Refugees who had to leave Iraq following the 2014 Islamic State outbreak are beginning to return home. The Pope's visit has encouraged young people, a particularly at-risk group and, at the same time, a group of great support for this task.
Soleen was born in Qaraqosh (ancient Nineveh, Iraq) on July 19, 1998, into a Christian family. She grew up in an environment where Aramaic was spoken at home and the faith was lived daily, both at home and in the city. "During each religious feast, everyone would go down to the streets or go up to the roofs of the houses to follow the processions or attend the mass that was celebrated in the church squares and broadcast over the loudspeakers to all of Qaraqosh.", recalls the young woman. "As in all public schools, we had religion classes according to the religion of the students.".
However, throughout 2014, Soleen's life changed, like that of thousands of Christians in Iraq. On June 9, Daesh soldiers entered Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. The city's Christians and Jews were left with only one choice: convert to Islam or accept the status of dhimmi (protected), the name given by Muslims to a Christian or a Jew living in a country where the state religion is Islam; the dhimmi is tolerated but is considered a second-class citizen. The Christian dhimmi can live his faith, but without being seen to do so. He can no longer work and must pay a tax set at 250 euros per month by Daesh. Churches are closed and masses are forbidden. Threatened with beheading if they did not submit to this new rule, the Christians of Mosul decided to flee and take refuge in Qaraqosh. But on August 6, after having bombed the city several times, Daesh entered Qaraqosh.
Leaving everything that was their life, Soleen's parents set out with their four children and grandmother to flee to Erbil, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan some 60 kilometers away. Erbil was submerged by an uninterrupted flow of families. Parks, empty lots, schoolyards, gymnasiums, buildings under construction: every available space was occupied. "In the center of the camps, the families placed the images of Our Lady that they had been able to bring with them.".
Until then, Soleen had never doubted her faith. But that day, for the first and only time in her life, she lost confidence in God. "I remember telling my mother that God had abandoned us. My mother answered me that no, He had not abandoned us, that He would never abandon us and that He would continue to watch over us. It was not easy, but I tried to think that maybe God was sending us this test to make us grow in our faith, so that we would never lose confidence in Him and that we would know how to thank Him for everything. To help me, I have often reread these words of Christ: 'Men will hand you over to be tortured and put to death; all peoples will hate you for my sake. At that time many will abandon the faith... But he who stands firm to the end will be saved'. This Gospel gives me great strength to remain faithful, to love God always and to forgive Daesh.".
Arrival in Europe
After two months in Erbil, Soleen's family was one of the first to be able to leave for Grenoble (France), thanks to a person who, knowing Soleen's uncle (a priest in Baghdad), managed to find them a host family.
And it was then that Soleen met the Lanfrey Center. "My prayer had been answered! At Lanfrey I discovered formation activities and spiritual accompaniment that allowed me to learn many things and to grow in my faith.". Thanks to the friends she made there who took turns teaching her French, Soleen not only discovered a taste for the French language, but also rediscovered a taste for life. She learned the vocabulary of faith and how to speak of God to others in France. Today, although nothing will ever be the same because she misses many of her loved ones, Soleen knows that she and her family were very lucky.
Witness of faith to change society
The story of Sheet, a 26 year old student from l'Ecole de Management EMD from Marseille, is similar. He recalls the night they had to escape from Qaraqosh amidst the bombs, leaving behind their belongings at the mercy of the looting that quickly took hold of the city. He confesses to having lived through the same experience of helplessness and dashed hope upon arriving in France. "Arriving at Charles De Gaulle airport, we crossed Paris at night to get to the station where we would take the train. Seeing from the outside the magnificent and numerous churches of the city we were happy thinking that we were arriving in a Christian country where there was no war. The shock came when we entered the churches for mass and discovered that they were empty in contrast to the completely full churches of Qaraqosh where you always found the priests available. Thanks to my parents we have kept our faith alive". Sheet today feels the need to witness to his faith and to transform French society.
Looking to the future
"The Pope's trip was a great moment for all of us. His message was one of peace: we are all brothers; before rebuilding houses and cities, we must rebuild the bonds that unite us with others, rebuild trust. Because today in Iraq there are problems between the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, and we Christians are in the middle. Reconciliation is the first step to rebuild Iraq."Sheet adds.
A certain mistrust is installed among Iraq's Christians towards Muslims whom they consider still impregnated with Daesh ideology. It will take time and lasting peace to rebuild the damaged ties between the communities that make up Iraq.
According to Soleen, "Daesh has succeeded in taking away our home, our family, our friends, but it has not succeeded in robbing us of what is essential: our faith in Christ. When I think of Daesh, I pray that God will forgive them.". It's hard to hear these words, and yet for Soleen it's very important!
Omnes correspondent in France.