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Erbil: Voices from Ainkawa mall

Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan has experienced an economic boom and an urban expansion in the last few years, especially in the outlying districts, where skyscrapers rise up to the sky; luxury facilities entertain business men; commercial malls manifest a deceptive concept of development; and Kurdish leaders already envision a powerful oil state. Blindly reproducing the Western model, Erbil is opening its doors to foreign investors – especially from Turkey – and it is quickly becoming an important financial hub in Middle East.

On the road to the Christian neighbourhood of Ainkawa, glaring billboards show the construction of promised fairy-tale lives in elite residences; while the skeletons of unfinished buildings speak to the presence of refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced People).

Since June, the Erbil government has paid host to thousands of Iraqi IDPs forced to flee their hometowns and who have found refuge in the autonomous Northern region that has become a haven for persecuted religious minorities. Families must now face a life of hardship in camps, in tents, or in informal settlements, where access to services and aid is not always ensured.

On the outskirts of Ainkawa, a shopping mall has escaped its economic destiny by instead becoming a shelter for 400 refugee families, mostly Christians belonging to the Chaldean, Syrian Orthodox and Catholic Church of Iraq's North-Western Nineveh Plain.

Voices from Ainkawa mall

Barbers and vendors animate the ground floor of the mall. Young men gaze at themselves in the mirror, brushing their hair and fixing their eyebrows, while others queue to be shaved. Long tangled rows of wet clothes cross the aisles, searching for rays of an absent sun where darkness and humidity reign. A haphazard cross made from a rope suspended over the entrance suggests that these families come mainly from Christian villages such as Qaraqosh, Bartella and Kharamles. All escaped the threat of ISIS, or "Da'esh", as the terrorist group is known in Arabic.

In June, ISIS's fighters swept into Mosul with little resistance. During confrontations against 3,000 ISIS fighters, around 60,000 Iraqi armed forces abandoned their posts, shed their uniforms and fled, leaving behind sophisticated weaponry given to the Iraqi army by the US and which is now in the hands of ISIS.

Roughly 500,000 residents also fled; among them David's family and Dushi, the white cheeked

Nightingale: "We left everything behind, even our documents, but we had no second thoughts on Dushi, he's part of the family and now cheers us up with his lullabies," David says. Moved to Qaraqosh, the family had to escape once again shortly after, finding refuge in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Amar, too, had to flee: "When ISIS reached Mosul they gave us three choices: convert to Islam, pay a protection tax, or death. In fact, it was no choice at all. Of course I was afraid, especially for my family, but I couldn't hold myself back from telling an ISIS fighter – who came up to me – that he was the disbeliever, not me."

As each person starts telling me their story, more and more people gather round, the end of one story bridging to the beginning of another.

In Qaraqosh ISISs' strategy didn't alter. With the withdrawal of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting forces, they managed to take control of the city in a few hours. Around 20,000 inhabitants had already escaped but many others were caught by surprise or were simply unable to move, especially poor and elderly people. They remained besieged within their four walls until a further ultimatum was given: gather near the mosque to be evacuated by bus. Distrust and fear suggested it could have been a trap, but a food and water shortage didn't leave the few who stayed with any other alternative. They were in fact expelled from their own city, and many witnessed the abduction of young girls and women never to be seen again.

ISIS's advance in the region was facilitated in part by the fragility of Nouri Al-Maliki's government, which came to power on the back of the US-instigated sectarian system of representation, and has been seen by some to have pursued political, economic and social agendas that incited civil conflicts and side-lined the minority Sunni population. Forced from power earlier this year, Maliki's replacement, Haider Al-Abadi, has stressed the importance of community cohesion and a unified political stance that transcends sectarian divisions (though whether or not he will deliver this remains yet to be seen).

Riding the wave of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, a non-violent movement rooted in Iraqi civil society came to the fore, asking for an alternative political system based on social justice, reform and the abrogation of many laws linked to the country's de-Baathification process. The government's reaction was to clamp down on protesters, and political stagnation that followed allowed ISIS to gain consensus amidst the embittered Sunni population.

Most Iraqi Christians now seek a way to leave the country. David's 80-year-old mother, whose lined face traces the progression of history, explains why: "We never had a moment of peace in this country, history repeats itself and I have no more hope. I don't want my grandchildren to endure a life of persecution." Hanna, a mother-of-two from Qaraqosh, continues: "This country is ill; I don't see a future for my children. We already escaped from Baghdad in 2007, and now we found ourselves refugees once again."

From what was once a community of 1 million Christians in Iraq, only a few hundred thousand remain and further exoduses are foreseen. At present time, a worryingly feeling of hostility towards Muslims seems to transversally cross the community; in the long term, such animosity could fuel future cycles of ethno-religious violence; a reality already seen in the Balkan conflicts.

"Why doesn't the Pope come here, why don't the Christians receive us in Europe?" This is a question that I – as an Italian – am often asked. Fortress Europe's recent policies have conspired to keep immigrants outside its walls, thus facilitating smugglers rather than creating much-needed humanitarian corridors. And just recently, the EU has preferred to establish a sea border patrol instead of supporting the life-saving programme Mare Nostrum, a wide-scale operation to rescue migrants lost at sea in the Mediterranean. Fortress Europe's walls are rising and its foundations are more stable than ever; the cornerstones of racism and political interests feeding illegal systems of human trafficking. Which is why, for many, Europe remains nothing but a mirage.

Winter challenges

The deep voice of the priest resounds through the skeleton of the unfinished building, calling the believers to mass. It is Sunday evening, and Ainkawa mall is plunged into darkness. The electricity has been out for more than a week, and as the shadows slink down towards the West, candles weakly light up the corridors like fireflies.

No electricity means that the heaters remain turned off. In each room, hosting roughly five individuals per family, people must face up to the frost that enters arrogantly through the common spaces still under construction. Humidity creeps into the bones, dampening clothes and announcing a winter of distress and loss. No electricity also means that water pumps aren't working, leaving whole floors with no running water provisions and causing an immediate impact on hygiene, especially the state of the toilets. The residents are well aware that such unhealthy conditions will cause disease, and children and elders are already suffering. Frustration is finding alternative channels of expression, accumulating day by day and erupting into fights and incidents of domestic violence.

In addition, rumours are spreading that seem to foresee another displacement. Just a few kilometres away, the Church has started setting up around 1,000 caravans, probably designed to be used by the Christians of Ainkawa mall. Another displacement, among many others; another wait, amongst many others; another loss, amongst many others.

Men, women and children gather around the altar. One by one, they kiss and caress the small crucifix illuminated by the guttering candles. What will become of their future is still uncertain; but Christmas is coming soon and right now the residents are getting ready to celebrate the birth of Christ, in spite of all their hardships.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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