Tag: Erbil

IRAQ: ‘THEY ARE WILLING TO STAY – THEY JUST NEED HOPE’

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In a simply furnished portacabin in a refugee camp in Iraq, Thabet is doing the sums.

The church leader assesses the current situation. “One third of the Christians from my village have left the country – that’s a lot.” He pauses a moment, thoughtfully. Then his eyes start to twinkle. “On a positive note, that means two-thirds are still here, that’s the majority.

“Many of them are willing to stay in Iraq; they just need enough hope. That’s where I come in. My job is to inspire and mobilise people, to help them rebuild their trust in their neighbours and their position in society.”

‘EVEN WHEN YOU HAVE NOTHING, YOU CAN STILL HELP OTHERS’

Thabet is just one of the many church leaders working among the displaced Christian community in Iraqi Kurdistan. His ‘parish’ is the ‘Karamles camp’ – a temporary housing project in Erbil home to hundreds of families from the Christian village of Karamles, who fled their village when the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) overran it in 2014. Every day he walks around the camp talking to people.

And even though they are living in camps, even though they might have lost all their possessions, Thabet is still urging these displaced Christians to do whatever they can to help one another. On the corner of his desk in the portacabin is a simple cardboard box with ‘Coin of the widow’ written on it in three languages. The title refers to the New Testament story about the widow’s offering (Mark 12:42-43).

“I ask my people to put something in this box. Even if it is just a small coin, whatever they can spare to help people who even poorer than they. Even when you have almost nothing to spend, still you can help others. That is how we keep the hope alive; that is how we spread the hope.”

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KEEPING HOPE ALIVE

In recent days, the village of Karamles has been liberated from IS. Thabet was among a group of people who visited the town briefly, and once again raised a cross on the hill overlooking their home.

Now he looks forward to the day that he and his people will be able return to their houses and is determined to keep the hope alive until that day. When asked about his dream, his goal in all of this, he starts smiling: “One day all of us will return to Karamles,” he says. “The first thing we will do is to gather all Christians and have a church service. We will worship outside on Barbara Hill next to our village; we will have communion in the open air. Everybody will see that this is the church, this is the Body of Christ, and this is Christian land. That is my dream: to give a testimony to the world.”

‘I JUST SIGNED – PLEASE JOIN ME’

Thabet believes that Christians only have a future in Iraq if the international community will also take its responsibility for them.

“We will need international support and protection. That is the only way our future as Christians in this country can be guaranteed.”

That is why he is supporting the Hope for the Middle East campaign, the seven year campaign Open Doors has launched to support the rights of Christians and other minorities to play a role in the future of the region.

Thabet joined with others around the world and went online to sign the One Million Voices petition, calling upon the UN to ensure equal citizenship and dignified living conditions for Christians in the Middle East and support for the role of Christians in reconciliation and rebuilding society.

“I just signed this petition myself,” he says. “Please join me.”

Source: Open Doors



Iraqi Christians look homeward toward Mosul, uncertainly

Some keen to rebuild; others wary of Muslim neighbours who supported IS

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Tens of thousands of Christians fled from Mosul and its surrounding towns and villages to Kurdistan when IS seized swathes of territory in summer 2014. Several thousand families have sought refuge in Jordan and Lebanon, while others have left the Middle East to start new lives in Western nations such as Canada, Australia and, in a small number of cases, Britain. Levels of Christian emigration began rising in response to the violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion and removal of President Saddam Hussein.

Rev. Ammar is a Chaldean priest who fled from the town of Qaraqosh – home to some 60,000 Christians until summer 2014, and now being fought over as the coalition of forces advances on Mosul. He serves displaced Moslawis (people from Mosul) in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and said: “We hope to be able to return to our houses and towns soon.”

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Rev. Thabet, of the village of Karamles, said he wanted to return to the nearby Hill of St. Barbara, a mound on top of ruins of ancient Assyrian temples – named after a pagan ruler’s daughter who converted to Christianity in the fourth century. “If my town is liberated, then one of the greatest joys would be to have a Mass in the open air on top of the Hill of St. Barbara and celebrate the holy Eucharist [there] again.”

