Starting Over: A Nun, a Wedding Singer and a Pair of Self-described Nerds Seek Refuge in Northern Iraq


A Syrian singer’s songbook, a Turkmen calligrapher’s ink, a Palestinian Iraqi’s lucky lighter, a Yazidi teenager’s Taylor Swift album. These are a civil war’s survivors and the things they carried.’

Sister Luma, a nun of the Dominican Order, fled when ISIS advanced on her hometown, Qaraqosh. She sought shelter in a convent in Ainkawa, Iraqi Kurdistan. UNHCR/L.Bohn

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By Lauren Bohn*, November 2014 — Throughout Iraq, more than 1.9 million people have been displaced by recent violence. The country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region is now hosting more than 850,000 displaced Iraqis, in addition to more than 225,000 Syrian refugees.
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Iraq’s displaced population cuts across religion, ethnicity and class. The stories of the uprooted reflect a fraying social fabric, and the challenges of a country in the throes of endless war.
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“This isn’t just about our survival,” says a university professor displaced from Iraq’s restive Anbar province and now living in Iraqi Kurdistan. “This is about the survival of Iraq and an entire region.”

The profiles below introduce some of the newly displaced – divergent in backgrounds and divided by beliefs, but united in a struggle to figure out their place in one of the most fractured countries in the world.

The Nun

“We had only one choice: face death or leave,” says Sister Luma, a nun of the Dominican Order who fled her hometown of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, on 6 August. She is among roughly 50,000 Christians who fled ISIS’s advance on the ancient town.

Shortly before midnight, she and 35 sisters from her convent packed into a few cars and slowly made their way to a convent in Ainkawa, Iraqi Kurdistan. They brought along a 10-year-old girl from their church’s orphanage after scrambling to find homes for the rest.

This isn’t the first time Luma has been displaced: back in June she and other nuns fled ISIS’s advance in nearby Mosul. They never thought Qaraqosh would fall two months later.

“We had only one choice: face death or leave.”

A graduate from the University of Notre Dame, where she received her Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, and from Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union – where she discovered her love for brownies and the Field Museum of Natural History – Luma left behind her beloved library, along with the church’s treasured archives, some dating back to the 11th century. Her most cherished memory is taking her vows in Mosul’s Al-Tahira church, which she fears will be destroyed.

During her displacement, she has sought solace in the Book of Micah. One of her favourite biblical passages depicts the day when all wars will end. “People will use hammers to turn their swords into ploughs,” she reads from her copy of the Bible. “They will turn their spears into tools to cut plants… Everyone will sit under his own vine and his own fig tree, and nobody will make them afraid any longer.”

But maybe, says Luma, “Micah was just dreaming like I am.”

Seventeen-year-old Khidir was shot by ISIS, but unlike hundreds of others he survived. His father and four brothers were executed. UNHCR/I.Prickett

The Survivor

On a sunny day that began with family tea and ended with mind-rending misery, ISIS fighters shot 17-year-old Khidir. But he, unlike hundreds, survived.

“I stood up and saw dead bodies everywhere,” Khidir says. “But I didn’t feel fear, I had to move fast.”

On 15 August, militants stormed into his village and ordered many residents to gather in the village’s only school. Khidir’s cousin told him not to worry, that they were just trying to scare people. Soon he and 20 other men, including his cousin, were packed into a Kia truck and driven to the middle of a field. They were blindfolded and forced on their knees. It was the point of no return, Khidir thought – it was the end. His cousin was the first to scream.

One by one, the militants fired down the line. Khidir felt a blazing hot prick on his neck and fell to the ground. The bullet had only grazed him. He pretended to be dead until the men hopped back into the truck and left.

“I stood up and saw dead bodies everywhere,” he says. “But I didn’t feel fear, I had to move fast.”

Khidir and the only other survivor began a long journey to Sinjar Mountain, where thousands of Yazidis had sought refuge. The group practices an ancient religion that Islamist extremists deem heretical. Khidir soon crossed over to Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where his sister and brother-in-law were staying.

While details of that fatal day are still elusive, they’ve accepted that their father and four brothers were executed. They believed their five sisters and mother had also been killed until they received a call a week later. In a near whisper, one of the sisters informed them that their mother and all five sisters are still alive, but being held by ISIS.

“I’ve accepted the pain,” says Khidir, sitting on the dirt floor of his family’s tent in a camp 100 miles from his village. “There’s so much of it, but I’ve accepted the pain and the unknown future.”

Of one thing he’s certain: He will never go back to his village. He will never see the tomatoes he planted. Or the big tree he used to climb.

“Everyone is dead,” he says. “There is no village.”

