Martin Banni is the last of his family in Iraq. The 25-year-old Christian fled his village of Keremles when the so-called Islamic State invaded the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014. Today he lives in a camp in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, while the rest of his family lives in San Diego.
The thought of one day working to preserve his ancient community is what keeps him here. “Abroad we might have safety,” he says. “But we will disappear.”
It takes a lot these days to convince Iraqi Christians they have a future in their homeland. Of the estimated 125,000 who recently sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan—an autonomous region in northern Iraq—tens of thousands have already emigrated.
While many predict the elimination altogether of Christianity in Iraq, Church leaders are doing their best to push back. Beyond managing the humanitarian need for their congregations, church groups are investing in longer-term projects as concrete symbols of hope, aiming to give those torn between their faith and their homeland reason to stay.
The Catholic University of Erbil—the first such Catholic institution of higher learning in Iraq—taught its first courses this year, even as builders continued work on the new campus on the outskirts of Ankawa, Erbil’s Christian neighbourhood.
Banni is among the first students, taking a 10-week English language proficiency course. On weekday afternoons he and eight other students, five of whom were also displaced from their homes, study toward the IELTS exam—a prerequisite for tertiary study at many overseas institutions. Banni himself dreams of studying abroad, perhaps philosophy. But unlike many of his classmates, he is also determined to return. “I will come back to rebuild my country,” he says.
Initially the university will have facilities for 1,500 students, although it hopes to accommodate up to 7,000 within five years. Vice-Chancellor Salahaddin Abdul Messiah says the courses offered will equip participants with skills to find jobs or advance in their current profession. Beyond English, the initial courses offered will include business administration, accounting, economics, Oriental studies, network engineering, and computer sciences.
The university alone won’t keep Christians in Iraq. “It’s a statement of hope though,” says the Archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Bashar Matti Warda. “That no matter what happened—in Mosul and the Nineveh plains—that it will not take from us our faith.”
As we talked in a formal meeting room at the Saint Joseph Cathedral in Ankawa, Warda said the university is part of a larger project in which the church is trying to do more than just provide basic needs for its congregation.
“I hope that building schools, building clinics, building a university, building a hospital would be a reason to convince them to stay, to tell them that we could make our lives better together here,” he said.
The 46-year-old is familiar with displacement, having fled his hometown of Baghdad in 2007. Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, there were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Over the decade which followed the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein, over a million Iraqi Christians left. Having experienced the worst of Iraq’s sectarian violence, Warda says he remains optimistic that the Kurdistan Region will remain a safe haven: “The past in Baghdad was worse by all means.”
But so far there’s no sign that the exodus of Christians has slowed. Warda estimates that of the 20,000 families displaced from the Nineveh Plains, some 6,000 have already left the country.
A few hundred meters from the new Catholic university, the Ashty 2 Camp houses 1,150 Christian families. In January, 20 families left for overseas, says assistant camp manager Ibrahim Shaba Lallo. He expects the numbers leaving to rise as the weather improves. While some families are registering for resettlement with the United Nations Refugee Agency in Jordan and Lebanon, many more are relying on smugglers to ferry them across the Mediterranean. “We expect that by April hundreds of families will be leaving every month,” says Lallo.
In effect the camps have become a clearinghouse for those attempting to get to Europe and a place of last resort for the financially exhausted. Down a muddy lane from Lallo’s office, Bews Shaba Rafu, his wife and six children recently moved into a cabin after its previous occupants moved to Lebanon. The 64-year-old used to work as a government security guard at a church in Qaraqosh, known as Iraq’s Christian capital, but fled with his family in August 2014 when ISIS occupied the town. “We had a house, food, stability, we were happy,” he remembers. “We were lower middle class, by the grace of god.”
Their savings didn’t last and they moved to the camp after running out of money for paying $500 a month rent for a house in Ankawa. Church organizations have funded camps with prefabricated cabins rather than tents, but crowding is still a challenge, says Rafu. “The cabin is too small for eight people and we don’t have a refrigerator or a television anymore.”
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