A warm meal with Dr. Duraid Tobiya Zoma, the Senior Advisor for Ethnic and Religious Affairs to the Governor of Mosul...encouraging to renew conversation about the future of Iraq and the Nineveh Plain.
IGE Board of Directors member Mark Christenson and Dr. Seiple spent 16 May along 100+ miles of the Iraqi-Turkish border, visiting the most remote Christian villages — most of which consider themselves Assyrian — and the most forgotten Christians they host, those who fled ISIS 10 months ago. Specific pics follow in later posts, but it is first vital to begin to understand what it means to be Assyrian. It is a fierce and unapologetic identity that is 6000+ years old, indelibly intertwined with Christianity, Aramaic, and the land. And what a land it is...
To begin to understand Assyrian identity -- which is to begin to understand persecution — here is the brief story of Ashur Sargon Eskrya, President of Assyrian Aid Society [A Cradle Fund partner]. Ashur and his father, Sargon (who unjustly served two years in Saddam Hussein's prison), and Ashur's grandfather, Eskrya (Zechariah) — pictured behind them — have lived in the village of Anone for at least 700 years. The original village was housed under one roof (the picture with the red flowers in foreground shows the un-excavated site), in order to defend themselves against other villages, Kurds, Muslims, and Turks...always with the Church next to it. This church was rebuilt after Saddam destroyed it (the original was smaller, forcing one to bow his/her head upon entry to God). Ashur is standing next to the grave of his grandfather, who was killed by Kurds in 1946.
It is still dangerous country as the Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK, uses this area for attacks into Turkey. Above is PKK territory, as well as a Turkish outpost, one of several, well inside Iraqi territory.
The history of this land is strewn with sadness. Above, an abandoned synagogue...all the Jews left in 1948.
In Anone, Dr. Seiple spent some time with Anis and his bride of seven years, Berivan (who chose not to be photographed). They fled ISIS in August 2014, leaving their home of Qarakosh with nothing. Anis worked for the electric company and Berivan is an engineer. Now they live in an abandoned home. They will not go back without international protection for Qarakosh and the rest of the Nineveh Plain. They used to go to a church that had 1000 people every Sunday. "Yes, it is a crisis," Anis notes, "but it is nothing compared to Christ being crucified. We helped build this country and we should not be treated this way."
Dr. Seiple and Mark also visited with Fadia in the village of Anone. She speaks for almost every Assyrian Chris has met: "I want to go home and live my life. I am tired. I love my new friends here but my home is my home. My faith is strong more now. We only have God now." Dr. Seiple asked her what she wanted him to tell people in America: "Tell them I live every day with a smile and as if it is my last."
The village of Cherlik now has but five families left, plus the 31 remaining IDP families that fled ISIS. The de facto "mayor" of Cherlik is Johanna (John) Khoshba (Sunday). The story and pluck of Johnnie Sunday is a reminder of how the recent ISIS crisis is the latest iteration of persecution for Christians, and why they remain. John was born in this village but has been forced to leave it 10 times since 1961, getting shot four times along the way. The shortest time he was away was for 6 months; the longest, for nine years. Dr. Seiple asked him why he keeps coming back: "Because it's my land, because it's my home." Sadly, trouble has visited Cherlik again. The families of the village have been refused water from the nearby Khabor River, and their cemetery was desecrated. Dr. Seiple reported this in his meetings with the government on Monday the 18th.
We visited IDP families in Berseva Village as well, near Zakho. Many came to meet with us, vent, and share their hopes and fears. "We have been here for 10 months: how long will we stay?" All wanted to go home, but none without international protection. "We trust God and our faith is stronger than before but we are adults and we are done...we want a future for our children. Don't forget us." One mother begged for cancer treatment for her seven year old daughter...we are working on that. As we met, evening prayers were offered.