Eyran fled Syria two years ago and now runs a hair salon in Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq. “The Domiz ladies come to me and I make them beautiful.” UNHCR/I.Prickett

The Hairdresser

Eyran’s favourite place in Syria is a small salon adorned with low-hanging star ornaments and pink wallpaper. It was there in her Kurdish hometown Qameshli that she learned the trade and found her calling: “Making women beautiful… making women smile.”

Two years ago, Eyran fled her hometown by foot to Dohuk, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now 25, she has resettled with her parents and two younger sisters in Domiz refugee camp, home to 45,000 Syrian refugees.

If you’re not careful, Eyran says, the camp can close in on you. You become smaller, your life shrinks. And soon, you forget who you are.

“I was tired of doing nothing,” she says. “So I opened a salon at my house. Why not? The Domiz ladies come to me and I make them beautiful.”

The salon started in her tent, with just a small mirror and a few regular clients. But as she got more business, mainly from bridal parties, her brother – who is still in Syria – lent her money for supplies. When her family upgraded into a caravan, they dedicated the front room to her fledgling business. A non-governmental organization donated a proper salon chair and mirror.

“I was tired of doing nothing,” Eyran says. “So I opened a salon at my house. Why not? The Domiz ladies come to me and I make them beautiful.”

It’s still a work in progress, a small temple built from the ashes of her past. She’s saving up for better brushes and makeup (“The mascara here is awful”) and striving to perfect the art of hair dying. She learns from YouTube videos whenever her precarious Internet connection allows.

She named the salon “Christine” (“It’s my favourite name, it sounds foreign and exotic”). It lacks the warm, worn-in feel of her old one, she laments, not to mention the camaraderie she enjoyed among other hairdressers back in her Syrian neighbourhood, where they gossiped and laughed for hours.

Still, the excitement of her Domiz customers gets her through yet another day in the camp, another day away from Syria.

“When you make a woman beautiful,” she says, “you make happiness.”

When ISIS came to Tal Afar, Akram, a calligrapher, had to flee his hometown and leave behind 30 years of self-taught artistry. UNHCR/L.Bohn

 The Calligrapher

Akram still remembers the day he realized he had a special gift, that he wasn’t just like the others.

“My fifth-grade teacher held up a paper with my handwriting and told the whole class I’d be a famous calligrapher,” the 50-year-old recalls, his almond eyes sparkling.

As a Turkmen, the third-largest ethnic group in Iraq behind Arabs and Kurds, he worked hard in pursuit of his dream – a dream increasingly threatened by war.

Hunkered in his tent in Iraq’s Garmawa refugee camp, Akram describes how he fled his town of Tal Afar in July shortly after ISIS advanced and the Iraqi military retaliated with airstrikes. His brother’s home was hit by a mortar strike, he says, but his family suffered only minor injuries. Still, it was enough to rattle a family who had already endured 10 years of fighting in the country. So Akram rented a car for his wife and four children and drove to Dohuk. They had no place to go, but it was their only option.

The most painful part of leaving, says Akram, was the work he left behind. He rolled up his best calligraphy and stored it in a bedroom bureau along with almost 30 years of self-taught artistry.

“This is all a gift,” says Akram, a self-taught calligrapher. “Art should never be paid for.”

Since moving to the camp, he’s been in a rut, unable to create.

“I’m not in the right state of mind,” he says, wistfully describing his drawing station back home, anchored with a big oak table and chair.

A few years ago, Akram’s son convinced him to make a Facebook page to display his work. Soon, aspiring students messaged him, seeking his advice and instruction, so he began offering calligraphy courses over Skype. He has over 20 students whom he refuses to charge.

“This is all a gift,” he says. “Art should never be paid for.”

Last month, he received a call from one of his students in Oman. He was distraught by the news that his beloved teacher was forced to flee everything he spent years building.

“He told me he was going to visit,” says Akram. “I just laughed. Of course I didn’t believe him. Who would come here?”

But one afternoon a week later, a large white jeep pulled up outside his tent. Akram thought it was another humanitarian group delivering some food or some fans. Then his student stepped out.

“Me, my whole family… we were all stunned,” he says, gleefully scrolling through photographs of the meeting on his phone. “We just stood there, hugging and crying.”

Amira’s family fled their village in Mosul back in June, but they haven’t felt at home since 2006. Today they live in Baharka camp near Erbil. UNHCR/I.Prickett

The Beauty

Amira’s family fled their village in Mosul back in June, but they haven’t felt truly at home since 2006.

Amira’s husband says women have always been jealous of her beauty. Men would often leer at her or, channelling Mosul’s robust conservative base, admonish her to “cover up more.”

In 2006, when US soldiers did a routine security check in their building, a neighbour started a rumour that Amira and her family were colluding with American forces, and worse: that Amira was having romantic affairs with US soldiers, a grievous, near lethal charge in a conservative society.