Rev. Poulos, from the town of Bashiqa, said: “We are warned that IS possibly put mines in our houses. After villages are liberated it may still take more than three months before we can go back for a first visit. Returning to our houses then would take even longer.” He added that all this week heavy fighting has been reported in his home town. “In Bashiqa it’s a true war situation, with Turks, Peshmerga and Iraqi forces coming in – a lot of explosions and fighting.”

Poulos is in touch with eight Syriac Orthodox monks living in Mar Mattai (St. Matthew), a monastery on a mountainside less than 5 kilometres from Bashiqa. “I’ve called them several times and they hear the sound of bombs. From the monastery they can see that a lot of bombing and fighting is going on. Nobody can go there now, but I hope it will be retaken soon.”

The battle was not immediately affecting the monastery (which also houses three displaced families). “We have no problems, but we are watching for the future what will happen.”

However, other Iraqi Christians who have moved far from home expressed no desire to return – because some of their Muslim neighbours had sympathised with IS. Rev. Aphram Ozan, a Syriac Orthodox priest in London who fled Mosul in 2011 after his family home was attacked by extremists, said: “I don’t think Christians will return to Mosul. In the beginning, the people of Mosul welcomed IS. We were let down by the people; they left us.”

Rev. Khalil Jaar, a Catholic priest in the Jordanian capital, Amman, and a partner of World Vision, said “not one” of the 500 or so Moslawi refugee families for whom he is co-ordinating aid was considering returning to the area. He said if adequate protection were offered, some had said they might return briefly to sell their houses, but would then go to their new homes. “ISIS is finished but the mentality and spirit of ISIS lives on in the heart of so many people in Mosul,” he said.

One Christian former resident of Mosul in his early thirties recalled that increasing levels of extremism had strained his friendships with Muslims, even before 2003. “Growing up, I had friends who were Muslim. We played together and ate together and their parents treated us as though we were their children. But when some of them got to about 16 or 17, something changed. Maybe they had learnt something from the Quran or from the mosque – they changed and became more extreme, which made a gap between us. They became more extreme than their parents.”

Suha Rassam, a Chaldean Catholic from Mosul and author of Christianity in Iraq, said that among her Iraqi Christian friends and relatives, “everybody is excited that Mosul is being liberated.” But she added: “Although there are no more Christians in Mosul, I am still concerned about the Muslim population there, that they may not suffer too much and there is no slaughtering of the Sunni.” However, she expressed concern that the presence of Kurdish and Turkish forces in the Nineveh Plains around Mosul could lead to both powers making territorial claims there. Extremism took hold in Mosul partly as a reaction against Kurdish expansionism, she said. “Even once Mosul is liberated, we can still expect a lot of trouble. It’s not good for the unity of Iraq,” she said.

Christians and others suspect that the aim of the Kurdistan Regional Government is to earn political capital. Some voiced fears that because some Iraqi qualifications are not recognised there and government jobs require Kurdish-speakers, Arab Christians impoverished by their displacement could find themselves subjected to a “Kurdification” process.

One Christian former resident of Mosul whose family fled to Kurdistan said: “For all of history, the Kurds have been killing us, until now. They’re trying to put on a good face; they want to liberate themselves from Iraq and show they are better than Iraq. But there’s no future for Christianity in Kurdistan: my parents don’t speak Kurdish, and because my nephews aren’t Kurdish they aren’t allowed to go to state school there.”

But Poulos said he already knows what he will do if it’s ever possible to go back to Bashiqa: “The first thing I will do is go to the church. If the church is not damaged and I can go in, I will pray. After that we will check how much damage is done to the church and to the houses. What needs to be done, what needs rebuilding?”

Source: World Watch Monitor



Survivors’ stories: life after Islamic State violence

A Syrian refugee and two displaced Iraqis use their skills to survive after losing everything

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A job at a local bakery helps Ghazan provide for his family, February 2016 WWM

The New York Declaration for more humane treatment of refugees, made on 19 September at the 70th UN General Assembly, will be welcomed by the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, including many Christians, living in displacement camps or with relatives, after fleeing the conflict with so-called Islamic State (IS).

