family did not pay. The family did not have enough money, but many people of his community contributed, so Raymond was freed after one month of captivity.

But the young man faced additional dangers. His father-in-law, an accountant at an oil company, was kidnapped on his way to work, and then released within one day after converting to Islam under threat.

"I still have a lot of family in Iraq, my two married sisters and a married brother, but most of the people already left. From originally 5,000 people in my village only 1,000 are left" the young refugee said.

After coming to Lebanon he was lucky and able to take over the job and room of an Iraqi family that just went back. "Their application to be resettled was turned down, so they had no other choice then but to go back. Life here was too expensive," he said.

The family of five had lived in a 15-square meter guard room.

"Usually families don't want to return. Returning to Iraq means virtually house arrest, because every move outside poses big danger," said Kasdano.

Many families choose to come to Lebanon because they heard that it is easier to be resettled from here.

And Christians, in particular, hope to find refuge in the existing Christian communities.

"Here they have churches where they can pray and people with a similar cultural background, while in Syria and Jordan the Muslims are predominant," explained Kasdano.

The screening procedure of the UNHCR to check the neediness of the applicants takes between one and five years, depending on how vulnerable the families are.

Akram, a father of 11 children, arrived in Lebanon in April 2007, after a long-term dispute between him and Muslim farmers about his land began to escalate.

The dispute started right after the 2003 US-led invasion when his neighboring farmers started to lead their cattle herds into his fields, destroying the crops.

According to the 52-year-old, a fight broke out when Akram's son Rony asked them to leave. Trying to protect his family from harm, he sent Rony to Greece and moved with the rest of his family to another house to hide.

After arriving in Lebanon, he had to send all his children to work in order to survive.

"The work they have to do is very hard," explained Akram "They work up to 12 hours, including Saturdays." They take any job they can find, working in clothes factories, print shops and construction sites.

"When they come home their arms and backs hurt and one of my boys constantly has a red eye from the steam irons he works with. We have to get some eye drops for him," Ajram said.

One of his children has just been fired, because he sat down while waiting for his wheelbarrow to be filled with concrete. His supervisor told him that they do not tolerate laziness and told him to leave after working one year for the company.

Now they hope that the UNHCR's final assessment is positive. "The screenings by the UNHCR are very hard. You really have to prove your vulnerability. They want to know about your social environment and if the threats against you were real, but cooperation in general is good," said Kasdano.

If they get the approval they will be resettled to San Diego, California, where they have several relatives. They can expect to be financially supported by local associations for the first six month. But afterward, Kasdano asserted, "it's going to be very hard."

Nevertheless returning to Iraq is not an option. "The police can't even protect themselves, how shall they protect us? All the talking about an improved security situation is wrong!" Akram said.

Kasdano knows that not all families are going to be resettled, but supports them with all his means, deeply regretting that this might be the end for one of the oldest cultures in the Middle East.

 
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