Syrian Christian refugees feel fortunate to have fled Islamic State

Driven out by Islamic State and facing uncertain future, Syrian Christians in Iraq find comfort in family

As Islamic State militants closed in on her village, Asmar Jumaa, an Assyrian Christian, couldn't shake a terrifying thought.

"I remembered what they did to the Yazidi women," said Jumaa, 22, recalling the fate of thousands of female adherents of the ancient sect kidnapped last summer when the Sunni Muslim extremists swept through northern Iraq. "I didn't want that to happen to us."

She and eight family members, mostly women, were among several thousand Assyrian Christians who fled in late February as the militants advanced into dozens of largely Christian villages along the Khabur River in eastern Syria.

Hundreds of the Christians were taken prisoner and presumably remain captive, activists say, including relatives of Jumaa. A few prisoners have been released, but the fate of most remains unclear, despite pleas on their behalf by Assyrian diaspora communities from Stockholm to Beirut to California. Activists fear that some male captives may have been killed and the women held as sex slaves.

Although the kidnappings made global headlines, the plight of several thousand who managed to escape hasn't drawn much notice in a region that has lately seen massive displacements, including the more than 500,000 Yazidis and Christians who fled the Islamic State rampage in the summer.

As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year, almost half of the people in the nation have fled their homes, one of the largest upheavals of humanity since World War II.

More than 3 million Syrians are refugees in other countries, and an additional 7 million are displaced in Syria, according to United Nations figures.

The Christians who fled the isolated Khabur riverside settlements of eastern Syria last month appear to be generally better off than most. Typically, they have found shelter in tightknit Assyrian communities in northern Iraq, Lebanon and in Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria's Hasakah province. Living with kin is preferable to the gloomy, overcrowded refugee camps that now dot the region. The story of their rapid flight has become numbingly familiar, a single chapter in a sweeping narrative of tumult and dislocation.

On Feb. 22, Islamic State seized several villages along the Khabur River. Christian self-defense home guards with rifles were no match for the heavily armed Sunni militants. The next day, Kurdish militiamen — archenemies of Islamic State — coordinated the evacuation of Tel Bas, the Jumaa family's home village, and nearby settlements and towns.

The escapees face an uncertain future. Like so many war refugees, they don't know whether they can ever return home. Many hope to emigrate overseas.

"Look, we've had enough of Daesh and the others," said Kenyas Jumaa, father of Asmar and nine other children, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. "How can we be sure we can ever be safe from them? Even here in Iraq."

Many of the Assyrians in the Khabur River region are descendants of Christians who fled in the 1930s to Syria, then under French mandate, after the massacre of hundreds of coreligionists by Arab and Kurdish Muslims in northern Iraq. A doleful history is in a sense coming full cycle, albeit with new protagonists and a varied geopolitical backdrop.

In the current crisis, the Jumaas eventually made their way into Iraq across the Tigris, following the path of tens of thousands of Yazidis who had fled the Sinjar mountains in the summer. One of Kenyas Jumaa's daughters who moved to Sheikhan in northern Iraq previously welcomed her kin.

Sheikhan is a religiously mixed town whose skyline features the minarets of mosques, the crosses of Christian churches and the conical temples of the Yazidi sect, the majority here. The town, northeast of Islamic State-controlled Mosul, was largely abandoned in August as the militants advanced to within 10 miles or so. U.S.-led bombing helped push back the extremists; most residents of Sheikhan have since returned. Still, Islamic State's lines remain only about 20 miles away.

Despite their plight, the Jumaas say they feel extremely fortunate.

"I'm fine as long as I'm together with my wife and family," said Kenyas Jumaa, flashing a smile.

Like so many Syrians, the extended Jumaa family is now scattered across the globe: Kenyas Jumaa has a daughter in Sweden and brothers in Lebanon, Holland, Canada, New Zealand and Arizona.

One of the family members who fled here last month was Kenyas Jumaa's mother, Esther Zaya Hormez, 82. She had been living with a son in the United States but returned to Syria last year because she feared for Kenyas Jumaa's fate, the family said.

"I dreamed he had been kidnapped by Nusra Front," she explained, referring to Al Qaeda's Syrian franchise, which runs a lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom side business, often targeting Christians, and has a robust presence in eastern Syria.

Kenyas Jumaa chuckled at the matriarch's concern. "I was always her favorite," he explained.

Another one of his daughters, Sanaa, left her home in Syria's Tabqa region when Al Nusra Front overran the area two years ago. "They told us as Christians, we couldn't stay," said Sanaa Jumaa, who has an 8-year-old daughter, Jessica.

She and her family moved to the Jumaas' home in Tel Bas, only to flee again last month. The Syrian war has seen many areas pass through successive control of various armed bands.

What happened to Syria is a great imponderable, the Jumaas said: how a nation where so many groups lived in relative harmony for decades has abruptly succumbed to a catastrophic sectarian calculus. Family members take no overt position on the conflict, only bemoaning how a toxic brew of religion and politics brought ruin to a string of Khabur River towns that long functioned as a sleepy, idyllic refuge, far removed from the tumult sweeping much of the Middle East.

Somehow the towns became the terrain of black-clad militants who burn churches, kidnap and kill "infidels," and grab "wives" at will from among the vanquished masses.

"Politics is a dirty thing," said Asmar Jumaa, who was an English literature student in Syria and now contemplates a future with few clear horizons. "You can't understand it, no matter how hard you try."

Special correspondents Nabih Bulos and Kamiran Sadoun contributed to this report.

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