Many live in unfamiliar parts of their own country after losing their homes. They don’t always feel welcome, but they get by, using skills that helped them earn a good living before the war.

Two Iraqis – Ghazan and Suaad – and Jonas from Syria told World Watch Monitor their stories of escaping the conflict and survival in the camps.

The baker

Ghazan, 47, a father of three, used to own his own business. In the summer of 2014, he was forced out of his house in Mosul, the city in northern Iraq now controlled by IS. He says living in a displacement camp has been hard, but he found a job at a local bakery and this helps provide for his family.

Ghazan, with his head sticking through the shop window waiting for the next customer, is one of the first people you see when you walk down one of Erbil’s busy shopping streets. When a customer arrives, he quickly and skillfully fills a clear plastic bag with samoon, a traditional Iraqi bread. He looks like he’s been doing this his whole life. “Please try some,” he says.

Speaking in a backroom at the bakery, Ghazan says this is all new to him. Standing next to a hot oven, he talks about the humbling experience of working here, earning one tenth of his former salary. “Back in my own town on the Nineveh Plain, I used to have a successful transport company,” he says. “We had a good life until IS came and forced us out.”

He shrugs his shoulders. He misses his house, the village church and his business. He doesn’t know what happened to the first two, but he knows what happened to his company. “I heard that IS stole all our cars and are using them in Mosul right now,” he says.

Ghazan has a daughter and two sons. The oldest is 21, the youngest nine. “It was hard to see my family displaced. We lost our home, our place to stay,” he says.

At first the family stayed with Ghazan’s sister, but, because there was no local college for his eldest child, the family continued on to Erbil. The city has been a safe haven to many Christians fleeing IS.

They arrived in Erbil with nothing. “The first 15 days were hard,” he recalls. “I couldn’t find a job, I had no income, and the rent for our apartment was high.”

He’d started to visit a church in Erbil and it helped him find a job. When the church asked him to manage a bakery, he accepted immediately.

Wiping the sweat off his face, he says: “Although I don’t earn much here and I have to work much longer hours than I did in my last job, I can at least pay rent so my family doesn’t have to live in a camp.”

Ghazan has barely known peace. During his lifetime his country has engaged in wars against the Kurds, Iran, two Gulf Wars and the current conflict with IS. He hopes for a brighter future for his family. “I have lost everything, but I thank God that my family is still with me.”

The farmer

When Jonas lived in Syria he owned a big farm. He too had a good life, but in common with many refugees, lost everything: his property, his job and his friends. He now lives, like more than one million other Syrian refugees, in neighbouring Lebanon.

Jonas is in his early 50s and had a caretaker to help him run the farm. “One day IS came and they wanted all my cows,” he says. “I was at the farm with the caretaker. I told them I didn’t want them to take my cattle. They started shooting and then my caretaker fell dead on the ground. I was hit in my leg three times.”

He lifts his trouser leg to show three round scars.

“They took all my cows and I heard they sold them in Turkey,” he says. “Turkey is playing a dirty game in Syria.”

He opens Google Maps on his phone to find an old satellite image of his property. Pointing at the map he says: “This was my farm. It is very big. These buildings here were huge.” He explains what each of the buildings was for and then tries to indicate the borders of his land. “I had about 2,000 olive trees here too. They’re now all gone. IS destroyed everything – the house, the buildings, they cut down all the trees. I lost everything there.”

He survived the attack, but, knowing IS were closing in, decided to move his family to Lebanon, where he found work helping build community centres in the refugee camps. “We’re living in a small apartment now and I have some work in construction,” he says. “The first year here I became depressed. But I started to pray more to God and that has helped me. I pray very often but have all these questions about why [attacks by IS] happen to Christians.”

Jonas is confident that he and his family will be taken care of but, for Syria, he is less hopeful. “Syria is finished. When the war is over, people will be full of hatred. They don’t forget who killed their brother, son or father. They will want to take revenge,” he says. “I think there is only a future for the Church in Syria when Christians all around the world help. If the Christians really disappear from Syria it will be a disaster for Christianity all around the world. You know, we Christians love our country, we would love to stay, would love to return, but we need the basic conditions to live there.”

