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Iraqi refugees 'left everything' in fleeing from brutal ISIS onslaught

| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 7:23 a.m.
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Iraqi Christians, who fled with their families the violence in Iraq's largest Christian town of Qaraqosh, receive food in the garden of Ainkawa's Saint Joseph church on August 12, 2014 on the outskirts of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

IRBIL, Iraq — Riyan Edward's family of seven gathered at the Syrian Orthodox Church of the Mother of Light, sheltering from 108-degree heat.

In June, they fled from Mosul, northern Iraq's largest city, when fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized control with a wave of beheadings and executions. The family found refuge in the 4th-century Monastery of St. Matthew, in mountains not far away.

Last week, they fled again, Edward recalled, when a monastery priest shouted that “ISIS is coming and you have minutes to leave — Go! Go!”

Like thousands of Christians, Kurds and other Iraqis, they ran to Irbil, capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Ainkawa, a Christian section of the city, overflows with refugees. So Edward and his wife, their three children and two elderly parents, all sleep in a neighborhood park.

“We just want tents,” his wife said. “We want something over our heads. We don't know how long we will be here – one, two, or three months.”

“We don't have any place to go or anything to eat,” Edward explained; a priest at the monastery told him “it wasn't safe” to return there.

As ISIS advanced in recent days to Irbil's outskirts, Kurdish militiamen — outgunned and short on munitions – withdrew from the countryside to protect the capital; surrounding villages, many Christian, emptied of people.

Now Irbil overflows with refugees sleeping in church basements, in schools and unfinished buildings, in parks or along streets.

Desperation fills their eyes and quavering voices as they search for a way to make life tolerable — or to escape Iraq altogether.

“From the mountains to the villages, they all left in minutes,” said church deacon Emad al Banna. “It's misery.”

Local Christians opened their homes and have three or four families living with them, he said.

Like the Edward family, Nasir Hanna fled Mosul in June.

“We left everything, and we went on foot” to the village of Bartella, he said. “We have two children, 5 and 3, and my wife is pregnant, and we walked for four or five hours.”

Last week they ran, this time to Irbil, as ISIS swept toward them once more.

“It is just us, poor, here,” Hanna said, opening his wallet to show the Iraqi equivalent of $17. “That is all I have. Where will we go?”

Al Banna, the church deacon, thinks “we will have to go to Turkey” if forced to flee yet again.

Raed Georges Canon fled one Iraqi town after Islamists burned his liquor store in 2006; he and his family settled in Tel Esquf, a Christian village, until ISIS's latest onslaught sent them scurrying to Irbil.

“I am afraid for my family,” he said. “These terrorists are much worse than 2006. Before, they would tell us to leave – now, they just come to kill us.”

Canon, a Caldean Catholic, shelters with other refugees in the unfinished shell of a building across the street from St. Joseph Church. Red or orange sheets hang between families for a bit of privacy; makeshift electrical cords power a single light bulb and a few fans.

Canon's wife, Dalia, 35, said ISIS shelled their village, killing a relative. “We buried him and fled,” she said.

“I have two teenage daughters, and I have to protect them — ISIS takes the girls for themselves. I just took my daughters, my identification, my jewelry and left.”

Her nephew, Riyan Georges, 27, was getting married when ISIS attacked; the wedding party fled without finishing the ceremony.

“We won't leave Christianity,” said a woman who called herself Um Daniel — Mother of Daniel — for fear of being identified. “Even if we starve, we won't leave it. This is the suffering for our Christianity.”

But, she added sadly, “The animals in other countries live better than we do. We need a safe place to live.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent.

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