Ignored, unprotected and preyed upon by local militias in Iraq, they fled to Lebanon. Today, on the seventh anniversary of the US-led invasion, they languish there still, destitute and unable to find work. Nour Samaha in Beirut reports on the refugees the world forgot. Sitting in her cramped living room, the walls a clear sign that this home is only temporary, bare apart from a few framed pictures of her children's wedding days, Jameel Bakkou's eyes water as she describes how her family were forced to leave their home in Iraq. As Christians, they were part of a persecuted minority, ignored and unprotected by a system that favours Iraq's Muslim majority, and violently preyed upon by militia groups.
"They would stop us on the street in our own neighbourhood and force us to show our identity cards, proving that we are Christian, and then threaten us if we didn't leave," she says. Having already lost a son in the US-led invasion in 2003, the final straw came when her nephew was stabbed for being a Christian. The flat in Sadd Boushrieh, a rundown neighbourhood in the Christian area of Beirut, is a carbon copy of the many apartments Christian Iraqi refugees have set up home in. Consisting of two small rooms, it barely has space for the two tatty couches, an old TV set and a chipped coffee table. Yet, despite her lack of possessions, Bakkou trips over herself to make her guests welcome, setting out little cups of steaming coffee on any surface available.
"During the day, it's not as cramped, because most of the family sits out on the street," she says, her sad smile indicating that for illegal refugees in Lebanon sitting on the street is the only way to pass the time. The Bakkou family fled to Lebanon, planning only a short stay until they received asylum in the West. That was in 2004. Six years on, they are still trapped in their tiny apartment, all seven of them, including Jameel's husband, her children and her mother, and still waiting for their chance to leave Lebanon.
"We are getting 10 to 12 families arriving every week," says Dr George Azzo, the president of the Chaldean Charity Association, one of the few organisations taking care of Lebanon's 5,000 Christian Iraqi refugees. Most are only living in the country temporarily, even though they have been stuck here since the invasion. "It is not that they don't want to go back to Iraq, they can't go back," he says. "They were persecuted as Christians, threatened in their homes and villages, in their schools and jobs. Girls can't go outside, boys and girls can't go to university together, and the Iraqi government can do nothing to protect them.
"A lot of them were of good financial standing in Iraq; they had good jobs, owned their own homes, could provide for their families. Once they come here, they have to use up all of their savings and are now living with nothing." The situation for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon is dire, with the large majority of them living here illegally. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) published a report on their plight at the beginning of the year. According to their figures, Lebanon is currently home to 21,309 refugees, 5,380 of whom are Christian. The report notes that the number of Christians arriving from Iraq has increased over the past year as a result of the targeted attacks they have faced, especially aimed at unveiled women and churches.
The influx has meant some of the support agencies are struggling to cope and have had to reduce their food distribution. "Only 30 per cent of the Iraqi refugees are here legally," says Mirelle Chiha, a project manager at the DRC. As the Lebanese government has not signed up to the UN's Refugee Convention, they do not grant refugee status to asylum seekers. As a result, refugees need to either find a job within the first two months of arrival, which will provide them with a work permit, something notoriously difficult to get hold of in Lebanon, or they will need to obtain a residency permit by finding a Lebanese sponsor. If they fail, they face arrest.
It is only recently that Lebanon's General Security Directorate has reached an understanding that allows the UNCHR to recognise the Christians as refugees. And that is only on condition that the UN body guarantees to find them another country in which to settle. "Many of them come with the expectation of being resettled," adds Ms Chiha. "No one comes with the intention of staying. Ninety-five per cent, under the current circumstances, do not want to return to Iraq."
Bakkou and her family tried to legitimise their status after sneaking into the country by each paying a local Lebanese man US$1,000 (Dh5,600) for sponsorship. He took the money and ran, leaving them $7,000 in debt and still liable to arrest. "Back in Iraq, my husband was the only one working and it was enough to provide for the whole family," says Bakkou. "Here, we are struggling, and we can barely pay for rent and food. Everyone is trying to find work, but we are afraid to leave the neighbourhood in case we are arrested."
Her husband has been arrested three times for not having papers. Her son has depression because he cannot leave the neighbourhood to find work. But would she return to Iraq? "Not a chance," she says. "What for? I have no home there, no family." Kamal Yousef, 57, arrived nine months ago with his family. The five of them live next door to the Bakkou family in an identical apartment. He quickly closes the door to the cluttered bedroom, as if ashamed of the modest circumstances he now finds himself in. He is the only one in the apartment today - his wife is working and his children are at school. He had a job at Baghdad International Airport but reached a point where he had to either leave the country or risk being kidnapped by the local Iraqi militia groups. Now in Beirut, he cannot find work and is struggling to provide for his family. "No one will employ me at my age," he says.
