Outside the Catholic Church in Marj el Hamam, Jordan, two teenage boys diligently put together a set of shelves. They pass time as they wait for the line outside the shared bathroom to clear. The serpentine queue is filled with female friends and companions getting ready for this evening’s Mass. It is difficult to imagine that a mere ten days have passed since their families escaped the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul.
Father George Sharyha, the head of the church, is responsible for overseeing the well being of his new guests. The refugees live in a building a short walk from the main church. Father George, or Abouna George as he is known in Arabic, prompts a group of women to lead me there. Inside the building is a modest room, its walls lined with stacks of identical mattresses. The area is separated into equal sections, partitioned off by plastic dividers. Each family has one section. Some lie on the mattresses and nap, while others use hand mirrors to comb their hair and apply makeup. I ask about the etched ن (the Arabic letter for “N”) drawn on each partition.
“The children did that,” one lady informs us shyly in Arabic. “When the IS came for us, they would mark our property with a spray-painted ن. The kids got used to it, so when we came here they drew it on the walls too.”
Christians in the city of Mosul were subject to grave and unreasonable threats following the city’s usurpation by the IS. Marked with a spray-painted ن, properties belonging to Christians were to be seized by IS militants. ن, or “N”, is the first letter of the Arabic word for Christian: Nasrani or Nazarene. Currently, the total number of Christian refuge seekers from Iraq who have secured entry into Jordan stands at 200 families, or 1,000 people. Many face difficult health conditions, and there are a number of people in hospital.
“They gave us three days to choose between conversion, death, or payment of a tax,” a lady informs me from inside her partition. “They took everything of mine: my gold, my wedding ring, my earrings. They set my house on fire as we were leaving. They use the loudspeakers in the mosque after the 7 o’clock prayers to warn us that they are coming,” her voice trembles as she continues her story.
“This is now our home,” she says, gesturing to her surroundings. “Do you like it?” her friend jokes nearby, chipping in. It is August in Amman, and despite a small fan, it is so hot inside the room that sweat sticks to the back of our clothes.
At the moment, Marj el Hamam’s Catholic church holds 71 people, made up of roughly 20 families. The families that share the room know each other, but more refugees are expected to join them soon. For most, this is not a final destination. Instead, Jordan serves as a crucial buffer till they are sent somewhere new. Many are still waiting for the help of the United Nations. Their passports were seized by the IS as they tried to escape, and they are currently in limbo until new ones are issued to them from Iraq.
When asked where they would like to go, the women inside the building reply that they would be happy anywhere that God wishes to take them. The one place they can never imagine going back to, however, is Iraq. “There is no one left to know there, and nothing we want to go back to”. Their expressions harden as they answer this question.
Father George informs us that organizations, coupled with the funding of ‘kind’ donors, provide the families with food. The support the refugees need, it seems, is for other supplies. Crucial is money for beds, so that people do not have to continue sleeping on the floor. There is also demand for daily supplies such as tissues, books, and towels. This will suffice while the refugees wait to move somewhere else, somewhere where they can settle and rebuild their lives.
Outside, Kamal Qastomi tells me that his family, and many of the families inside, fled through Qarqosh, a city to the north of Iraq. They then reached Kurdistan before flying to Amman with Royal Jordanian. Though Jordan’s King Abdullah has allowed 1,000 Iraqi Christians to stay in Jordan, only 20 families from their neighborhood made it to Amman. Several were left behind because they could not afford the trip.
“We lost literally everything. They took our gold, money, and even my belt. I have one relative who is suffering with one kidney. He had to stay there [in Mosul] because he can’t afford traveling, and taking care of himself. We had to flee.”
Kamal is not afraid of death. What he is scared of, however, is the threat made by the IS to exploit Christian women. “They [the IS] threatened our women. They told us that if we died, or they killed us, they would take our women, our wives and our daughters as slaves”. Faced with this pressure, he chose to escape and leave the only life he knew behind. “They asked us to convert to Islam through an announcement they made at mosques around Mosul city, or face death. They gave us three days as a deadline. The priests of churches didn’t want to cut a deal of any kind with the IS. That’s why the IS dismissed them as well as the Yazidis.”
Kamal’s story, and many others, makes it clear that the seizure of Mosul by the IS has manifested into a threat on human rights. This includes the right to practice whichever religion one chooses, should one choose to practice religion. Now, many hope that the new regime in Iraq will follow a path of statesmanship and pluralism, and not mindless sectarianism. As the number of disaffected Sunnis who have affiliated themselves with the IS increases, however, this could be a long wait. Until then, the Christians of Mosul continue to search for a place to call home.
Nikita Malik is a political commentator on the Middle East. She is currently conducting fieldwork in Amman.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.