“She’s innocent, but people wanted to cause trouble,” her husband says. “They started a psychological war against us… This is Iraq and no one trusts anyone.”

With Amira’s reputation in doubt, the family fled to various cities around Iraq. Last year, they moved back to their village in Mosul, where things seemed to have improved. But when ISIS captured the town, Amira knew they had to leave once more.

“She’s innocent, but people wanted to cause trouble,” Amira’s husband says. “This is Iraq and no one trusts anyone.”

“The same people that gave me trouble then are now giving the whole country trouble,” she says, combing her daughter’s thick raven hair.

Worried that ISIS would recruit their sons, Amira and her husband fled. Some of her neighbour’s children had already volunteered to fight alongside the group.

“The government may oppress us,” she says. “But this is not the answer… fear is the weapon of boys.”

The family now spends most days in their tent, where Amira’s precocious 10-year-old son sketches non-stop. Since moving into the camp, he’s drawn scores of tigers “for added protection,” he says.

Amira’s 24-year-old son, once a hopeful university graduate with plans to start a car business, is now collecting trash.

“We fled Iraq only to come here, which is still Iraq,” he says. “But neither [Iraq] is ours.”

Sara is an Assyrian Christian who escaped the siege of Qaraqosh. Now, far from home, she and her family must shelter in a wedding hall in Erbil. UNHCR/I.Prickett

The Mother

Forty-three-year-old Sara sits in an old wedding hall in Erbil, now converted into a shelter for scores of displaced families, and hums the name of her daughter over and over again.

She hasn’t seen three-year-old Laila since an ISIS militant grabbed her right out from under her arms.

“We didn’t think we needed to leave,” recalls Sara. “We thought it would all be over in a few days.”

The family was one of a handful of Christian families that hadn’t yet left the Christian town of Qaraqosh when Kurdish forces withdrew on 7 August, leaving the city unprotected. Aida had sent her four other children off with another family days before, but she stayed behind with her blind husband and Laila.

“We didn’t think we needed to leave,” recalls Sara. “We thought it would all be over in a few days.”

The family stayed in their home for two weeks under siege, only leaving every once in a while to pick up food and water. Their neighbourhood had become unrecognizable, with abandoned buildings and plundered shops.

On 22 August, militants knocked on their door. They said they were escorting the remaining Christian families by bus to the Khazer checkpoint outside the Kurdish city of Erbil. But before leaving town, the militants stopped at a hospital and made all passengers hand over wallets and jewellery. At that point, one of the fighters grabbed Laila and dashed off the bus. Sara ran after him, desperately pleading, but was forcefully carried back into the bus.

“What do they want from us?” she says, crying. Her 11-year-old daughter, Basma, clenches her arm, trying to console her.

“No one has hope in Iraq anymore,” Sara adds. “What is Iraq?”

Jandi used to perform with a band in Syria. Now he has replicated it in Domiz Camp, where he is known as ‘the wedding singer’. UNHCR/I.Prickett

The Wedding Singer

A few months ago, 30-year-old Jandi realized he needed a new business card. After two years of living in Domiz refugee camp, he was ready to reclaim a title he earned back in Syria: The Best Kurdish Wedding Singer.

Back in Damascus, Jandi and his band played at weddings almost every night. “We had a big reputation,” he says. “I wouldn’t say we were famous, but we had a lot of fans.”

He left his hard-earned success behind in Syria. Readjusting to life in Domiz, where his main identification marker is ‘refugee’ – hardly the stuff of glam posters and record labels – hasn’t been easy. He’s suffered from bouts of depression and endured his longest period without writing songs in nearly 10 years.

“We had a big reputation,” he says. “I wouldn’t say we were famous, but we had a lot of fans.”

It wasn’t until he had another son that he decided to rebuild his life. His wife, Shereen, offered to sell her wedding jewellery to pay for music equipment. So Jandi bought huge speakers and went on a hunt for three band members, holding impromptu auditions in the camp. He soon formed a new band, which is still unnamed.

“I’m looking for inspiration,” he says, tapping on his sound equipment. “Things take a long time around here.”

The band has been playing about 20 weddings a month for as much as $300 a gig. But the celebrations aren’t filled with as much joy as they were back in Syria. Still, they’re a piece of home, a glimmer of how things once were.

Shereen says she’s proud of her husband. They met at a wedding party back in Syria where Jandi was singing. “I couldn’t stop looking at him,” she recalls. Their wedding photographs, tucked away in a bureau in a red plastic bag, are among the few things they were able to bring from Syria.

