Cover Story

Stalked

"Stalked" Continued...

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

With the rise of Arab nationalism following World War II, and later radical Islam, many Armenians moved east to Soviet Armenia (now independent) and west to the United States. Today more than 100,000 Armenians live in Los Angeles County; 60,000 live in Aleppo. A generation ago one-quarter of Aleppo was Christian, but today it is less than 10 percent. Thousands of Iraqi Christians taking refuge in Aleppo have helped those sagging numbers, but there are "more conflict-displaced people in the region than at any time since the Palestinian exodus in 1948," said Rasek Siriani of the Middle East Council of Churches.

At Aleppo's Armenian Orthodox church Father Dativ Michaelian and his team are working with over 200 Iraqi Christian families. Michaelian says about 50 families in the last year have emigrated: 46 to America, four to Armenia, none to Iraq. His church is providing school fees for 2,000 Iraqi children (including some Muslims), assisting with housing and other necessities, and taking part in a once-a-month food distribution to refugee families. Michaelian's grandparents fled Turkey for Aleppo: "We know what it means to leave everything. We take the responsibility. It is not something new to accept refugees and take care of them."

Most of the families from Iraq that attend Armenian churches are from Baghdad or Mosul. Parsegh Setrak, his wife and three children, along with his brother and his family, are Mosul residents who came to Aleppo in 2006 after working with U.S. contractor Bechtel for three years. Setrak, 54, received threats against his family by letter. He said militants tried to kidnap his daughter, now 19, on her way to school, and later followed her home: "Many girls were being kidnapped and killed from school because the girls are Christians."

When Bechtel closed Setrak's construction project after several bombings, Setrak decided it was time to leave. The family sold everything it had in Iraq and now lives off those proceeds, paying $330 a month for a fourth-floor apartment in a building where the elevator only goes to the second floor. Setrak said he assumed he and his family could emigrate to America because of his involvement with a U.S. contractor (technically he is right; a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet says that Iraqis who worked for a U.S. contractor "can apply directly without a UNHCR referral"-but only in Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq). Two years after applying for immigrant status with UNHCR his family has heard nothing and was turned away from applying at the U.S. embassy.

"Here life has stopped," Setrak told me-and Michaelian interrupted, "We as Middle Easterners don't want Christian churches to empty." Setrak's 21-year-old son Masis quickly replied, "But we want to live, too." Later Michaelian concluded, "The bridges are broken to go back to Iraq, especially for the Christian."

For now the Iraqis have nearly doubled the size of some worship services, Michaelian says. He welcomes the change and recognizes that the Iraqis have questions and special needs, so once a week he holds a meeting just for them. It includes a time for devotions or Bible study and for questions about medical care, schooling, and other matters. Usually about 125 Iraqis show up for the Wednesday night gatherings, which often become a time to recount tragic experiences.

The refugees at the meetings are from as far away as Basra in southern Iraq, from Baghdad, and from the predominantly Christian towns in the north. "You try to talk about this as a subject, but when your life is the subject, it's very scary," said a refugee from Mosul. The refugee says his father received multiple letters, one containing a bullet, threatening to kill his two sons, both in their 20s. At one point the family paid protection money to militants to keep the sons from being taken, and also borrowed $50,000 to pay ransom after militants kidnapped an uncle.

Historic churches in Aleppo-Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean, Baptist-have formally banded together to share responsibility for the Christian refugees. The U.K.-based Barnabas Fund provides a monthly stipend for the Iraqis, underwriting church-based food distributions, medical care, and other services. Barnabas also is working with churches to purchase land in Aleppo to build additional housing for Iraqis. Caritas, the Catholic charity based in Rome, provided funds for Iraqi families via the Catholic churches in Aleppo, but the support ended in August. No other international charity organizations that typically show up in refugee camps are at work in Syria with the Iraqis.

"George" is a lay leader in the Syrian Orthodox church who helps to distribute monthly food rations and to run a medical clinic for Iraqis. On a balmy Thursday night in October he and a team of workers gather in the lower offices of the church while Iraqi families line up outside in a walled courtyard, passports and ration cards in hand. Everyone needs documents to receive a cash stipend and a black plastic bag containing rice or bulgar, oil, tea or milk powder, and frozen meat. On this particular night school children also received backpacks donated by Barnabas Fund: Young families get diapers and formula, and new arrivals receive a room fan.

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