*Representative photo used to protect identity
Months after the Islamic extremist group IS invaded their villages, some refugees are still residing in church halls. One family shares how they have been affected.
Only the picture of the bishop hanging on the wall identifies this as a church hall and not a storehouse. The personal belongings of refugees are stacked from the floor to the ceiling and give way to just a few beams of sunlight. The electricity isn’t working today. Benches mark the ‘rooms’ of the different families living here. The muffled sound of a crying baby comes from one of the shadowed corners. “Welcome to our family hall,” says Labib*, a middle aged man with a friendly expression on his face.
Labib is living here with his brothers and sisters and their families. His elderly mother is living in the ‘room’ at the beginning of the hall. The old lady shows us the empty space on the couch next to her. “This is where my husband died,” she says. “His heart couldn’t bare the stress of the flight; he had a heart attack.” Labib shares that his parents were the first of the family to leave the town with the only car the extended family owned. While the car drove away, IS approached quicker than expected. The fearful night that followed will be remembered by Labib in his nightmares for the rest of his life.
In a panic, Labib called the church in the middle of the night to ask if they had room for his extended family to stay a few nights. They were welcomed. After a sleepless night, the morning arrived. Labib looked out of the window and received the shock of his life when he saw a bearded man approaching their house slowly. He thought his last moments had arrived. Only when the man got closer, was Labib able to see that it was not IS, not yet at least- it was just a neighbor. When Labib’s brother returned, the entire family quickly got into the car and left –just before IS entered.
Wigs and Dirty Spoons
While most refugees can only guess what happened to their houses or maybe only see some images on social media, Labib’s family had the chance to see it close-up. After the Kurdish forces liberated their village, Labib’s brother went to see what was left of the house. He was shocked by what he saw. Fighters had used their house like their own and completely trashed it. All religious images that had hung on the wall lay smashed into pieces on the floor.
Labib’s mother was horrified by how her son described her home. “They used my spoons! They used my cups and plates. And when they made them dirty, they threw them on the floor and got new ones,” she laments. Labib adds: “They left some of their wigs on our fence. It’s apparently fashionable for the fighters to have long hair, but most new fighters don’t have long hair yet, so they use wigs. My brother also found some of their bikes, which they used to be less visible for air forces.”
Labib and his family don’t feel safe enough to return yet, but his brother did retrieve a lot of their belongings. Labib pulls a painting out of a pile of stuff. Matthew 5:9 is written in beautiful Arabic letters: ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. He shakes his head. He doesn’t know if he still believes in peace in his country. “It has been so difficult to walk in peace the last few months. It really shocked me to see my neighbors hanging the IS flag. To know that my house was being used by IS.” He takes a short pause and then continues: “But I have experienced God’s peace, and even though it’s hard for me to believe in peace in these days, I do long for it.”
Despite the difficult circumstances, Labib and his family have to move on. Under a small roof just outside the hall, Labib’s wife is preparing yet another lunch far away from home. Inside, Labib’s sister shows her newborn, just a few weeks old. He’s a fragile little guy, much smaller than most boys his age. It’s because of the stress of the flight, the sister says, that he is so small. Lying on a pillow on the couch, he’s sleeping restlessly. “What is his future?” wonders Labib. Through a local partner this family is helped with relief.
*Names changed for security reasons