The tailor

Suaad has been a tailor all her life. It’s a job she loves.

In 2014 she too was forced to leave her home because of the growing conflict with IS. She joined the many displaced people in Iraq. After arriving in Erbil she found a job managing a small sewing factory on the second floor of a residential flat.

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Suaad: ‘sometimes a displaced person asks me to make a dress. I don’t charge them. How could I? WWM

She’s currently making children’s pyjamas. “Feel how soft the fabric is,” she says, as she stands cutting fabrics on a table in the middle of the factory. Behind her is a row of sewing machines used by other displaced people to make robes and pyjamas.
Suaad’s eyes light up when she talks about her old job in Mosul, where she’d worked since the 1980s. But there is sadness. “Actually, I haven’t experienced much happiness since I became displaced from my town on the Nineveh Plain,” she says.

She remembers the good things – how she lived together in peace with her neighbours, whether they were Christian, Yezidi or Muslim. She was born in Mosul and had expected to grow old there, but in 2014 she had to flee from IS overnight. “I haven’t been able to return since,” she says. “I feel heavy inside, not knowing what has happened to my town.”

Suaad says she will only be happy again when she can return home.

A widow with no children, Souad has been staying with her brother and his family for two years. She says her brother would never ask his older sister for rent but she saw him struggling financially as the economic crisis in the country got worse. So Souad found work through a church-run project that set up a sewing factory, which meant she could then contribute to the family income.

“The priest asked me to be in charge of the factory so I took the job,” she says. “I would have done it for nothing if necessary, but I am happy that I get paid and I can share it with my [brother’s] family.”

Suaad makes clothes for those who need them most. If they can afford to buy the clothes, they pay for them; if they can’t, they don’t have to. “It’s what I like most about the job. That I can share with those in a worse position then me,” she says. “Sometimes a displaced person asks me to make a dress. I don’t charge them. How could I?”

She helps train other displaced women; some are then hired to work in the factory. “In just a few weeks I can teach them the basics of tailoring. They can use these skills to earn money for their families either here in the factory or elsewhere. Either way, it helps them work towards a future,” she says.

According to the UN, one in every 113 people on earth is a refugee. About one fifth of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees – at 1.4 million it is only second to Turkey (2 million) in accepting the highest number of refugees from Syria. Syria’s own population has undergone “the largest displacement crisis globally,” says the UN – more than half its pre-war population of 22 million are no longer living in their own homes. About 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced within the country and 4.4 million are refugees outside it.

About 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced within their own country. Many have ended up in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Since June 2016, the city has absorbed another 90,000 people seeking refuge from conflict.

Source: World Watch Monitor



IRAQ: UPDATE ON FIVE-YEAR-OLD CHRISTINE, ABDUCTED BY ISLAMIC STATE

Christine was just 3 years old when she was taken by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) from the arms of her mother, Ayda. Christine has now been missing for over two years.

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Ayda and her family were forced to flee their home in Qaraqosh, and they now live in a porta-cabin in a camp for displaced people in Erbil, supported by our local partners with food and hygiene kits. “But,” as Ayda told our Iraqi contact who visited her recently, “Christine is still there.” ‘There’ means ‘in IS territory’; so close you could drive there in a matter of hours, but so dangerous that Christine may as well be on the other side of the world.

The little girl is never far from Ayda’s mind. There is a low resolution photo of Christine on the cabin wall, taken since she was captured. Ayda’s son stumbled upon the picture on Facebook. “We heard that Christine is living with one of the Christian ladies who was kidnapped by IS. The lady was forced into marriage with an IS-fighter and somehow managed to take our Christine under her care.”

In some ways, this is good news – they know that Christine is alive, and they can hope that she is well cared for. But Ayda and Christine’s father, Khader, worry about the hardships their daughter is going through, and wonder if they will ever see her again.

“She is getting older,” Ayda says as she looks at her daughter’s picture. It was Christine’s fifth birthday on 18 July. “But I don’t know how she celebrated it. Shortly after we found this photo on Facebook, the internet was cut from Mosul. Now we don’t have any news.”

