It is 1999, Mosul, Iraq. It is Marwan’s* eighth birthday. He sits beaming on his bed surrounded by a mountain range of birthday presents. Hot Wheels, a plastic toy cash register, and Pokémon cards sit waiting to be played with as soon as he is finished sitting still for the photo.
His toys, along with countless other priceless family photos and heirlooms, are long gone now, as his family’s house was taken when extremist group ISIS captured swathes of territory across northern Iraq last June, causing thousands of locals to flee their homes.
Marwan’s family is Assyrian – an ancient ethnic group whose members, now minorities, practice Christianity and speak Syriac Aramaic, a form of the language Jesus Christ spoke 2,000 years ago. Historically, the group descends from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Assyria, which emerged in the 2nd millennium BC and had fully adopted Christianity by 250 AD. They are indigenous mainly to present-day Iraq, as well as parts of Turkey, Iran, and northern Syria.
Though Marwan, his parents, and younger brother fled to neighboring Jordan after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, most of his family stayed behind in the house in Mosul, amongst other members of Iraq’s deeply rooted Christian community. “Around 80% of the people around Mosul were Assyrians,” estimates Marwan’s uncle Adnan*, who was head of the household in Mosul. “The Assyrians felt like a whole country.”
All of this changed when ISIS, a pseudo-Sunni extremist group affiliated with al Qaeda, invaded last summer, seizing territory in Syria and Iraq and later declaring itself a “caliphate,” according to Reuters. Adnan heard of the approaching militants via word of mouth, as fears grew within his community. According to his account, he knew it was time to leave when ISIS militants were a mere 500 meters away from his home. The Iraqi army had retreated in the wake of the oncoming ISIS militants, and he no longer felt safe.
Adnan packed his family into the car and drove east to Erbil, in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Normally a one-hour drive, the trip took 24 hours due to the overwhelming traffic of people fleeing the Mosul area, many of them forced to leave behind all of their possessions. “ISIS asked people [from the Christian community]: do you want to pay a tax, or leave? Everybody left.” Adnan remained in Kurdistan for several months before moving in with extended family in Amman, Jordan.
It is estimated that around 140,000 Christians fled the Mosul area after ISIS invaded, uprooting a vital, deep-rooted sector of Iraq’s society.
In a video released August 2014 by Iraq’s MEMRI TV, a news host breaks into tears over ISIS’s campaign against minorities in the territories it controls in Iraq. “Our country is like a rose, and its petals are the Christians, the Arabs, the Kurds, the Sabians, the Shabak people. These are all our countrymen.”
Today, many Assyrian Christians like Adnan have found refuge in Jordan, an island of stability amidst the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Amman, Jordan’s small Assyrian community centers around the Assyrian Mar Efram church, which does charitable works to Iraqi Christian refugees. The building itself is newly-built and stands in stark contrast to the ancient monasteries and churches that dot Iraq’s Nineveh province and face the constant threat of demolition by ISIS. However, it serves as a temporary home for displaced Assyrians in Jordan.
“In Jordan, we have a small Assyrian community and they have their own church,” explains Jalil*, a member of Mar Efram’s congregation. “The Iraqi community goes every Sunday, and they meet and talk about their problems, commiserate, and share their experiences with each other.” The church also gives food handouts as well as shelter for a handful of families, assistance that is greatly needed as the Jordanian government does not allow Iraqi nationals to obtain jobs in the Kingdom.
Iraqi Assyrians in Amman know Jordan will never be a substitute for home. Most are trying to obtain refugee status from the UN so they can start over thousands of miles away in the U.S. and Australia. Adnan and his family, like countless others, sought letters of recommendation for refugee status from the Syriac Orthodox Archbishopric of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Kurdistan, which they then must translate into English.
They then wait. According to Jalil, not one Iraqi refugee at Mar Efram as obtained UN refugee status to date, leaving them stuck in a limbo. Many give up hope. Adnan is amongst them. He recently decided to make a risky move back to Iraq, following the illness and untimely death of his brother. Fear of death, assault, and even slavery at the hands of ISIS prevent others from returning home to Iraq.
It has been one hundred years since the Assyrian Genocide at the hands of the Turkish Ottomans. Yet the group, little known outside of the Middle East, continues to suffer violence and statelessness. Assyrian Christians aren’t the only minority to face hardship. Factional violence effects minority groups across the region.
The Middle East’s colorfully diverse array of ethnic and religious groups is, at times of peace, harmonious and accepting. It is war, such as the First World War during the Assyrian Genocide and today’s conflict in Syria and Iraq, that spurs the sort of tragic factional violence that has affected and tens of thousands of Iraqi Assyrians and threatens the region’s rich cultural heritage. Many affected Assyrians have no more sadness left to feel for their people. When Adnan saw the recent heartrending news of ISIS’s destruction of priceless Assyrian antiquities, he felt nothing. “I was destroyed already.”
*names changed for anonymity