SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq- When Yousif Almashmos was born in March 2003, coalition bombs were falling outside. His family's Baghdad apartment swayed as his mother made her way to the hospital. Akram and Sarab Almashmos lived near headquarters for Saddam Hussein's security services, a prominent target for U.S. forces. Worse, Saddam had positioned rocket launchers between houses in the area, making them a target for U.S. heat-seekers.
Some neighbors died in those early days of the U.S. invasion, and when her baby was born, Sarab asked God, "Why are you protecting me? What is our purpose?" Holding her infant in her arms eight months later, she told WORLD she read her Bible that night and decided to name her fourth child Yousif, after the ancient patriarch Joseph, "because he is not here by accident. God has something for us."
Now Yousif is a rambunctious boy of four with a dark brown cowlick. He likes to drink other people's soda when his is gone and he hops around the room eating off the plates of his older sisters or brother. He cries when his father refuses to take him on errands. This month he starts school, having never known a day in his life without war.
Four years ago his parents made friends with U.S. soldiers patrolling their district, and Sarab said then that she believed they "are coming to make the area safer, not to fight." But safer was not to be. Militants repeatedly threatened her husband's cosmetics business, and they began to feel that the family was targeted because they are Chaldean Catholics. Early last year a car bomb exploded on the street near his business. Then came Aug. 31, 2006.
That day at least three car bombs exploded almost simultaneously in the district. Within 30 minutes, 64 Iraqis were dead and nearly 300 wounded. The force of the explosions rocketed Almashmos' shop assistant 40 feet into the air and completely leveled the store. The assistant survived but lost one leg.
Two weeks later on Sept. 15, 2006, Akram and Sarab packed their four children and some clothes into their car and left Baghdad. On Sept. 4, 2007, WORLD caught up with them 200 miles away in Sulaymaniyah, once an ancient Kurdish capital in northern Iraq, now bulging at an estimated 1 million residents or more, thanks to the dangers wrought by Shiite and Sunni militias and terrorists in cities to the south. Across the region cities and villages are filling with families like the Almoshmoses-families who are traumatized, dislocated, and working to reconstruct their lives against an uncertain future.
This month's report to Congress by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, along with a Sept. 13 speech by President Bush, spelled a shift in strategy-a once open-ended commitment to war in Iraq now has fixed parameters and a calendar pegging limited troop withdrawals to measurable success. But for Iraqis the debate is less political than visceral-less about long-range timetables and overall strategy and more about daily survival-how to eat, to work, and to protect one's family. Approaching the war's five-year mark, how does a prostrate nation bind up the wounds of war?
For Iraq's religious minorities the question is particularly vital, as those groups have been targeted by terrorists and have the most to fear from an Iraq hijacked by Islamic militants. The annual growth rate among Christians in Iraq has dropped from approximately 3 percent in 1950 to -1 percent today.
For Akram and Sarab, answering that question meant coming north, even if it meant leaving everything behind, including Sarab's ailing mother. Sulaymaniyah in the last 18 months has become home to thousands of displaced people like them, religious minorities who face threats from Islamic extremists. Across the three northern provinces known as Kurdistan, an estimated 30,000-50,000 Christians are taking refuge. In contrast to some reports in the United States, they say they are finding a haven not only from violence but from persecution. This month Kurdish officials gave a tentative go-ahead for a new evangelical church in Sulaymaniyah to serve the displaced from Baghdad, according to pastor Ghassan Thomas, and the government currently is backing the construction of more than 40 churches in the region.
Sulaymaniyah is home to Iraq's current president, Jalal Talabani, and sits among high desert hills at about 2,500 feet above sea level. It once boasted having Tucson as its sister city. Now it boasts overcrowded streets, construction cranes across the skyline, and a multi-ethnic, multi-religious revival in what until the war was largely a Kurdish enclave. The north has a tax- and duty-free policy on investments-prompting business interests driven out of Baghdad, as well as Turkish and Asian interests, to buy into development here.
At lunch in a restaurant with Akram and Sarab, a traditionally dressed Kurdish family sits to their right, while to their left sits a Western-dressed local government official talking business with Japanese investors. In the streets burqa-clad women brush shoulders with women in short skirts and heels, while men are apparently too busy hustling everything from pomegranates to refrigerators to notice the changes.
Landing here for the Almoshmos family has been easier than for many displaced. Thanks to a Kurdish business associate in Baghdad, Akram found a job as a local television set distributor. He is able to employ his now-handicapped former shop assistant. Sarab works for the Kurdish Heritage Institute. The Chaldean church here helped the family find a one-bedroom flat (for the family of six) and they live with borrowed furniture. Through the church they've encountered dozens of families without work or decent housing and are helping to assist them with monthly food baskets. But on Sept. 6, Sarab learned from a Baghdad neighbor that her mother had died, alone and separated by the violence.
City life for some is not solace enough. The village of Bereka is nearly as far from Baghdad as you can get without leaving Iraq-350 miles away from the capital high in the mountains near the Turkish border. And that's how far away Bihnan Rehana wants to be. Rehana was a resident of Baghdad's Dora district, historically a mostly Christian neighborhood, until terrorist groups emptied it door-to-door over the last 12 months. Earlier this year terrorists firebombed the Assyrian St. George's Church and removed its cross.
Rehana lived in Dora since 1975. He ran a street market, a good business that allowed him to support his wife and five children and to afford one of the district's larger houses. Then threats began: "I was approached by terrorist groups and asked how many children I had. When I told them five, they said, 'Fine, three for you and two for us.' They wanted us to pay $10,000 a month as a kind of tax for staying in Dora, or they would take my children."
Such threats follow a pattern described by many displaced Christians whom WORLD visited across five northern provinces. Usually black-masked militants threaten residents face-to-face or issue letters by night demanding that they convert to Islam, pay an exorbitant fee, or be killed. "To be safe, be Muslim," is their slogan.