We met Shimon (Simon) Matti (son of Matthew) in Cherlik, along with his son, Chrystalis (sp?) He came to Cherlik with nine families from Bartola just before ISIS came. He was grateful for the help of various international NGOs, but he was most grateful that we asked him questions about his previous life in Bartola and his family. Apparently no one had before.
In Zakho, we visited with IDP families at the Chaldean Church. The same story: they fled ISIS with nothing; they want to go back but won't without international protection; and their faith is stronger than ever. Different this time was blame on the US. Some felt the US had watched PM Maliki go sectarian, creating this situation, while others wondered why the US could take down Saddam Hussein quickly but couldn't defeat ISIS...is there a plan to split Iraq with Iran 50-50?
May 16th ended with meeting with the leadership of Yazda, a Dohuk-based NGO serving the 480,000 internally displaced Yezidis in Iraqi Kurdistan. They have a presence in all the camps and are doing real relief through the relationships they have (the Yezidi community is extremely tight-knit). They are also thinking strategically about trauma (especially gender-based violence) and near- & long-term care. We were very impressed with Jameel, Hegi and Murdeen.
A real blessing to visit with the family of Sadok. You might remember that Chris met him on a previous trip. A Shia Turkmen, Sadok lived near Mosul but chose not to flee to southern Iraq (majority Shia) with the rest of his Shia friends when Mosul fell to the Sunni ISIS. He stayed because as a schoolteacher he felt he had a moral obligation to his students...who happen to all be Yezidi. He is still making a very long round trip (from Dohuk) to teach his students, even though the government has not paid him since January. If there is hope for Iraq, it is Sadok and his family. Dr. Seiple stopped by to spend some time with his kids -- Zenab (10) and Jamal (12) -- and his wife, Mona, although he was at work. They still have the same lovely spirit, and every IDP family at the sports center respects them, the only Turkmen family there. If you ever think that one person and one family do not make a difference, think of this beautiful family.
We also met with Amira and her two kids, Joseph and Valentine (her husband was fortunate enough to find a job and was at work; Sunday is the start of the work week here). Their story was too familiar: they fled ISIS on August 6th, their faith is strong and they have little hope of return. But that is their desire: to return, if there is an international force to protect them. "We don't seek a solution for us, but for our children." They are from Qarakosh, and Amira expressed an emerging theme for this trip among those from Qarakosh: they were all so close in Qarakosh..."we were one big family"...if they have to emigrate, can they all go to the same place?
IGE board member, Mark Christenson, distributes aid in partnership with Assyrian Aid Society, on behalf of IGE's cradlefund.org. Among the recipients were Syrians who had just fled ISIS.
12 miles from ISIS...the bridge is the closest ISIS got to Erbil in August (about 15 miles away).
Dr. Seiple spent an hour with the (exiled) Governor of Nineveh Province (whose capital is Mosul), Atheel al-Nujayfi. They had a warm, wide-ranging and candid conversation about a post-ISIS future, and how to get there. They agree on many points, especially the practical principle that it is the responsibility of the majority to lead the reconciliation process. Please pray for wisdom in moving forward.
Wonderful to re-connect with Jano Rosebiani, a Kurdish filmmaker. He is just completing a documentary on the Peshmerga (the Kurdish military) and ISIS, and next he will do a film on the Yazidis. Curiously, he shared that many young Kurds are researching their history and converting to Christianity and Zorasterianism, the historic faiths of this area before the arrival of Islam.
Dr. Seiple spent 2.5 hours with Khalid Jamal Alber, Director of Christian Affairs at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and Mariwan Naqshbsndi, Director of Relations & the Promotion of Religious Coexistence in Kurdistan (this office is just 3 months old). A frank conversation with leaders of genuine heart about the reality of religious minorities in the region, and how to ensure that they stay. They said that without the renewal of trust, people will leave the region. They were happy to receive my report about Cherlik, and Chris shared also about the abandoned synagogue that he had visited. They are anxious to see Kurdish -speaking Jews return. We agreed to work together on some particular ideas that build trust, practically.