Iraqi Christians in Lebanon: A Product of Vanishing History
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Before fleeing their beloved home in Qaraqosh, the Yousif family was
preparing for their daughter, Hiba’s marriage to her long time fiancé,
Riam Anitto. The meticulously embroidered off white lace and sequin
wedding gown was finished. Jewelry and wedding bands were bought
and the celebration was thoroughly planned. This was on August 6, a
day before the wedding and a time marked as their last good memory of
their life in Iraq. Wedding nuptials and a life as a happy couple in their
native village went from reality to a distant, forgettable dream.
The Yousif family is among the thousands of Iraqi Christians and other
religious minorities who left their once secure and safe homes at a short
notice to find refuge in a foreign land with little belongings and hope.
Along with other families, the Yousif’s carry the additional burden of having
one or more family members with a disability—making the escape
that much more arduous. Since fleeing to Lebanon, Iraqi refugees are
already struggling to provide the basic needs for their families. Many
refugees are unable to pay for additional costs such as education and
healthcare. While outside donors such as churches, NGO’s and individuals
are providing the basic humanitarian assistance, healthcare requires
money that most of the Iraqis do not have due to low working wages,
little savings and obsolete jobs.
Sitting in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment scattered with only the
bare necessities, Radd Yousif and his wife Yasmeen Shaaya describe
their plight from their village of Qaraqosh to Erbil and then finally to
Lebanon. The journey is told in detail as their children occasionally interject
with a few words about their own insights of the current situation.
“It was back on June 10 that our lives changed forever. One night we
heard shelling near our balcony. At the time, the Peshmerga was protecting
the area. My daughter, Hiba’s fiancé called us and said ‘you have
to leave the area tonight, there is news that Daesh is advancing. It may
be our only time to get out’ so we left at 5 a.m. to Erbil,” says Yasmeen
of that frightening night.
The journey to Erbil was strenuous and terrifying. A trip that takes 45
minutes under normal conditions took the family five hours. With four
children having muscular dystrophy, it was up to the other three siblings
to help their parents carry them down a flight of stairs to a car meant
to only seat four people. The children were pressed up against one another.
When they got to Erbil, the family stayed under a tin roof on top of
a building for three days, with minimal food and water.
“It was three full days of misery. Complete distress. Our kids were hysterical
and the four with Muscular Dystrophy started to become very ill.
We decided to go back to our home in Qaraqosh because a priest said
the town wasn’t occupied by Daech yet,” says Yasmeen.
However, their stay at home didn’t last long. The church told the Yousif’s
and others to stay because the Peshmerga was protecting the village,
but after a woman and two girls died in their neighborhood from shelling,
they decided to leave for good. They packed up their passports, gold
and their memories and history that were created over the years—one
generation after another.
Once Iraqi refugees arrive in Lebanon, they find themselves living among
over 450,000 Palestinians, over one million Syrian refugees and the
community of Iraqi Christians who came to Lebanon during the U.S. ledinvasion.
The Syrian Crisis has left Iraqi refugees with little assistance
because NGO’s, churches and the local community used prior funding
for the Syrian refugees. For Iraqi refugees who need immediate and life
threatening medical care in Lebanon, the available resources are fewer.
At 68-years-old, Nahom Martani Ayoob experienced what happens
when little medical coverage is available. In early November, he went
to the hospital because he was having heart attack like symptoms
and needed emergency medical attention. He called Jihane Harith al-
Zahawi, who is a British-Iraqi businesswoman providing assistance to
a number of local families. He was taken to several hospitals until the
Lebanese Canadian hospital admitted him with the insurance he had
“The doctor kept me under care for only a day because my UNHCR
insurance only covered 80 percent of my medical bills. The other 20 percent
was kindly covered by Jihane and her friend. When it was time to
go, the doctor didn’t feel comfortable discharging me because I needed
a Cardiac Catheterization, but it wasn’t covered so now I’m slowly recovering
on my own at home,” says Ayoob.
Caritas Migrant Center in Lebanon (CLMC) is one of the organizations
who are focusing their efforts in helping Iraqi Refugees. In their recent
study, “Left behind a Needs Assessment of Iraqi Refugees Present in
Lebanon,” it is reported that 57 percent of the 769 families interviewed
reported that healthcare was one of their main concerns. Forty five percent
saw education as another concern.
Isabelle Saade Feghali, coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Assistance says
“it is important to mention that available funds for Iraqi refugees are
very low. Iraqis are currently forgotten. They live in very bad conditions
and are searching for stability elsewhere. The international community
should really stand up and do something to save what is remaining here
[Lebanon] and there [Iraq].”