One day the insurgents shot at Rehana's car to show him they were serious. Today he keeps the pockmarked sedan parked outside his new home in Bereka, the village of his forefathers. When he left Baghdad, he said, he left everything except the car and the clothes on his back. His youngest children are with relatives in Syria. His oldest son remains in Baghdad.
Rehana knows many Christians who have fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria. But like many WORLD spoke to, he believes that Baghdad one day will be livable again, and that the better choice is to stay. Judging by the four cities, two smaller towns, and eight villages WORLD visited across five northern Iraq provinces, he may be right. From the remote and mountainous border in the north to the hazy, hot, and brittle pastureland of Nineveh Plain, it's possible for an American to travel without personal protection, a government minder, or U.S. military escort, without a ceramic-plated vest or a headscarf. Christians and religious minorities in particular say they are welcomed at northern checkpoints, though Kurdish forces are notoriously hard on outsiders and reject most cars with Baghdad license plates.
Surprisingly, Kurdish officials in the north-underwritten by oil revenues and U.S. reconstruction aid-are taking the first steps to rebuild dozens of Assyrian Christian and Chaldean villages. Kurdish regional government (KRG) minister of finance Sarkis Aghajan Mamendu has made it a priority to fund housing and schools in these villages even ahead of Kurdish Muslim villages that were destroyed under Saddam Hussein.
In Bereka the KRG has built 25 concrete slab homes for 25 families from Baghdad. It also constructed a school and a church. In the far northern district of Dohuk, the Kurdish regional government has built 1,400 houses, 12 schools, and 13 churches in the last 18 months. (That's right, a majority Muslim government is building churches for displaced Christians.)
The evidence contrasts with recent reports, including a 2007 report filed by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), claiming Kurdish treatment of Assyrians in northern Iraq includes "religiously motivated discrimination," confiscation of property, and denial of "key social benefits, including employment and housing."
Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian priest and director of the Iraqi-German humanitarian aid organization CAPNI, called the report "totally misinformed." Youkhana, whose group runs a mobile medical clinic and other projects in villages across the region, told WORLD, "This is not paradise, but in this part of the world it's very easy to get enemies when what we need are friends. Iraqi Kurdistan is proving it can be a model for religious freedom starting in Iraq, and it needs to be supported."
USCIRF communications director Judith Ingram acknowledged, "We do know there is some dispute over these reports," and the commission held another set of hearings Sept. 19 on Iraq.
Area pastors also dispute the wisdom of creating a Christian enclave to protect minorities in the region. Pastor Yussuf Matty believes it would simply make Christians a bigger target for militant Islamists. And he has been successful in registering three schools in cities in the north that operate as Christian schools with student bodies-now numbering over 1,000-made up largely of Muslims. "What we tell the Kurdish officials is we want to work hand in hand with Kurdish Muslims, we want to live with you but not at the edge of life. We want to be at the heart of Kurdistan, and we want to work hard for the good of the community."
The USCIRF report also cites discrimination against Christians and land disputes in Nineveh Plain. But in En Baqr the government has built 31 new houses for displaced Chaldean families from Mosul and Baghdad. In Karanjo, CAPNI is finishing a church and rows of new houses are going up.
Nineveh Plain falls within Baghdad's administrative zone, and while it includes Kurdish, Armenian, Yezedi, and historic Christian villages, it has not seen the same level of progress as Kurdish-administrated villages further north. Problems and need remain for the estimated 4,500 displaced families there (one in four families of the total population).
In Germawa, former Baghdad resident Boutros Simon said three families are living in his new two-bedroom house because there is not enough housing in the village. Some of the new houses lack water and electricity. The 22 children in the village go to school in Al Kush, about 15 miles away. While there is farming in the area, most of the newly displaced don't have jobs. Simon receives about $100 a month in government stipend, like other displaced families who register with the government-not enough to support everyone under his roof. At current prices, a tank of gas in northern Iraq can cost nearly $100.
Simon said it will take years to sort out land claims all over the north, given Saddam Hussein's repeated purges of minority communities. He denied reports in the United States of land disputes locking out the Assyrian Christians who return to Nineveh Plain: "Village councils can present their cases to the government, and we are working to provide housing for everyone who comes here."
When Rehana returned to Bereka he found his family's land farmed by a Kurd under a 10-year lease with the local governorate. Without going to court, he and other returnees worked out an arrangement allowing the Kurd to complete the two years remaining on his lease before turning the land over to the Assyrian returnees.
Simon believes the economic picture will improve in Nineveh province if the area were to come under KRG control. That could happen if a referendum extending the Kurdish autonomous region as far south as Mosul and Kirkuk, encompassing Nineveh Plain, takes place. Under Iraq's new constitution, the referendum is to be scheduled before the end of 2007. But due to violence in Mosul and Kirkuk, and the debate over allocating oil revenues from the area, it's likely to be postponed. In the meantime, Simon-speaking for a surprising number of the displaced-says he longs for the day when it's safe enough to return to Baghdad.
Danny arrived in a village in Nineveh Plain earlier this year with his mother, father, and older sister. They escaped Mosul after 8-year-old Danny was captured by militants on a spring day. Danny fought his captors for 15 minutes, drawing his sister's attention. When she ran to his aid, the armed and masked kidnappers shot at her but missed. She ran to her home and alerted her parents but it was too late. A ransom demand soon followed, and Danny's father (he asked that the family name not be used) negotiated the amount down to $750, a sum he had to borrow. After Danny was released, the masked men let neighbors know they would come after the daughter next, and the family took shelter in a new government home in the north-where life is hard, jobs are scarce, and the children stick closer than ever to their parents.