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Assyrians struggle in Lebanon after fleeing IS jihadists

AFP , Wednesday 18 Mar 2015
Syrian Assyrians
Syrian Assyrian Christians, who fled their home from Syria, load aid onto a car during an event for humanitarian aid at the Assyrians Archbishopric, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, March 17, 2015 (Photo: AP)

Waiting in an aid line outside Lebanon's capital Beirut, Assyrian Christian Francie Yaacoub remembers the well-stocked home she left behind in Syria as she fled advancing Islamic State group jihadists.

"We left behind a house full of everything. Why do we now have to stand at the church door?" she asked quietly as she waited to receive aid at the Assyrian diocese of Sid al-Boushriyeh.

She is one of hundreds of Assyrian Christians who have arrived in Lebanon in recent weeks after IS jihadists stormed their villages in Syria's northeastern province of Hasakeh.

Members of Lebanon's Assyrian community, many of them related to those who fled Hasakeh, are doing their best to welcome the new refugees, but the displacement has left them traumatised.

Yaacoub, in her fifties, now lives in a small house with her son, husband and five other Assyrian refugees.

Her family fled their village, Tal Nasri, during a terrifying IS bombardment last week.

"We left in our pyjamas. My son walked barefoot, we left without our shoes on," she said.

"The shells were falling all around us... We had to flee because the safety of your children is the most important thing."

Yaacoub's family was not alone -- thousands of Assyrians have been forced to abandon their villages along Hasakeh's Khabur river since IS jihadists began an attack there in February.

The group has seized at least 11 of the 33 Assyrian villages in the region, and kidnapped more than 200 members of the ancient Christian sect, which numbered around 30,000 in Syria before the war.

Many residents fled to the city of Qamishli, or the provincial capital Hasakeh, which are both under Kurdish and Syrian government control.

Yaacoub and her family went to Hasakeh city first, then travelled on to Damascus before finally arriving in Sid al-Boushriyeh, east of Beirut.

Around 300 Assyrian refugees have arrived in the district since the beginning of March, and many lined up on Tuesday afternoon at the local Assyrian diocese to receive aid distributed by the In Defence Of Christians (IDC) group.

"The villages of Khabur are empty now, there is no one left except some fighters," lamented Chorbishop Yatron Koliana, as he oversaw the distribution at his diocese.

"Our people have experienced a great tragedy in Syria," he added with a sigh, saying that many of the new arrivals were traumatised.

"They are depressed. Some of them have chronic illnesses. Their lives are difficult," he said.

"How can we be comfortable, living on aid?" asked 50-year-old Simaan, who fled his village Tal Hormuz.

He railed against what he called international indifference to the plight of Assyrians under attack by IS in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

"The whole world, from the UN to the United States and Russia, is responsible," he said angrily.

"They (IS) have destroyed our whole civilisation... and the world is watching."

Many of those receiving aid could not yet imagine a return to villages where they say IS fighters blew up churches and looted homes.

But staying in Lebanon is not easy.

Authorities granted fleeing Assyrians a special exception to tight new restrictions on Syrian refugees imposed at the beginning of this year.

An influx of more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees into Lebanon has tested the country's resources and the patience of its four million citizens.

Yaacoub's family, and the five other refugees living with them, are struggling to pay monthly rent of around $500 for their home, with little left over for food.

IDC representative Alexei Moukarzel, overseeing the distribution of thousands of food baskets and hundreds of mattresses, criticised a lack of international attention.

"The world is not paying enough attention to these groups who have been forcibly displaced," he said.

The Assyrians are an ancient Christian community, present in the region for thousands of years, and Koliana and the Assyrian church are determined to ensure the minority continues to be represented in the region.

"I urge the Assyrians now in Lebanon... to keep alive the hope of returning to Khabur, because Khabur is our land, and is where our ancestors and martyrs are buried," Koliana told AFP.

But many Assyrians fleeing Syria, like the Christians displaced from Iraq before them, are now seeking to leave the region altogether.

One man at the diocese, who refused to give his name and spoke in a barely audible whisper, acknowledged that he had no plans to stay.

"I'm waiting to get asylum in Australia with my family."

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© 2010 Ahram Online.