Churches located outside Beirut, belonging to the Chaldean, Assyrians
and Syriac Christians are actively providing whatever aid they can to
Iraqi’s scattered around Beirut’s suburbs. St. George Cathedral of the
Assyrian Church in neighborhood of Saad al- Boushrieh is one of several
churches who are serving desperate Iraqi Christian families in need
since mid- July.
In a solemn tone, Father George Youkhana describes the situation as
bleak and one that will not be resolved any time in the near future. He
also blames the West for creating a chaotic and unstable environment for
groups like Daech to flourish, grow and expand throughout the region.
“Iraqi Christians are fleeing from their homes and with them they are
taking history that has been in Iraq for thousands of years. Most of
them can’t go back home so they come to Lebanon where there is a
Christian population here and they can understand the language,” says
Before fleeing his hometown of Mosul, Edwar Habeeb, 39, was a successful
pediatrician who completed five years of research on cerebral
palsy in his research lab. He could afford to send his five children to
school and lived a comfortable, respectful life, but now he says his children
do not go to school and his line of work isn’t respected as much here.
“I don’t have any work here. I’m helping other Iraqis receive medical
care. Before fleeing Mosul, ISIS destroyed my research papers and
documents. A doctor friend of mine in Mosul told me to pay the ‘Jisrah’
which is a tax to stay protected if I convert to Islam, I said ‘no way!’ I’m
not French, American or any other foreign nationality. I’m Iraqi and why
should I leave my home country? Why? If I stayed, my children will be
taught how to kill and hate people and not respect anyone,” Habeeb
says angrily and frustrated.
Educated Iraqis who can’t find work like Edwar Habeeb are not alone.
That is why many are looking for a way to emigrate.
Since 2011, Lebanon’s refugee population continues to increase with
new arrivals from Iraq. In an effort to control the number of refugees
entering the country, the Lebanese government has become stricter in
its open border policy. According to Mona Monzer, Communications Officer
for the UNHCR, once Iraqis register with the UNHCR, they have access
to assistance provided by UNHCR’s partners for medical care and
other needs, but not everyone benefits from these programs because of
a variety of factors such as lack of available funds by the organization,
their vulnerability status and their medical condition.
According to Caritas, the Syrian crisis directed most of the foreign aid
for health care to the Syrian refugees, hence leaving less available aid
for Iraqis and a new set of challenges ahead to provide care. This influx
is also putting a strain on hospitals and health centers to help vulnerable
In the meantime, the family is waiting for their appointment with the UNHCR
in May 2015. They will see if their papers are accepted to go to
“We told them [UNHCR] that we are SOS. I have four children who have
a degenerative disease and they don’t feel comfortable walking outside
the home because there is stigma for handicap people,” says Yasmeen,
who is fighting back the tears while describing their current situation and
what it holds for everyone.
When asked where they would like to go, they answer “the West”. Her
husband, Raad interjects to say “We do blame the west for how Iraq has
turned out, but we blame the people of Iraq more. Our Muslim neighbors,
whom we lived next to in peace for years, took our things and joined the
fight with Daech. Yes, the west helped with the chaos, but the people of
Iraq fueled the troubles,” explains Raad.
The Yousif family is looking to emmigrate to another country and to start
their lives over. For now, they are sitting and watching their beloved and
native Iraq get destroyed and transformed into a country unrecognizable
to eyes that have seen many wars and dictators pillage its history, people
“We cry every day; there is no hope and my belongings are gone. Finished,”
says Hiba. What shall we do? Go back to what country? No country
anymore. We can’t see ourselves going back.”
Feghali says refugees usually only have 75 percent of their medical care
covered, the remaining 25 percent is left as a burden for the refugee
to pay which is often impossible especially when they are struggling to
cover other costs such as food and housing.
According to UNHCR reports, as of October 2014, there are a total of
9,408 Iraqi’s registered and 1,283 who are awaiting registration. Out of
both, registered and those in the process of getting registered, 60 percent
are women, children and the elderly. These groups are most at risk
of unemployment, lack of education and proper medical care.
For the Yousif’s four children with muscular dystrophy, their mobility is
limited to the walls of their two bedroom apartment. Without wheelchairs
and transportation, the family is unable to get a detailed diagnosis which
leaves them without the proper care. Individuals like Jihane Harith al-
Zahawi are picking up the slack and helping out where possible.
“I found a neuro muscular department at American University Hospital.
Here they test individuals who have the disease. For 25,000 LL each,
the children will be assessed for what type of Muscular Dystrophy they
have and also will be able to keep a file at the hospital for future treatment
and records,” says Al-Zahawi.