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Christians who fled to northern Iraq find themselves in flux

ICC Note:

Thousands of Christians fled Baghdad last year after relentless terrorist attacks targeted the church. Many went to northern Iraq where there is less persecution. However, they now face a new difficulty: unemployment.

By Brooke Anderson

3/7/2011 Iraq (The Catholic Review) – When Suhail Louis left the sectarian violence of Baghdad a year ago, he thought he would find comfort in the safety of Northern Iraq. Instead, he’s faced with a new discomfort: unemployment.

Today he lives in Ankawa, a predominantly Christian town just outside of Irbil. The town has seen the arrival of more than 5,000 Christian families since the beginning of the war. His new home offers safety, but little more.

Should he learn Kurdish, the local language, to improve his employment prospects here? Or should he study English in case he is able to migrate to North America?

The 43-year-old Arabic-speaking engineer cannot stop reminiscing about his home city – the hustle and bustle, the culture, his once-good life. Even if the past eight years have been fraught with danger, it was still home.

“Where is better? Here or Baghdad?” Louis asks rhetorically, as he sits at a café in the middle of the afternoon, the slow-paced life around him seeming to remind him of his own life on pause. “In Baghdad there was a future. Here, the future is unknown.”

The Baghdad engineer is far from alone in his state of flux. Many other Iraqi Christians that fled to the North find themselves in a similar predicament.

Rakan Warda, 30, came to Ankawa from Mosul six years ago after his father, a store owner, was kidnapped. The family sold the house to pay the ransom. Today, his father works as a store employee. Warda now works evenings as a security guard for Mar Elia, a Chaldean Catholic Church. During the day, he waits tables at a restaurant, leaving him almost no time to spend with his wife and 2-month-old daughter. Even though he misses Mosul, he no longer thinks about returning to his hometown, which he says has been taken over by extremists and is no longer livable.

“I want to leave Iraq,” said Warda, standing in the entrance of the church, his rifle at his side as worshippers left Sunday Mass. “I’m thinking about my daughter and her future. I’m no longer thinking about my own future.”

“It’s a much better situation here than in Baghdad. But it’s still very hard. There are well-educated people with the best degrees, and they’re now working as laborers. It’s sad,” says Deacon Azad Yousef, who serves at Mar Elias. “I don’t see it getting any better.”

He added: “We have our history, and it’s sacred. Thank God we’re still here. I’d rather die here than go to another country.”

The jobless rate in Northern Iraq is high – around 50 percent, according to estimates by the local media. Well-educated and skilled workers that cannot find jobs blame nepotism and corruption. Many internally displaced Iraqis face the added obstacles of not knowing the local language or job market.

A January report by the International Organization for Migration reports a recent influx of Iraqi Christian refugees to the North following the attack on a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad in November.

The organization has counted more than 1,300 Christian families seeking refuge in the northern provinces of Irbil, Dahuk, Sulaimaniyah and Ninevah. Irbil, which includes Ankawa, has witnessed the greatest influx, with more than 830 Christian families being displaced to the province since November. Some of the families had originally fled to Ninevah before again being displaced.

“One day, I want to return to Baghdad. But the situation needs to change,” says Louis, who gets weekly updates from his parents and sister, who have stayed throughout the war. They tell him things are getting worse, especially for Christians. Before the war, their church would host 400 worshippers on Sundays, and more on holidays. Now, his family tells him it is not uncommon to see a Sunday congregation of 15.

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