Beirut, Lebanon – “We are searching for the quickest way to go to Europe or Canada, maybe America,” said Jack Zayya, an Assyrian Christian refugee from Syria who arrived in Beirut two months ago. Standing in front of a local Assyrian church, he recalled the difficult journey from his hometown of al-Hasakah, situated in northeastern Syria and home to many Christians and Kurds.
Before the war, Zayya led a good life back in Syria, making a home for his wife and two children. “I had a car wash and, thank God, it provided for us for a long time,” he told Syria Deeply. “But it’s all gone now – the house, our belongings, the car wash, everything.”
During the first two years of the conflict, al-Hasakah was relatively calm. Yet as Assad’s military forces pulled out of the region in 2013, local residents had to fend for themselves against a variety of armed factions. They were able to protect the area for several months, until Jabhat al Nusra arrived and took control of much of al-Hasakah towards the end of that year.
“Things were hard under [Jabhat al Nusra], but it got much worse when Da’esh arrived,” Zayya explained, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Kidnappings became a regular occurrence in the area after ISIS arrived, and Assyrians, who made up some 40,000 of the 1.2 million Syrian Christians before the violence started in 2011, have often been targeted. An estimated 220 Assyrians were taken hostage by ISIS in late February, and only 19 have been released to date. One Assyrian refugee from an al-Hasakah area village, who asked that his name not be used, said that nearly 90 relatives from his wife’s extended family are among those still held by ISIS.
‘No negotiating with Da’esh’
“Kidnappings were about getting ransom from rich families or individuals at first. With Da’esh, though, there is no negotiating. We had to pay the jizya tax or die,” Zayya said, referring to a compulsory tax that religious minorities pay under the Islamic caliphate.
After a hardline Libyan sheikh from ISIS was appointed as emir of the al-Hasakah area, crosses were removed from the churches and destroyed, and wearing a crucifix was forbidden, Zayya says. Christians were not allowed to drive or ride in automobiles, and women were mandated to wear a burka.
“Our children saw many beheadings,” he said. “We were obligated to watch public executions. What kind of world is that for kids to grow up in? They were always scared.”
As of July 2014, ISIS was estimated to have controlled some 35 percent of Syria, with other hardline Salafist groups controlling large swaths elsewhere.
Since then, US-led coalition forces have used airstrikes to push the militant organization back in areas across the country, but ISIS has strengthened its grasp on core areas.
In February, ISIS swept through roughly a dozen villages in north-eastern Syria. In April, after a long battle against rebel forces, ISIS took over an estimated 90 percent of Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of southern Damascus.
Beirut’s local Assyrian community has helped organize the flight of Assyrian families from al-Hasakah and elsewhere to Lebanon, negotiating an exception for Assyrians despite Lebanon’s borders having been officially closed to Syrian refugees for months.
‘More are coming’
There are some 800 Assyrian families from surrounding communities who have been exiled to al-Hasakah, according to the Lebanese Assyrian Church’s Bishop Yatron Koliana, who works with the government to facilitate refuge for Assyrian refugees.
“Of course, we’re in touch with the families that are still in al-Hasakah. When they want to come, they send us their names, we send their names to the border and they are let in,” Koliana told Syria Deeply. “Now the Lebanese army will not let a Syrian citizen into the country unless his name is on the list.”
“I’m sure more are coming,” he added. “They are giving us new names every day.”
Upon arriving in Lebanon, the displaced families continue to struggle for survival, largely because they are legally barred from working in the country. Most of the families fled under attack and were unable to bring more than what they could carry with them along the dangerous trek.
Many have had to resort to working menial. under-the-table jobs, such as construction and other forms of manual labor. They are nonetheless burdened by expenses such as healthcare, education and rent costs while in Lebanon. “The three biggest problems [refugee families] face are sickness, education and a place to live,” the bishop continued.
“For the time being, most families are dependent on donations to get by. Now we have the capabilities to continue because we have food and money donations, but how long will these last for?” Koliana asked. “This situation can’t continue for much longer. Another six months? Difficult. Another year? Impossible.”
On Easter Day, ISIS reportedly bombed an Assyrian church in Tel Tamer, an Assyrian village in eastern Syria, according to a statement issued by the Assyrian Network for Human Rights. The bomb was detonated as Assyrian and Kurdish fighters attempted to retake the village from ISIS, who has controlled it since early March.
Bishop Koliana says he and others in the church have urged Assyrians in Syria to remain steadfast.“I’m telling them not to leave this land,” he remarked. “This is our land. They say, ‘OK – we’re with you. This is our land, but what are we supposed to eat, dirt?’”
For his part, Zayya says he doesn’t want to return to Syria. “We didn’t use to have sectarianism in Syria,” he remembered. “We all lived together. We didn’t ask our neighbors about their religion.”
Those days, however, are long gone. “We’re not returning,” he concluded.
Photo Courtesy of Dylan Collins