What this Christian ISIS survivor wants you to know

October 7, 2021 by Ryan Hamm in Stories of Persecution

He held the barrel of his gun against her head.


That was his answer to Sana’s plea.


The ISIS fighter kept the gun to Sana’s head as she begged him to allow her husband and two sons to ride on the bus to safety with her. His weapon was his answer. The bus doors closed, and Sana was off. She’d escaped the horrors of ISIS.


But she has never seen her husband and her sons since.

Like many stories about the atrocities of ISIS, Sana’s account remained buried for years. The kidnappings of Christians by ISIS have been kept silent, out of shame and fear. Now, one by one, the stories come to the surface. The reality of the pain and trauma left behind are coming into focus and now, more than ever, Iraq’s Christians need hope.

We meet Sana in her house in Erbil, a city in northern Iraq. She looks tired—tired of waiting for news of her family, tired of the continuous memories of the atrocities she saw. Her emotions are flat. The only moment a little spark appears in her eyes is when she talks about her children: her 25-year-old daughter Tania and her missing sons Tony (born in 1994), “quiet and protective” and Issa (born in 2001), “my little angel.”

Sana has kept her story to herself because she feared repercussions for her husband and sons. But recently her daughter has been encouraging her to share the story. “She told me, ‘there is nothing wrong with that—speak up!’” Sana says. “So, I will talk. Maybe someone knows where my missing husband and sons are. I have hope.”

Sana shows us a photograph that was taken shortly before ISIS entered Qaraqosh, the city where she lived. The picture shows Sana, her husband Sabah and their three children posing in front of their church. Sana softly touches the face of Issa in the middle. It is the last family picture Sana has.

Watch Sana’s story

In the summer of 2014, ISIS had failed to take over Qaraqosh, though they came close. When the extremists attacked again in August of that year, Sabah was convinced ISIS would fail again. So, while most families fled—including their daughter Tania, who left with extended family—Sana, her husband and two sons stayed in Qaraqosh.

Then August 7 happened.

“We were all sleeping when I heard sounds: the sounds of people shouting,” Sana remembers. “Because Sabah was sick, I woke up my oldest son Tony and we listened together. ‘Qaraqosh is ours now,’ they shouted on the streets.”

ISIS had not failed this time. They had taken Qaraqosh, and Sana and her family were trapped.

Anxious days followed. The family stayed inside their house, huddled together in one room. They kept the lights off and used a lighter to find their way. At night, they heard ISIS fighters roaming the streets, breaking down doors. “We prayed a lot together and promised each other to stay together,” Sana remembers. “That was our comfort, that we had each other.”

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In places like Syria and Iraq, Christians live in constant uncertainty. Help believers like Sana know they aren’t alone, and that even though they had their families changed forever by ISIS, they have a global Family in Jesus.

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One moment is very sharp for Sana’s memory. It gives her hope for her son Issa. “One night, Issa was sleeping on my lap when he suddenly opened his eyes,” she says. “I asked him what happened. He told me that he had a dream. He saw Jesus descending in shining clothes. Jesus looked at Issa and smiled.”

Finally, more than two weeks after ISIS took the city, the day Sana had been dreading came. Four men in civilian clothes broke down their door, finding the family with hands lifted in fear and surrender. Sana remembers how little Issa, 12 at the time, was trembling.

But the men spoke in a friendly manner. “They told Issa: ‘Don’t be scared, you are safe. We just want to know if you have weapons,’” she says. “They searched our house for weapons and left again. In the following two days, an imam [Islamic leader] came to bring us food.”

‘Where are you going, Mom?’

After several days, the family was summoned to the city hospital. “You are to be put on a bus to Ankawa—the Christian neighborhood of Erbil,” the men in civilian clothes told them.

“Again, they told us not to worry,” Sana says. But what Sana saw when they arrived at the hospital did worry her. “The men of ISIS I saw there did not wear civilian clothes. They were dressed in black and carried weapons. They were scary, shouted and they weren’t friendly to us at all anymore.”

The hospital was crowded. Buses came and went. Sana estimates there were around 30 people waiting outside the hospital when she arrived. “They collected our ID cards,” she says. “Tony was very nervous and worried about me. But when he asked the ISIS fighters what they would do to me, they pointed a gun at him to shut him up.”

ISIS took the valuables of everyone waiting and split up the men and women. “That was a difficult moment for us,” Sana shares. “My boys were scared. We’d never been separated from each other. They told us that we would all see each other again in Ankawa, that we shouldn’t worry about it. Issa was so scared. The last thing he said to me was: ‘Where are you going, Mom?’”

It broke Sana’s heart when she was put on a bus without her boys and husband. “I asked one of the ISIS fighters, ‘Please, tell me: Where are you taking my husband?’ But he put his gun to my head and said, ‘Either you shut up, or I’ll shoot you in the head.’”

Sana hasn’t seen her sons and her husband since.

She dabs her eyes with a tissue. Real tears don’t come so often anymore. She has shed them all. The hours she spent crying in prayer are countless. Family members have pushed her away—their heads are full of the trauma of their own displacement. She has kept her story secret and was reluctant to reach out to the church. She and her daughter are on their own.

Sana and her daughter miss their family every day: “We were so close,” Sana says. But the challenge goes further than just the emotional aspect; in a Middle Eastern country like Iraq, it’s not typical for women to live alone.

Daily life is more difficult—official papers are usually arranged by the men in the house, and some places aren’t safe to go to as a woman by herself.

Tania, a Christian in Iraq

Sana’s daughter, Tania

Stories like Sana’s are just the tip of the iceberg of the general trauma inflicted on Christians in Iraq. “We have rebuilt a lot of our houses and churches,” says Father Ammar, a church leader in Erbil. “But ISIS destroyed much more than just that: They destroyed human beings.”

There is no significant mental health care system in Iraq to address the issues the Christian community is faced with today. That is why, with your support, Open Doors supports churches like Father Ammar’s so they can become Centers of Hope. These centers offer practical and spiritual support—but they also provide emotional support.

“People like Sana need the full support of the church,” Father Ammar says. “They need someone to be close to them, listen to their needs. Someone to help them to find hope for the future.”

Whether or not Sana will accept this help is uncertain. Though accepting help for your mental wellbeing is slowly gaining acceptance among Christians in Iraq, the stigma hasn’t disappeared. All we can do is offer the help—and pray for her.

Clinging to God

After the liberation of Qaraqosh in 2016, Sana had hope her family might be reunited. But she didn’t hear from them—perhaps because they don’t have the means, or perhaps because they are no longer alive.

Sana doesn’t dare to speak about this last option out loud.

God is the only One she clings to, the only One she still trusts to find her husband and sons.

“My faith in the almighty God is so big,” she says. “And I keep praying that they will come back. They are all I have. God willing, they will come back.”