Rafat Sido knows by heart the Pope’s plan for the days to come. This weekend he is stuck in the tub with his wife Sandrine and two kids. “If he had gone to our country in better times, we would still have lived there, and it would have been much better if more Christians had lived in Iraq,” Sandrin says.
Since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, the number of Christians in Iraq has plummeted. Churches and villages were destroyed by bombings or IS. There were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq in 2003, and now there are an estimated 300,000. Millions of Christians have emigrated to Europe and the United States. Others prefer, but have stayed in Lebanon and Jordan, where their situation is often worse.
The same is true for the Chaldean Catholic Sido family. With mixed emotions they see the traditional dance that the Pope welcomes in a festive manner. “These are our clothes for special occasions,” Sandrin says with tears in her eyes. “If only our country had always been so happy.”
The family fled Patna in northern Iraq in 2014 when ISIS forcibly occupied the area. Rabbit’s family had lived in the village for centuries. When ISIS invaded, they did not have the opportunity to take their belongings with them. His car was stolen, their house was looted and the ground was demolished.
“We had the choice to repent, flee or survive,” Raffet said. “I was baptized and took my first communion. I do not want to repent.”
Through northern Iraq, the Sitos, like thousands of other Christian families, ended up in Beirut hoping to make their way west along this route. “All we want is a safe life somewhere, where we can do what we want to say, that’s all,” Raffet says.
Economic crisis in Lebanon
Seven long years later, they are still in poor Christian suburban Beirut. There are cushions against the wall of a room where four people live. In the evening they fit on the ground together. They tried to make a kitchen in the hallway. The electricity goes out for hours every day. Due to the unprecedented economic crisis, there are no opportunities for the likes of Rafet and Sandrin in Lebanon.
“We’ve already looked at one after the other. To Australia, the United States and Europe. But our documents are waiting. I don’t know why all this is taking so long,” Raffett said. He says he knows of hundreds of other families waiting for permission to settle elsewhere.
Their biggest dream is to reach Australia. Coincidentally, her mother and brother and Sandrin’s entire family were staying in Australia two years ago. Raffet: “In our village we all lived together as one family in one big house. All generations together. My mother calls us every day to ask when we are coming. My brother says this is the standard life in Australia. Education and health care for children when you are sick.”
Those are the things that worry every day about the lack of raffle income. “We have not left this room for a year. We are afraid we will get sick. If one of us gets something, we have a big problem. We will die in front of the hospital.
‘Going back is not an option’
“The Iraqis here are from the middle class. They had great jobs there, good lives. Now they are lucky to have a job here as a cleaner or guard,” says Lebanese Neyla Freem Sayek. His organization, Frat El Hay, serves hot meals daily and has helped three Iraqis find work in his kitchen.
“We try to help with medicine and education, but the need is huge and there is little support,” he says. “Iraqis are frozen by the number of Syrian refugees here. They have forgotten, they are breaking up. They have lost hope because they have been disappointed so many times.”
On television with Raffet and Sandrin, the pope comes to a church in Baghdad. “Nice to see you, but going back is not an option for us,” Raffet concludes. He made sure his village was not yet safe. “The people we fled to are still active in the area. Besides, my house and the whole village are on the verge of collapse. How can we provide a better future for our children there? We no longer have a place in Iraq.”
Still, Raffet thinks the Pope is better off being here now. “Before long a Christian will not be found there.”