“This is his dream,” Shereen says, sitting in a room that is virtually empty apart from from Jandi’s large speakers. “So I support him. Even here you have to follow your dreams.”

Ehab, a Palestinian Iraqi twice displaced from Anbar and Mosul, sits with his daughter in the tent where they are living in Baharka camp near Erbil. UNHCR/I.Prickett

 The Shakespearean

The proudest day of 28-year-old Ehab’s life was when he gave a presentation on his favourite writer, William Shakespeare, to his English class at the University of Mosul.

“Hamlet is amazing. It’s about tragedy, family and revenge. It’s familiar story for Arabs,” Ehab says with a laugh, swatting flies in his tent at the Baharka IDP camp in Erbil.

The only college graduate in his family, Ehab saved up for years working odd jobs to pay for his studies. He is a Palestinian Iraqi, but like most in his family has only seen Palestine on a map. His family, originally from Haifa, has been in Iraq since the founding of Israel in 1948.

Ehab finds life is difficult in Iraq, where Palestinians are often treated as second-class citizens, perpetual outsiders and refugees.

“Hamlet is amazing. It’s about tragedy, family, and revenge,” Ehab says. “It’s familiar story for Arabs.”

Back in June, when fighting overwhelmed Anbar province, Ehab fled to Mosul to stay with family. And when ISIS seized Mosul shortly thereafter, they fled together to Erbil. The married women in the family sold all of their gold at a market there, but only made enough to cover lodging for a week. So they moved to Khazer IDP camp on the city’s outskirts. Then, in early August, Kurdish security forces evacuated the camp, for fear of ISIS forces advancing nearby, and relocated its residents to the Baharka camp.

Once again, displacement had become the strongest plot line in his family’s narrative.

Ehab says Palestinians feel stuck in the middle, wedged between two evils they loathe: ISIS, which “uses Islam to destroy and conquer,” and a Shia-led government that “oppresses us, doesn’t give us or any Iraqi Sunnis our rights.”

“We’re always easy targets,” he says, resigned and laughing. “This is our fate… to be or not to be?”

Khairy and Fouad are Yazidi brothers who fled their home in Sinjar and now live with their family in Badjet Kandela camp. The pair constantly try to outsmart each other. UNHCR/I.Prickett

The Nerds

Khairy is 22 – “just like the Taylor Swift song” – and has only one gripe about living in Badjet Kandela IDP camp in Iraqi Kurdistan: “There’s no data here for me to load my English and French dictionaries,” he says. “My brain will shrink!”

A bright psychology student at the University of Mosul, Khairy fled Sinjar with his family on 4 August. Although they hail from a small Yazidi village, Khairy’s parents say they raised their children differently.

“Education is always the most important thing… We always wanted them to ask a lot of questions, to learn,” his mother says, sitting on a concrete slab that’s now become home to the family of 11. Her husband, a nurse who had top grades when he was younger but couldn’t afford medical school, now works at the camp’s clinic.

Fouad, Khairy’s 17-year-old brother, hopes to fulfil his father’s dream and become a doctor. He spent the last year drinking 10 cups of tea a day, studying to score in the 93rd percentile of all his exams. The brothers frequently challenge themselves to intellectual feats; most recently they’ve taken each other on in learning French.

“Education is always the most important thing,” their mother says. “We wanted them to ask a lot of questions, to learn.”

“We’ve always been unusual,” Khairy proudly declares. “I think you call it ‘nerds,’ right?”

Some days the brothers work as grocers at the camp or other odd jobs. They’ve served informally as translators for journalists and aid workers, who are often awed by their linguistic prowess and charisma.

They sometimes yell at each other, blaming the other for not bringing their computer to the camp. It was a bastion of downloaded intellectual and cultural capital: language guides, crossword puzzles, episodes of The Simpsons and music by Pitbull, Justin Bieber and Beyonce, whom Fouad says he’s since renounced (“She has too much ego”).

And they miss their television back home, where his mother used to watch the National Geographic channel and marvel at places like the Antarctic (“She’s obsessed with penguins,” Fouad says as his mother blushes). Khairy and Fouad used to watch CSI religiously, trying to outsmart one another with their plot predictions.

“I don’t think CSI could even make an episode like this,” Khairy says. “About this crazy war, ISIS and this whole camp.”

“No way, dude,” confirms Fouad. “Definitely not.”

Lauren Bohn
*Lauren Bohn, Based in Istanbul, Turkey, Lauren is a multimedia journalist and a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine. She is the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, an initiative dedicated to amplifying female voices in foreign policy. She’s the founding assistant editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs in Egypt, where she was a Fulbright fellow and Pulitzer Center grantee. 
Lauren Bohn’s report was published on 7 November 2014 by UNHCRGo to Original.
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