Iraqi Christians find safety in the Muslim Kurdish north, but no jobs
Menas Saad Youssef no longer fears being blown up while praying in a church. But she and many other traumatized Christians who fled Iraq’s capital for safer areas have a new crisis — no jobs. Almost a year since a deadly church siege in Baghdad that killed dozens of people and prompted her family to seek refuge in the prosperous northern Kurdish region, Youssef sits at home, frustrated about her future.
The 28-year-old academic, who is still haunted by images of her friends lying in pools of blood at the cathedral where she prayed every Sunday, misses her job as an architecture professor in Baghdad. “It’s a safe place. I can go out at night,” she said, referring to the mainly Christian area of Ainkawa in the city of Arbil, 300 km (190 miles) north of Baghdad. “But the big problem is there’s no work. So you feel good in the beginning and then when you try to earn a living, it’s very difficult. We can’t find any jobs.”
Iraq’s Christians — most of them Syrian or Chaldean Catholics — numbered around 1.5 million before 2003 and are now estimated at about 450,000-600,000, according to Christian leaders. Iraq has not conducted a full census since 1987, but the largely Muslim country is estimated to have a current population of about 30 million people.
While most of the sectarian fighting that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has been between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, attacks on Christians have increased in recent years. Last October, 52 hostages and police were killed when al Qaeda-linked gunmen took more than 100 Catholics captive in a siege at the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in central Baghdad. Sixty-seven others were wounded in the incident. It was the bloodiest attack against Iraq’s Christians in the eight years of war that followed the invasion and struck fear into the Christian community, prompting hundreds of families to flee to the north or overseas.
“There are around 900 Christian displaced families who have settled permanently in Arbil province, including in Ainkawa, since the explosion at Our Lady of Salvation,” said Kamran Abdullah, head of the Kurdish migration and displacement department in Arbil province.
“More people were displaced but some of them have returned to their former areas. Others have left the province to go abroad or to other provinces.”