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FEW OPTIONS: Sami Dagher tends to displaced in Erbil.
Mo Sadjadpour
FEW OPTIONS: Sami Dagher tends to displaced in Erbil.

Risking genocide

Persecution | As the Islamic State has raged from Syria to Iraq, it threatens to wipe out Christians and other religious groups with singular roots in ancient Mesopotamia

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

Sami Dagher is waiting in the hot sun for a truck delivering air coolers. It’s 5 p.m. in Erbil on Saturday, Aug. 16, and the temperature hangs stubbornly at 111°F. He needs 500 air coolers—evaporative cooling units that use fans with water and consume less electricity than air conditioners. He can locate only 100 but hopes to have a few hundred more trucked in from Iran tomorrow.

“Here in Ainkawa area of Erbil alone we have 30,000 displaced—all Christians—and the heat is terrible,” said Dagher, pastor of a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Beirut and a church planter who has helped start churches across the Middle East. 

The Alliance church in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, is working with aid groups to coordinate relief to many made homeless by waves of onslaught across Iraq by ISIS (or ISIL), the Islamic militant group now calling itself the Islamic State. At least one church in Erbil has 140 people sleeping in its halls. Once mattresses arrived, more spilled out to sleep on dirt or grass outside the church buildings. 

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Along with air coolers, food, clothing, diapers, mattresses, pillows, and blankets—not to mention housing—are all in short supply. Many of the displaced Christians in Erbil are living in tents outdoors and in buildings under construction. They are surviving with no bathrooms, no running water, no finished windows or doorways, and no relief from the heat, said Dagher: “Yes we are getting supplies, but our city is overwhelmed.”

Much of Iraq’s Christian population—halved and halved and halved again since the 2003 U.S. invasion—now finds itself shoved into the Kurdish corner of Iraq with nowhere else to go but cities like Erbil and Duhok, cities isolated from the rest of the country and surrounded by mountains with limited transit routes. War in Syria, hostility in Iran, and a closed border to Turkey all leave the Christians forced from Mosul and Nineveh Plain this summer with next to no options—and so they have crowded into church courtyards, sleeping in streets and parks, living out of tents or on open ground. 

Over 1.5 million Iraqis have been displaced in three waves of ISIS onslaught starting in January in Anbar Province. Most brutal was the third wave Aug. 1-6 across Nineveh Province: It forced out up to 33,000 families, according to the UN, and killed thousands, leading to genocide for Yazidis and other minority populations in Iraq. On Aug. 13 the UN declared Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency,” its highest category for humanitarian crisis. 

Despite more recent gains on the ground—made possible by U.S. air strikes in the area starting Aug. 8—ISIS retains a hold on one-third of Iraq. Homeless Christians and others have no idea what will happen to them next, where they might go, or how to make a home that’s secure again.

Aid coordinators like Dagher, who is working with Samaritan’s Purse, emphasize the extreme level of relief needed: water, food, milk and diapers for babies, mattresses, pillows, and blankets. Most families who escaped the ISIS grip in Mosul and surrounding areas lost everything, including their homes and any money they had in the bank. Reports have circled the internet of women whose wedding rings ISIS confiscated, babies whose gold earrings the militants removed. 

“We have to take care of them or they will not survive at all,” said Yousif Fahmi, a monk who oversees Mar Mattai, a Syriac Orthodox monastery in Nineveh Province. 

A fourth-century enclave set in mountains 12 miles east of Mosul, Mar Mattai is under protection of Kurdish forces now, after for a time this summer becoming a safe haven to dozens of families from Mosul and the villages of Nineveh Plain fleeing the ISIS ultimatum to convert or be killed. 

Fahmi left the monastery in the care of Kurdish peshmerga to escort many of the families to the city of Duhok further north—where an additional 20,000-30,000 Christians are estimated to have taken refuge. But necessities are in short supply and some of those families are living on the street, he told me by telephone: “There are babies without milk, boys and girls without food, and a whole family here with only one blanket among them.” 

Dagher said the hardest part of the unfolding crisis is the number of young people affected. A third of those living outdoors, he estimates, are young children. “You will see newborns, even 3 days old, who have to be put on the ground. They are crying in the heat, the ants will come and eat on them, and there is really nothing we can do about it.”

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