His situation is no different to many of the Iraqi refugees. "We lost hope of returning to Iraq," he says, emphasising that the killings and attacks that have rained down on Iraq's Christian population. "We did not want to leave; no one wants to leave their home unless they are forced to. Even my children were being threatened." He chose to flee to Lebanon because of its prominent Christian population and religious freedom. "I can feel my Christianity here," he says.
Bakkou agrees, saying that there are organisations based in Lebanon that are geared to helping the Christians. But despite the support of aid agencies, many of the refugees still struggle. "They are still living below the standard of dignity," says Dr Azzo. "Many of the girls have been forced into prostitution, women are doing the same to pay the rent, and small kids are working, You can find children 10, 11, 12 years old working for 100,000 Lebanese pounds (Dh244) a month just to eat. It is a shame."
The Chaldean Church, an eastern sect of the Catholic Church established in Mesopotamia 500 years ago, is the main source of help for Iraq's Christian refugees. While one of the smallest sects in Lebanon, with only 10,000 followers, it is one of the largest in Iraq. Fifty years ago, there were about two million Chaldeans in Iraq. Before the invasion, this had fallen to 800,000. Now, only 400,000 remain. According to Dr Azzo, 90 per cent of the Christian Iraqis in Lebanon are Chaldean. while the rest are made up of Assyrians, Orthodox and Catholics.
Each family to arrive in Lebanon receives a "starter pack" from the Church, which includes clothes, food, and furniture; the bare essentials. In addition, every three months, the families receive a small amount of money or provisions to ensure their survival. Another organisation providing help is the Syriac League; a non-profit body formed to preserve the cultural and historical heritage of the Syriac Christians.
"In numbers, I would say at least half of the Christians have now left Iraq," says Habib Ephram, president of the Syriac League in Lebanon. "This means that there is an exodus of the indigenous people of Iraq. Basically, if we continue in the same proportions, I would say that in the coming 10 years, we would have the disaster of the extinction of the Christians in Iraq." "The Christians in Iraq are facing something like ethnic cleansing. This is a big word to say, but this is actually what is happening," he says. "The worst part is that it is happening silently."
Sitting in his office in Sin El Fil, another Christian neighbourhood of Beirut, Ephram receives a constant stream of Iraqis looking for help or work. Today, two young Iraqi men are seeking help to secure a job. Finding work is one of the toughest challenges refugees face. Lebanon's relatively high cost of living means they are often forced to live off their savings until these run out. The men usually work as labourers while the women try and find factory jobs, or work as seamstresses or cooks. All of this, however, is cash-in-hand and none of it offers any type of security.
Previous academic or professional qualifications cut little ice in Lebanon. "They have to find work without work permits," says Ephram. "For example, no one here cares if someone holds an electrical engineering degree from Mosul or Baghdad, so they have to start from scratch. Add to that the price of a simple room, which is about $250 (Dh918) a month, when he comes from an area where he owned his own house, and it's tough."
Marwan Abdel Messih Badr, 21, is one of the men to appear in Ephram's office. He fled Iraq two months ago with his sister. Although registered with the UNHCR to be resettled elsewhere - he would prefer the United States or Canada - he is finding it difficult to get any work. The reasons for him leaving Iraq are traumatic. He was walking to university in Baghdad, when he was grabbed, beaten, and shoved into a car by a gang of men. After nine days of torture, his kidnappers asked for a $65,000 (Dh239,000) ransom and said he would only be released if his family left Baghdad. As Christians, they were no longer welcome. "My family paid the money and fled to Mosul. I didn't want to stay, so I came here."
"There is a lot of hatred and violence towards Christians, and it is getting worse," says his friend, Ifram Abdel Fares, 23. "At the beginning [of the invasion], I didn't feel threatened, but now there is no mistaking the direct threats. Now they are bombing our churches and kidnapping people." According to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian in January, since the 2003 invasion an estimated 1,960 Christians have been killed in Iraq. Mosul has seen a wave of attacks on its churches, forcing residents to flee. Refugees also claim children as young as seven are telling Christian classmates to leave because they are "kuffar".
"The weak link of whatever is happening in Iraq is the Christians," explains Ephram. "They are not backed at all. The Shiites are mostly backed by Iran and they have the power, the government and the money; the Sunnis are backed by Saudi and others; the Kurds have their own government, their own zone and American support; the Turkmen are backed by Turkey directly. The Christians have no one." Ephram points out that if one million Shiites were to flee Iraq, it would reduce the Shiite population by only a few percentage points, "but when 500,000 Christians leave, this means 50 per cent of the Christian population".
It is the lack of hope of finding a democratic, free, stable Iraq that keeps so many refugees trapped in Lebanon, he adds. "Christians do not feel there is a chance to go back and lead a normal life."