Refugee Stories: “The straw that broke the camel’s back”

Refugee Stories: “The straw that broke the camel’s back” January 7, 2016

Bassam Jacob lived in a mixed neighborhood in central Baghdad. For his whole life he watched Shite and Sunni Muslims vie for power. Usually it was at the expense of each other, but sometimes it was the Christian minority that suffered injury or loss of life and property.

It was a way of life.

According to Bassam, the situation was already terrible in Baghdad. The school had closed down. People were routinely killed. Basic commodities like food and fuel were increasingly in short supply.

He had lived in Baghdad his whole life, so he has “seen it all.”

“Life under Sadaam wasn’t easy, but at least he allowed the Christians to worship.”

He was among those who cheered his overthrow, as any kind of opposition to the dictator was met with swift punishment.

But the dictator also played his heavy hand smartly, holding rival factions at bay.

Things just got worse

After Sadaam Hussein’s removal by a world coaltion, the vacuum created a power grab. Many players entered the market, including Al Qaeda. The withdrawal of U.S. forces only hastened the chaos as even more extreme groups entered the arena.

“We were happy with the American presence.  For us, when they left, it got worse,” said Bassam. “They should have kept our soldiers there. They should have stayed until things were stable.”

But the insertion of Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, changed things. The term “Daesh” is a word is an acronym of the group’s full Arabic name al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. It’s an expression which means “a bigot who imposes his view on others.”

It’s meant to be an insult, and most Iraqis I spoke to have no problems using it.

When they moved in Bassam’s neighborhood it brought a new level of threat that went beyond harassment.

If you don’t leave, we will kill you

He worked for a printer, delivering menus, guide books and promotional materials to businesses. It wasn’t a job that threatened anyone and he thought he would be left alone to provide for his family.

But all that changed one day when a man with a mask commandeered his truck. He drew a knife and issued a threat. “We know who you are. We know who you worship.”

The man also issued a threat to kidnap his children, “for the cause.”

“And then, if you don’t leave, we kill you.”

The “we” was Daesh, and Bassam knew they meant business.

This was, as he put it in Arabic – “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” Yes, it’s a shared expression with the English language, but one that is best understood from a Middle Eastern perspective. Camels are great beasts of help and industry, but they reach a breaking point. Put too much weight on them and they will drop to their knees and quit. For Bassam, the expression had a different outcome – he took his family and ran.

His family consisted of a wife, Maysoon, and two boys and a girl. They had lived their whole lives in Iraq. It was home for generations of his family and they never thought of leaving. They were Assyrian Christians, a Roman Orthodox faith group that is among the world’s oldest.

The kidnapping threat was real. The children of their pastor had already been kidnapped. The ransom money was paid and the family promptly moved to Lebanon. So horrific was her time, the girl didn’t speak for a week.

“If that happened, I wouldn’t be able to pay a ransom since we were so poor.”

No money. No work. Just hope of immigration

Masoon is wistful as she recalls their departure a year ago.

“I miss my family – we all left at the same time and went different directions,” she said. “I’m not upset about what we left behind. I’m just happy to be here with my husband and children.”

The couple doesn’t regret their decision, but their last year has been difficult. They live in a small apartment in Jordan. They are not allowed to work, so they depend on money sent by friends in the West. The United Nations gave them about $60 in April.

Their only hope is an immigration application filed with the United Nations. They hope to settle in the U.S., Canada or Australia. They had two interviews with officials, the last one was about six months ago. They were told to wait.


A child-like trust

Despite the upending of their lives, their faith hasn’t wavered.

“My faith has never, never, never become less,” said Masoon. “Sometimes I am tempted to doubt. But we are believing family. Jesus has been in this house from the beginning.”

“For most of I life, I didn’t want to learn all the details of my religion,” she said. “It was like a sea, that goes very deep. I was just fine being on the water.”

As she has bonded with U.S. aid workers and other refugees, she has seen her faith deepen. But she still has a child-like trust.

“I am satisfied because we are safe,” she said.

Are they angry?

“God will compensate them according to what they have done,” said Bassam. “We don’t think of those who’ve wronged us. When we decided to leave, our Muslim neighbors didn’t want us to go. They were our friends.”

Their mind is never far from those still in Iraq.

“We want you to pray,” Masoon said. “Pray for the good people – Christians and Muslims – who are suffering”



Telling #RefugeeStories

This story is part of a series written after a journey to Jordan in October where I met with Syrian and Iraqi Christian Refugees. Please read and consider sharing each of them.

Kneejerk: The Paris killings are bad for Christian refugees

ISIS interrupted their wedding plans, but not their love

Syrian Refugee: Whenever I look in my baby’s face, I think of home”

Family of five: We pray for ISIS

Nowhere to go: Refugee families escaped persecution, but cannot escape captivity

This Syrian family is looking for home

The straw that broke the camel’s back

Ancient town finds revival because of Syrian refugees

Miracles in the Middle East: Is there hope in the Chaos?

A Christian (and sane) response to the Middle East refugee crisis


How you can help

You can help by sharing each of the stories above by email, Facebook or Twitter. This is not to build any kind of personal following, but to help these stories somehow, someway reach the right people who can change the face of the refugee crisis. There is power in a simple click. You can also subscribe here to receive all the future posts and I ask that you share them broadly as well.

There are many opportunities for attention and money, but I want to remind you what the Apostle Paul said.

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, but especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Many of these people stood up for their faith under the threat of death. And as a body of believers, we need to rush to their side, to remind them that they are not alone. We do not do this by condemning Islam. Painting broad strokes of fear does not help in any way and only serves to isolate the innocent from Christian love. The enemies are those who terrorize, in any name.

Please share this message with your friends, as this is a chance to give real, immediate aid to those on the front lines without any bureaucracy or middlemen.

You can also give online here. Under Missionary/Project Name, “Madaba – Refugee Fund”

Checks can go to Team Expansion, POB 91294, Louisville, KY 40291, memo line, “Refugee Fund”

I would also encourage you to become a regular supporter of these people who are working every single day on behalf of the gospel for the sake of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I’ve seen how they use money and how they live and I’m a believer that this is a worthy cause.

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