First they lost their property, then their friends and now they are losing their culture. Each of the 149 Iraqi refugees who came to Slovakia in December 2015 from the city of Mosul, Iraq has their own way to deal with it, some being more successful than others.
“Those people are going through various traumas and they have to deal with the loss of their property and culture which is particularly hard for older people who have strong bonds to their homeland,” Peter Brenkus of Pokoj a dobro (Peace and Goodness) organisation which shelters their integration, told The Slovak Spectator.
Pokoj a Dobro organised a meeting of Slovaks and Iraqi refugees on April 26 in Bratislava to tell their stories and describe their current situation to the public. Iraqis came to Slovakia as part of an international programme funded by foreign donors and the Slovak government. However, despite their hardships with integration none of those Iraqi Christians has left the country so far, contrary to a similar group of Iraq refugees in Czech Republic.
From the original group of 139 refugees, only 89 went to the Czech Republic in January 2016 and since then 49 have left the country. Christians have been living in Iraq hundreds of years and were a natural part of local society. Most of this time, coexistence between the Muslim majority and Christians was not problematic.
This changed after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 amid increasing instability across the entire region, according to Katarína Šomodiová from The Department of Comparative Religious Studies at the Faculty of Arts at Commenius University. “When we realise that an Iraqi man who is currently 20-years-old was living the first seven years of his life under an authoritative regime and the next 13 years in total chaos it is obvious why many of them radicalise,” Šomodiová said during an April 26 event.
Mirna is a 15-year-old Iraqi girl who came with the refugee group in Slovakia. Due to her age she does not remember the situation before 2003 but she was told by her parents that both Christians and Muslims were living next to each other peacefully. “My family had many friends among Muslims,” Mirna said during the event. “I had a good friend who was Muslim and we had in touch until I came here.”
After extremists attacked people in a church during mass, Christians in Mosul became aware of the fact that they might become a prosecuted group. Some of them later decided to leave the city. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” 19-year-old refugee Rita Khaleel told The Slovak Spectator. “My family was discussing it for one year.”
They fled to Qaraqosh city which is 30 kilometres from Mosul, but ISIS invaded the city in August 2014 and tens of thousands Christians fled overnight. Many of them went to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and sought help in Al-Biza’s Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church. “This refugee camp and parish provided us shelter and a surprisingly high number of possibilities for personal development,” Mirna said.
There is no direct threat for Christians in Kurdistan, yet life would be complicated for them. They do not speak Kurdish, there is a high unemployment rate and locals have a reserved attitude towards them. Therefore they decided to move again. “I learned that I should not create friendships,” Khaleel told The Slovak spectator. “Every time I found friends I had to leave them after some time.” There were individuals in the US willing to help them, but the US government did not allow taking them to the country.
Therefore they approached countries in Europe and Slovakia was among those which agreed, according to Brenkus. “It was like after all this darkness there is some candlelight,” Rita said. “It is hope for us to begin a new life, even if it is difficult.” Despite it not being easy to start a new life, refugees are trying to integrate into society. All of them have homes, they are learning Slovak and trying to find work, according to Brenkus.
“We are living in a house, learning English and trying to have a normal life,” Rita said. Finding a job is among the biggest problems and most of them were able to find only part-time work. They are waiting for better conditions because they will get status of disadvantaged job seekers in a few weeks making them a more interesting choice for employers, according to Brenkus. “We are looking for possibilities to harmonise work duties and Slovak language lessons,” Brenkus said.
There is a different situation in the Czech Republic where civic organisation Foundation Fund Generation 21 (NFG21) orchestrated the arrival of 139 refugees to the country. From 89 people who did not change their decision in the process and came to the Czech Republic, 25 went to Germany. Another 24 decided to go back to Iraq.
Therefore the Czech government cancelled the whole project in early April 2016. Currently it is difficult to analyse the reasons why those people changed their minds, according to Martin Frýdl of NFG21. “All integration processes have been done correctly, according to experts on integration,” Frýdl told The Slovak Spectator.
“But it is impossible to predict success of relocation because there is a mix of many factors such as psychological conditions of refugees, their personalities, the whole atmosphere and various external factors.” On the other hand, refugees who came to Slovakia were intentionally chosen to make a good impression and be easily integrated, photographer Anton Frič who spent several weeks with them in Iraq told the Sme daily back in January.
“Those people do not have family in Germany and will not run away right after they get asylum,” Frič said, as quoted by Sme. “Those are complete families, some of them of four generations and this is also assurance that they will stay here.”
by Roman Cuprik