“Sometimes, I fear that my Christine grows older without me, that I will never see her again.” She looks down to fight a tear.

But Ayda doesn’t want to give up hope. As long as Christine is still close by, Ayda and the rest of the family will not leave Iraq either. Ayda will not rest until her little girl is safely back in her arms where she belongs. “Without her, it’s like part of our heart is missing. We are not complete without her.”

The family of Christine urges us to pray that Christine will return.

LEFT BEHIND

Christine was not the only family member of Ayda and Khader’s who was left behind. “My father stayed in Qaraqosh,” Ayda shares. “He was sick, his health was not good at all. So, when everyone fled, he stayed alone in the house. Later I heard that he died three days after IS entered. He was old and sick and had no water or food. IS buried him.”

Khader has a sister who is still in Qaraqosh. “She was 80 years old and didn’t want to leave,” he says. “She refused to flee with us, she wanted to stay in her house in Qaraqosh.” Now he is not sure if she is still alive. “On Mosul TV they reported that an old Christian lady from Qaraqosh had died. It might have been my sister, but I’m not sure. I have no way to contact her.”

PLEASE PRAY:

  • For protection for Christine, and for her safe return to her family
  • For hope and comfort for Khader, Ayda and the rest of their family
  • For freedom for the thousands of others who are being held captive by IS
  • That God will change the hearts of members of IS and turn them to himself.

Source: Open Doors



Life as an Iraqi Christian refugee : One year after ISIS attacks Mosul

One year after Islamic State attacks Mosul World Watch Monitor features Iraq’s displaced Christians who moved to Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region.

One year ago, Mosul fell to militants belonging to a Sunni Muslim movement calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Thousands of Christians and other religious minorities, threatened with execution, fled. These are the stories of two who have found refuge, one in Jordan and the other in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Though they live among other Christians at the moment, the situation in Iraq and Syria is fluid, and when a person speaks publicly, relatives elsewhere can be singled out for retribution. For that reason, World Watch Monitor is withholding their true names. For purposes of this report, they will be called Sarah and Fared.

Sarah

“It was a horrible night,” Sarah said of June 10, 2014. “We left with a very small bag and we went to my sister’s house in Mosul. After five days, my father started to believe that our town wasn’t safe anymore, because there were so many Christians living there.

“Then we decided to go to a monastery in Mosul, because we thought it would be safer for us. While we were there, one of our neighbours called my father and told him that a man from ISIS came to our house and asked about us. He told the man that we were out visiting relatives and we would return soon. ‘No!’ said the man from ISIS, ‘They are not here. They’ve already left their home behind. Tell them if they don’t return we’ll take it.’ So, my parents left the monastery, went back to our house and stayed there for three days.

“After this, my mother started to feel very anxious about the situation and we left home for the monastery again. In the evening of the very day we left, July 16th, one of our neighbours called my father in the monastery and told him that an ISIS car was driving the streets announcing from its loudspeakers to Christians, giving them three options: One: Convert to Islam, so as to be safe in Mosul. Two: Give money to ISIS. Three: Be killed.“

As did so many others, including nearly every last Christian, Sarah left. She and her parents, two sisters and oldest brother headed east, toward the border with the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, in northeastern Iraq.

“Those were the worst days of my life, when we had to leave the monastery without knowing where we were going,” she said. “We were helped by a family of Kurds and lived in an apartment for a month in a town near Dohuk. But then we had to leave again when the owner said we had less than a day to leave, without giving us any explanation. My family and I left for Jordan on the 12th of November.”

Looking at a map, it seems more obvious to move north to Turkey than southwest across ISIS-controlled Iraq to Jordan. Yet one refugee in the town of Fuheis, Jordan, said Iraqis have heard that UN aid arrives faster in Jordan. The town, 20 kilometres from the capital, Amman, in Jordan’s Northwest, also is well-known for its long-standing Christian-majority population in a country that is 2 percent Christian.

