Ainkawa, Iraq — “I cannot sleep because of the sound of bombs in my head,” says Evan Faraj-Tobea, an Iraqi who until recently worked as an English teacher in Qaraqosh, widely considered Iraq’s most Christian city.
Evan and his wife of one year fled the city in June, then returned when they thought threat of the Islamic State had abated. But on August 6, he says, the terror group attacked. One bomb killed two young children, as well as a young woman. Now the couple has left again.
“I saw when they took their bodies to the church,” he tells me. “It was like hell that day. We felt afraid because it was a huge sound. We couldn’t stay in that situation.” He might have stayed to defend the city, but “we don’t have guns,” he says. “We cannot stand [against the Islamic State].”
The Washington Post reported this week that around 120,000 displaced Iraqi Christians have fled to the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. These refugees have lost everything, also enduring a harrowing flight from their homes.
Evan and his wife fled Qaraqosh in a car until they reached a Kurdish checkpoint, then spent six or seven hours on foot, covering around 40 kilometers. Evan took refuge where he could; today, he sleeps in a half-built building in Ainkawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil in Kurdistan. His wife stays two hours away, in Dohuk, and Evan says he hopes to find a place where they can live together again soon.
Despite his Christian faith, Evan says, hanging on to hope is a struggle. In his 31 years, he has experienced more war than peace, despite his fellow believers’ best efforts.
“Jesus doesn’t teach us to kill — he teaches us to love,” Evan tells me. In addition to English, he speaks Aramaic, “the language of Jesus,” he says proudly, explaining how “even before Islam, Christians were here.” Nonetheless, Qaraqosh’s Christians have long worked hard to build a good relationship with their ethnically Arab neighbors. The town’s Christians excelled in business, exporting poultry across Iraq in the hopes that economic partnership would yield deeper amity.
But today the Islamic State, as well as a whole host of Muslim militants — some of them Evan’s former neighbors — want to extirpate Christian faith and Christian culture from Iraq. Though the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, with the help of U.S. air cover, have since reclaimed some of nearby villages, Qaraqosh remains in the hands of the Islamic State. And even if the city were liberated, many of its Christian former residents would remain reluctant to return.
“The government moved [against the Islamic State] too late,” Evan tells me. Later, he adds, “I think Obama is not so great because when he made a decision, it was too late.”
“We are like animals,” he says, adding that his people are sleeping in caves, in unfinished structures and in tents. “This time, we were smart because we ran away. We saved our lives this time. But I don’t know what will happen next time.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.