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Iraqi Christians Seek Better Life in Lebanon

Beirut , 6 June (AKI) – Impoverished and living in Lebanon illegally – many of the 3,000 Iraqi Chaldean Christians who have fled their homeland now dream of a better future abroad with Australia the most desired destination. Most of the refugees left Iraq in the wake of the US invasion of the country and while the bloody sectarian stuggle that followed has mostly pitted Shiite and Sunni Muslims against each other, the small Christian minority has not been spared the bloodshed.
But some Christians abandoned the country in the 1990s when it was still ruled by Saddam Hussein.
“I come from the northern Zakho region, and in 1996 together with my wife and children I fled because we were feeling threatened by an environment that was becoming more and more hostile,” Sacharia Chamun,38, a father of seven, tells Adnkronos International (AKI).
The family of nine share two small rooms in Beirut’s Sidd al-Bawshriyye suburb in a building that overlooks an open drain used by a nearby print works shop to dump acid and chemicals.
The stench in the house is overwhelming and Sacharia’s wife, Nada, 34, says the acid fumes are to blame for her respiratory troubles.
“We will never return to Iraq , because we wouldn’t have a future there,” she says. “We are waiting for a visa for Sydney where we will all be able to join our relatives.”
In 1996 the family crossed the border from south-western Iraq into Jordan , but after frequent harassment from the authorities they moved to Syria . Having failed to find work in Damascus , Chamun then decided to move to Lebanon where he hoped to count on the support from other Iraqi Christians living there.
“Here in Lebanon , even if you’re illegal you can still find work and survive,” Sacharia tells AKI.
Upon arriving in Beirut in 1998, the family was issued documents vouching for their refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the papers were not renewed in 2000.
The next year the furniture factory where he was employed went bankrupt and since then the family has had to rely from donations by Beirut ‘s Chaldean Diocesy.
“Three of our children go to a school run by nuns twice a week, while another attends courses run by [Catholic relief agency] Caritas. But being illegal, we don’t have any right to medical of legal aid,” he says.
Unlike the Chimuns, Hala Ibrahim and her husband Rad only arrived in Lebanon in 2003.
Rad, 30, says they are “lucky” compared to many compatriots because he works as a carpenter 11 hours a day for a monthly wage of 240 dollars. The couple also dream of a brighter future in Australia .
For the pregnant Nidal, 39, her husband and her three children the waiting might be over. “The Australian embassy phoned to tell us that our immigration request has been accepted. My son will be born in Sydney ,” she says.
But before the move, the family still has to pay a 1,300 dollar fine for entering Lebanon illegally in 2003. Then they have to find the 700 dollare need to pay for their plane ticket to Australia .
The UNHCR estimates that some 6,000 Iraq Christians – over a half of them Chaldeans – have sought refuge in Lebanon .
The Chaldean Church is an Eastern rite church which recognises the authority of the Roman Catholic Pope. Former Iraqi foreign minister and Saddam aide, Tariq Aziz, a Chaldean, was the most prominent Christian in the dictator’s Sunni dominated regime.