In an Iraqi Christian refugee camp old men savour memories of Christmas dinners and young mothers anxiously nurse their newborns

David Thamir was having a great time as he played go-karts with other boys. He shrieked, ran and jumped with his companions as they charged around in the vehicles they had made for themselves. It was the sort of joyful and innocent fun which comes naturally to children.

But in this instance, it was also a fleeting moment of respite from the agony of existence. Maybe those watching the children at play gave thanks to God that these little ones had not fully grasped the enormity of the tragedy that had encompassed their lives.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to assume that David was totally oblivious to his predicament, for around his neck, worn proudly and ostentatiously, hung a large silver crucifix. David is a Christian and at the age of just five has joined his family and thousands of others in becoming refugees for the sake of their faith. He is one of about 120,000 Christians who fled ISIS militants who swept across the Nineveh Plain of northern Iraq in the summer. They now live mostly in tents in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil, in territory controlled by the Kurds.

David has not experienced many Christmases, but he knows this one will be different from any he has known in his home village of Bartilla, near Qaraqosh.

“I do not think Father Christmas will come this year,” he said, “because he does not know where we are living now, and we are always changing places. Father Christmas knows our house in Bartilla and he will go there, and there is nobody who will tell him where we are now. All our neighbours have left and our village is now empty, my father has told us.”

Nearby is a man who has enjoyed many Christmases. Until this year, Isaac Baho Daniel was a Christian farmer who was so wealthy that he “never forgot a single day to give money to the poor”. He and his family now survive off two meals a day in tents that offer scant protection from plunging night-time temperatures. Christmas was always a big celebration for Isaac and his family. He recalled how they would always begin with a Mass, followed by a visit to the cemetery to pray at the graves of their loved ones. Then came the feasting, when the family would gather around a large table to dine on delicious homemade pasha, a dish Iraqi Christians reserve especially for the celebration of Christmas Day.

All of Isaac’s relations would visit him on Christmas Day because, at 71, he is the oldest member of his family, and he had the role of handing out presents to their children, telling them, as families do across the world, that their gifts came from Father Christmas as a reward for good behaviour throughout the year.

His heart sinks at the prospect of Christmas this year, he said. This time it will be an occasion of sadness rather than celebration, and that he will feel especially “anxious if any child of mine would ask me for something for Christmas and I am helpless”.

“I am not in a position where I can offer them anything,” he said. “I am now in the position where I need a hand from others. Christmas is not a feast if I am in Erbil … this land of our exile and diaspora.”

Indeed, if all the refugees have one thing in common at this time of the year it is a desire to celebrate Christmas in the homes that ISIS have seized from them.

Tears streamed from the eyes of Sama Elias Albeer, a nine-year-old schoolgirl, as she spoke of how she simply wanted to go home to Mosul, describing how she longed to be back in her house and at school and how she missed her garden, neighbours, friends, teachers, toys – and her own bed. She said she wanted to celebrate Christmas at the city’s Church of St Paul in the company of her family and friends. One
day she hoped to receive her First Holy Communion there just like all the other children she knows.

Her brother, eight-year-old Samir, is perhaps the kind of boy some people might consider to be spoiled, one who is given everything he wants by his parents even before he has asked. On Christmas Day last year he woke up to the guitar he requested from Santa, and he nurtured the ambition to play it sufficiently well to join his church music group. He was heartbroken to discover that his parents left his guitar behind in Mosul when they fled the city ahead of advancing militants. The youngster asked his father if he would go back home to fetch it, only to be told that this would be impossible.

This year, Samir wants Father Christmas to bring him two things: the first is peace and the second is a bicycle, so that he can ride back to Mosul and get his guitar from a house which is now believed to be occupied by terrorists. Others are so desperate that Christmas is almost beyond contemplation. They include the parents of Rose Emanuel Rafael who, along with her twin sister Rahaf, was born in Qaraqosh in August just days before ISIS fighters overran the town.

Within four days of the family arriving in Ankawa, setting up in a tent in the camp, the girls’ father noticed a red patch on Rose’s head which became swollen and then began to bleed. He was unable to obtain medical assistance for days. He eventually obtained an appointment for his baby at a hospital in Erbil where he was told the worst: his daughter had cancer. He and his wife, and their two babies, will spend their first Christmas together as a family in a freezing tent in a refugee camp, worrying about whether one of them will suffer and die from a disease that requires urgent treatment.