Among Middle Eastern countries, Jordan has a reputation for comparative religious freedom. “Arab Christians are an integral part of our region’s past, present and future,” King Abdullah II told the European Parliament in March. “Jordan is a Muslim country, with a deeply-rooted Christian community. Together, the Jordanian people make up an indivisible society, friends and partners in building our country.”

Fuheis’ 20,000 residents saw a sudden increase between June and August 2014, and again in December.

On arrival in Jordan, Sarah’s family first stayed for three weeks with a relative, who helped them settle down. Now they rent an apartment. They have money to afford one meal per day.

As for many displaced people the world over, the local church provides a connection to the community. The Palestinian pastor of a local Baptist church said meetings attract up to 100 people, including evangelicals, Catholics and Greek Orthodox. He said the church visits 20 to 30 Iraqi refugee families, Christian and Muslim, who need aid.

The UN’s humanitarian aid programs are more obvious in northern Jordan, in Zaatari and Mafraq close to the Syrian border. Still, many Iraqi Christians say they feel “safe” among Fuheis’ largely Christian community.

“Since the beginning of the Iraqi crisis, Jordan has opened its doors to receive displaced Christians,” said Dana Shahin of Caritas Jordan. “In almost all the areas that the Iraqi families were received, neighbors and many local organizations, both Muslim and Christian, came to welcome those families and contacted Caritas Jordan to provide help and assistance.”

Recently, Sarah has started to help in a dental clinic that opened after a visit by a group from Norway and Brazil, which started offering dental care in the Baptist church left it with resources to continue the work. But when asked about her longer-term plans, Sarah was not too optimistic.

“Now we are waiting on the UN to see what happens, but I think no country will receive us,” she said. “I believe the world will force us to return to Iraq, so we will be killed there. I think we have no future as Iraqi Christians.”

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Some of the Iraqi Christians who fled to the Kurdish capital of Erbil eventually found places in small apartments, sheltering them from Iraq’s winter. Photo courtesty Open Doors International

Fared

“Last Friday I thought of Mosul, because then it was June 5, the day the curfews started one year ago,” said Fared, a Christian in his late 20s. “We were not allowed to take our cars into the streets anymore. For five days there was heavy fighting on the other side of the river Tigris. I lived on the Left-bank. On our side it was relatively calm, but of course we were afraid.

ISIS had crippled four of the five bridges crossing the Tigris, to thwart any advance of Iraqi reinforcements. It wasn’t necessary.

“The Iraqi army withdrew,” Fared said, looking as astonished today as he said he was a year ago. “The rumours spread very quickly through phone and social media. Many Muslims in my neighbourhood stayed, but especially Christians wanted to leave the city. Despite the curfew, we packed our car with the most valuable things like papers, some photos and clothing for two months and then left.”

Their destination: Erbil, the rapidly modernizing capital of the oil-rich, and well defended, Kurdistan region of Iraq that lay beyond the reach of ISIS. On the highway, Fared said he drove alongside the Humvees carrying thousands of Iraqi soldiers.

“The way to Erbil normally takes about one hour, but now it took us 12,” he said. “There were four checkpoints, but especially the first one at Kalak took long. For eight hours we waited in lines of about 5 kilometres long. The two-way road had become one way direction and the cars were about 10 or 12 lines wide, six lines on the roads and another six lines on the sides of the road.

“Later, I had contact with my former neighbour. He told me that in 50 minutes after we left, the neighbourhood was taken over by Da’ash,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Today, a year after the Army withdrew from Mosul, Fared said his church plans a prayer meeting. “Not a meeting to despair or to be depressed, but a meeting to also see the goodness that God brought to our lives and to also count our blessings.”

Aid to the Iraqi refugees in Erbil, in the form of food, clothing, training and job creation, continues to come in through churches and partners working with organizations such as Open Doors International, an international ministry that supports Christians who have been threatened because of their faith. Fared said the aid has helped him start over.

“I’m part of a small church and they took care of us very well. I now live in a small apartment in Erbil and I’m happy with that,” he said. “I think I will never return to Mosul ever again. Or maybe one more time. Just to sell the plot of land I have. Then I leave and never come back. There are good opportunities for me and my wife in Erbil, so we are rebuilding our lives here now.”

Source: World Watch Monitor