Catholics who fled Islamic State militant attacks on their home in Iraq in August, Abu and Um Sabah, pose outside their tent Oct. 26 in a park in Ainkawa, Iraq.

CNS PHOTO | DALE GAVLAK

Catholics who fled Islamic State militant attacks on their home in Iraq in August, Abu and Um Sabah, pose outside their tent Oct. 26 in a park in Ainkawa, Iraq.

November 17, 2014
DALE GAVLAK
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

The last thing Abu Sabah ever pictured in his life was being homeless and living in a tent in a park somewhere.

But that is exactly what he and his family are experiencing in Ainkawa, a Christian enclave outside of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq.

Sabah, a Syriac Catholic from the predominately Christian town of Qaraqosh, a 45-minute drive away, had a good job, a big house, a car and was surrounded by a strong family community until Islamic State militants swept through the town Aug. 6, turning their world upside down.

"Islamic State forced us out and that's why we're here," Sabah explained, pointing to the haphazard array of canvas tents strung along the now ragged park grounds.

"We really had no warning at all that Islamic State militants were coming for our town," he told Catholic News Service. "They attacked and we fled that same day. Some people were kidnapped. Others were killed because they refused to convert to Islam."

Sabah tries to keep a positive attitude about his family's situation. Family members are pinning their hopes on a son's chance to travel to Jordan as the first stop on the way out of Iraq and onward to the West – and the start of a new life.

The son, Saleh, is joining a growing number of Christians who continue to leave Iraq, saying that as long as Islamic State militants are around, they do not feel safe in their homeland.

By early November, about 4,000 Iraqi Christians had fled to Jordan, according to Caritas Jordan, the Church's humanitarian organization. Other Iraqi Christians traveled to Lebanon and Turkey, Catholic officials in northern Iraq said.

Saleh Sabah said a Catholic priest arranged for his family of four to travel to Jordan under the auspices of the Catholic Church, which along with the country's ruler, King Abdullah II, has facilitated the Christians' safe passage.

"I don't have money. Life is really difficult as it's impossible to work after we had to flee our homes," the carpenter explained.

"After Jordan, I am open to going anywhere else we can get asylum, whether in Germany, Australia or America," he said. "It was a very tough escape out of Qaraqosh."

The elder Sabah, his wife, Um, and other family members expect to be camping in the park for the foreseeable future.

"Churches are providing us with food and there is a medicine dispensary nearby. Others are bringing clothing," he said.

Sabah said he and his family are determined to tough it out even as winter approaches. "We'll see if someone will exchange these flimsy tents for trailers. But even if there is snow, it won't be a problem."

Yet, time weighs heavily for the displaced families, and Sabah is eager to chat with anyone who passes by his tiny patch.

He and his wife lack a passport, preventing them from applying to travel with their son.

Other members of Iraq's minority communities who have been displaced by Islamic State attacks suffer the same fate.

TRAVEL IMPOSSIBLE

Without a passport, it is impossible to travel. The trip to Iraq's capital to obtain travel documents is too dangerous.

As well, the United Nations will not grant them refugee status until they leave their country of origin. In Canada, the government will not welcome them here unless they have received refugee status.

Sabbah said he would return "in a flash" to Qaraqosh if Islamic State was not there. "However, I have now heard that nearby villagers have taken over my house and property."

Father Rifat Bader runs a Roman Catholic parish in Amman, Jordan, where about 50 Iraqi refugees have taken shelter since September.

FORCED TO WAIT

"They are knocking on the doors of the embassies," hoping for settlement, but embassies are making them wait six months for a second appointment, he said.

The priest and other Church officials are concerned about the diminishing presence of Christians in conflict-ridden countries in the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Syria.

The Church wants to continue to encourage people to maintain a steadfast witness in their ancient homeland, but recognizes that asking people to remain when their lives are in danger is impractical.

"What is in their minds now is to have a visa and to travel to other countries," Bader said.