By Luma Simms
October 11, 2021
WN: What a beautiful, compelling, encouraging story.
In 2007, my friend Ishraq was an Iraqi biologist working in quality control in a government agency testing products coming into the country for contaminants – food products and plants, anything meant for consumption or planting – a job she had studied and worked hard to attain, a job she loved. Her husband, Luay, owned a car dealership. Although other Christians were leaving Iraq after the chaos that engulfed the country after the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, they didn’t want to leave their homeland. With the increase in crime and the abduction of Christians, they thought it best to sell the dealership and wait it out until things settled back down.
One rainy day as Luay got ready to drive Ishraq to work, two cars pulled up in front of them. Men got out and snatched Luay. As they dragged him through the mud, she grabbed hold of his leg, shrieking. One of the kidnappers disentangled her from Luay and flung her off. “I lost my mind, I was screaming like a crazy woman, I was screaming for someone to come help us,” she remembers. The men shoved Luay into one of their cars and left. A minute later a police officer came driving by and stopped when he heard her crying. He got out and stood over her as she lay shaking on the ground. When she told him what had happened, it became clear he knew who the kidnappers were. “He gave me his card and told me that when the kidnappers called me to ask for ransom money, to let him know and he’ll see what he can do. I told him, ‘What you can do is get in the car and go after them right now.’ The policeman left and I just sat there in the mud on the side of the street wailing.”
One of her neighbors, a kind Muslim man, came out to see what was happening and helped her back into her house. The next day, Ishraq received a phone call from the kidnappers demanding $100,000. When she insisted that she didn’t have the money, they made her listen while they beat him. After many threats and false assurances, she scraped together $60,000 for the safe return of her husband. “You wouldn’t believe what he looked like after five days of beating and no food. Even after he had been kidnapped from just outside his home in Baghdad, beaten, starved, and held for ransom, Luay still thought that maybe they could stay. He still wanted to stay. But the day after he was returned to his home he received a phone call from one of the kidnappers saying: “This is not your country, you have one day to leave.” “And so we had to leave, we had no choice,” Ishraq told me.
During that first year in Qamishly, Luay got a visa to work in Italy. He went to Italy, and from there to Sweden, in an attempt to get permission to stay in Sweden legally. He showed them the pictures Ishraq took of him after the kidnapping and told them everything he went through. They didn’t believe him and refused to accept him and his wife as refugees. Meanwhile, back in Syria, Ishraq worked on their asylum application to America. They were accepted. While Ishraq and Luay waited for their visas, America closed its embassy in Syria due to the escalation of violence, but the Canadian embassy stayed open. Their application was quickly processed. And so they ended up in Canada, far away from her mother and sister, my good friends who live near me in Arizona.
Speaking with exiles like Ishraq and Luay stirs up my own memories of leaving Iraq. I look in the mirror and see a reflection of Nana Rahel, my paternal grandmother whose picture sits on my desk. A soft, wistful smile is on her face. The last time I saw her I was eight, when she and my grandfather came to visit us while we were refugees in Greece in the 1970s. Time, space, and age separate us, but we share a soul.
I can hear still my father’s voice in my ears back at the American consulate in Greece. He was asked: “You say you were persecuted in Iraq, but the Christians are not being killed in Iraq.”
“There are many kinds of persecution, there is persecution here,” he said, pointing his forefinger to his temple. I would not come to understand my father for many years; at the time all I felt was fury, and the confusion, loneliness, and pain of being existentially homeless. I’m sure my parents spared me from that kind of persecution by fleeing Iraq – but I paid another price, and suffered from other persecutions.
Separation from extended family is an essential element of exile – I recognize this sorrow in my fellow Middle Eastern immigrants. I think that Americans who readily move for jobs or personal desires do not grasp the gravity of displacement from family and home.
I also think American Christians have trouble grasping Eastern Christians’ response to persecution. American Christians are taught: “Fight for your rights!” And so it can be very difficult for Americans to understand people like my friend’s family and many others like them, who may respond with more passivity and submission to injury and injustice. Their apolitical and pacifist reaction is how these communities survived for almost two thousand years. They believe that when Jesus said, “Put your sword away” (Matt. 26:52; John 18:11), he meant it.
Please click on: Iraq: Responding to Persecution