The summer of 2014 was a tense time for the residents of Qaraqosh in northwestern Iraq. The Aramaic-speaking Chaldean Christian community was on edge. To the west, too close for comfort, the jihadists of the Islamic State had taken large swaths of land. Christians, like other minorities, were suffering grievously when they fell into the hands of IS terrorists.
Rumors swirled in the town that IS would make a push for Qaraqosh, but as long as it remained only a rumor, people stayed put. Leaving their family homes for a dangerous and uncertain future as refugees was too much of a risk. The community was safe, at least temporarily.
That all changed very quickly one day in August. “At 12:00 that day, people started shouting, ‘Get out, Daesh is coming!’ a refugee from Qaraqosh named Lina told The Times of Israel during an interview in Jerusalem, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “Most of them left their cars and everything and just ran away. They left everything — their clothes, their gold, everything. Even their IDs.”
Not everyone managed to flee.
Recounting the experience as she sat with her 18-month-old daughter, Lina recalled sadly that the residents who could not hear the warning shouts didn’t manage to escape, and stayed behind to face a future under brutal Islamic State rule.
‘Maryam was born with a hole in her heart. Her family had arranged for treatment in Turkey, but when the family was forced to flee IS, the plans were scuttled’
Lina and her daughter Maryam are the first Iraqi Christian refugees fleeing IS to come to Israel for medical treatment. They were in Israel with Shevet Achim, a Jerusalem-based Christian NGO that brings children from neighboring countries into Israel for heart surgery.
A newborn named Malak, the first Christian refugee child to be accepted for treatment in Israel, was not so lucky. He died in Iraq while his family was waiting for a passport, which became prohibitively difficult to arrange after the fall of Mosul, the location of the nearest passport office.
Maryam was born with a hole in her heart, a life-threatening condition. Her family had arranged for treatment in Turkey over the summer, but when the family was forced to flee IS, the plans were scuttled.
Instead, Lina, Maryam, her husband, and two sons drove away from IS to the Kurdistan Region’s capital Erbil, where tens of thousands of refugees, many of them Christian, were taking shelter. Becoming a refugee overnight is hard enough, but fleeing home while caring for an ailing baby who doesn’t sleep or breathe well brings with it a whole new set of dilemmas.
Though they no longer had access to their bank in Qaraqosh and only had whatever money they were able to grab on their way out, the family had no choice but to rent a hotel room in Erbil because of Maryam’s condition. They spent a week waiting for an indication they could return home, but none came.
They decided to move to the mixed Kurdish-Christian mountain city of Shaqlawa about 50 kilometers to the north, where prices were much lower than the Christian neighborhood in Erbil. With their dwindling resources, they moved into a house with five other families. They had no jobs, and survived on the kindness of neighbors who supplied them with food, blankets, and clothes.
‘We didn’t know anything bad about Israel, just everyone said it wasn’t good’
Despite the hardship, Lina and her husband still had to scramble to find a solution for Maryam. None came. The family was supposed to go to Baghdad for tests that would allow them to try Turkish hospitals again, but the journey was too risky, and the trip was canceled.
“I was worried,” recalled Lina. “I was so sad. I didn’t know what to do… I couldn’t make a decision.”
“I could only pray, and ask God for help.”
It seems someone was listening. A friend of her husband had Maryam’s name added to a list of refugee children in need of medical care, and the family received a call just before Christmas instructing them to travel to see a group of American doctors at the heart center in Suleimaniyah.
“The doctors said there was no solution here, we should go to Israel,” Lina said. “It will be after Christmas, we didn’t know when.”
But Lina had heard promises before and was understandably skeptical. Other organizations had popped up before to record Maryam’s case, but then left just as quickly, never to be heard from again.
But two weeks ago, she heard that Maryam could indeed receive treatment in Israel. She was thrilled at first, but then doubt started to creep in. “We were afraid. Just because it’s Israel, and we live in Iraq. We didn’t know anything bad about Israel, just everyone said it wasn’t good.”
She didn’t even know that Jews lived there.
In addition, Lina found it difficult to contemplate leaving the rest of her family behind, refugees in a crowded house, while she and Maryam headed to a strange country, her first time leaving Iraq. “ I was confused, and cried day and night,” she recalled.
It was only at the airport in Erbil that she made the final decision to go.
‘The last refuge of sanity in the region’
The presence of Jonathan Miles, Shevet Achim’s founder, made her feel more confident in her choice. “The way he talked to me made me feel relieved and comfortable. He was so kind,” she said.
They landed in Amman and drove across the Jordanian border into Israel, finally reaching Shevet Achim’s compound in central Jerusalem last Sunday.
Lina took Maryam in for treatment at Hadassah-Ein Kerem Medical Center the next day, and was pleasantly surprised by her experience there. “It is completely different from our hospitals,” she said with a laugh. “First of all, the way doctors treat people, and it’s clean and nice, in a very good way.”
She also said she had heard Jerusalem was beautiful, and found that it is indeed something to behold. Lina said with excitement that she hopes to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She also said she would like to see Bethlehem, but understands that it might be impossible to arrange.
Lina has no intentions of keeping her story a secret, even when she heads back to Iraq. “ I will tell anyone who has same sickness to come here,” she emphasized.
Sadly, the delay in Maryam’s treatment caused by the Islamic State incursion may have drastic consequences. “Due to the delay in getting treatment, the chief pediatric cardiologist at Hadassah Ein Kerem, Azaria Rein, is concerned that Maryam may have developed pulmonary hypertension and is no longer operable,” Miles explained. “She was scheduled for catheterization [on Monday] to measure the pressures in her pulmonary arteries, but it was called off due to fever.”
Hadassah has gone out of its way to accommodate Maryam. “Dr. Yoram Weiss, the medical director there, has worked with us to lower the cost as far as possible, nearly to the same level as our partner government hospitals, which says a lot given Hadassah’s financial constraints,” said Miles.
The two private Hadassah hospitals in Jerusalem are carrying around NIS 1.3 billion ($370 million) in debt, and faced crippling strikes in early 2014 over unpaid salaries.
Neither Lina nor the Chaldean woman translating from English to Aramaic for her (who also is in Israel for her daughter’s treatment) see a bright future for Iraq’s Christians.
“Most of the Christians are leaving,” said Lina. “Soon there might be no Christians left.”
Recent news from areas where the Islamic State is active makes Lina’s prediction seem a real possibility. Earlier this week, IS terrorists abducted dozens of Christians in northeastern Syria— many of them women and children — while thousands of others fled to safer areas. Earlier in the month, Libyans affiliated with IS extremist group released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians.
The translator felt she also had to break in to make a point. “It’s our country,” she emphasized, referring to Christians in Iraq. “The other people came to our country. This is too hard for us.”
Miles said he expects to see more Iraqi Christians receiving treatment in Israeli hospitals. He has already received requests from other families.
And other minorities may follow suit.
“Israel is more and more coming to be seen as the last refuge of sanity in the region, particularly by other embattled minorities,” said Miles.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.