Maisaa Karam, another young mother in the camp, arrived heavily pregnant in Ankawa in August. She gave birth there. Days earlier Islamists had stormed her village of Baashiqa, displacing the Christian population. Maisaa named her baby daughter Mariam in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and laid her in a bed made from a plastic bag.

The circumstances of her daughter’s birth are tragic enough in themselves, but they became more harrowing still when Maisaa revealed that she and Munther, her husband of six years, saw her four previous pregnancies end in miscarriages. Mariam is the child for whom this couple had prayed for years, placing their trust in God that they would one day become parents.

Refugees flee Mosul, set up camp near  Irbil
The couple now offer prayers for a safe return to their village, preferably by Christmas, and for the chance to live in “peace and love”, seeing in their present situation only absolute poverty and probably abject hopelessness were it not for their faith that God will reward their trust by rescuing and protecting them.

Indeed, faith is one of the abiding characteristics of this suffering Christian people. That became evident in the weeks following the fall of the last Christian villages in Nineveh, when groups of straggling refugees turned up at the frontier of Kurdish-controlled territory with
incredible tales of horror and heroism.

One of the most disturbing stories was the abduction of three-year-old Christina Abada, who was snatched from her mother’s side by terrorists who boarded the bus that was to take them from Qaraqosh. There are also numerous accounts of near-martyrdom experienced by people such as Khiria Al-Kas Isaac, a 54-year-old woman who refused to abandon her faith even when a sword was put to her throat. Given the ultimatum to “convert or die”, she said she was “happy to be a martyr”.

An 80-year-old woman known only as Ghazala, along with her 10 invalid companions, also chose the crown of martyrdom over the renunciation of their faith. Amazingly, their lives were spared by their would-be executioners and they were banished from greater Nineveh instead, living to tell their tales.

Sahar Mansour, a 40-year-old refugee from Mosul who is now living in Ankawa, and who interviewed the refugees for the Catholic Herald, said the possibility of imminent martyrdom had sharpened the Iraqi Christian refugees’ sense of precisely what it means to live and die in the faith.

“Iraqi Christians cannot put their life before their faith,” Sahar said. “The word ‘martyr’ literally means ‘witness’, and this is what we have dared to be. So if the purpose of being a Christian is to spread the Word, then the highest calling of Christianity is to die for the Word of God. Martyrdom is not the end for the soul of the martyrs or for the society they leave behind.

“Christian faith is a fact that is alive and operative, making us people who look for the meaning of their lives, people who are prophets and witnesses for that meaning. Iraqi Christians are capable of adding meaning to life, in spite of all the contradictions that emerge because of life’s complexities and problems.”

She continued: “Faith is a gift from God. Faith is commitment, not a mere point of view. We believe in God as a fact, and are committed to our faith deeply and out of the core of our existence.

“Iraqi Christians are fully aware that Christianity has been under sustained attack from the moment of its birth, our Church
in Iraq is a witness and martyr to this, and ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians’.”

It is never easy to be a member of a religious minority, especially in a predominantly Muslim country. But as Prince Charles has pointed out recently, the numerous Christian denominations of Iraq have survived in the region since the days of the Roman Empire, often co-existing peacefully with other religious communities, including Muslims. Only now, in the 21st century, do they face the real threat of
annihilation.

Even under the rule of the dictator Saddam Hussein, the Christians of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra flourished and were active at every level of society. The martyrdom of the Iraqi Church began in the 1990s after the First Gulf War when they began to be attacked and some Iraqi Christians began to emigrate.

Following the fall of Saddam, this process accelerated and within 20 years a Christian population of 1.2 million had fallen to just 350,000, many of whom lived in the north of the country, where they were comparatively less harassed. That changed on June 11 when ISIS terrorists captured Mosul – the Nineveh of the Old Testament – and, in the following two months, all of the Christian towns and villages in greater Nineveh, too.

Today, those Christians who fled the terrorists are huddled together in the refugee camps of Ankawa, Dohuk, Sulymania and Zakho, among others, hoping for the end of ISIS and the chance to return to their homes, or for a new life in the West.

Irrespective of all the sufferings they endure, they place their hope in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth into absolute poverty and impending violence they will soon observe in equally extreme and extraordinary circumstances.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (19/12/14)