Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kurdish Sanctuary for Christian Refugees
A sharply-dressed Iraqi Christian man stands on the threshold of his new shop, dangling a struggling rooster by its feet.
Omar Farooq Jerjis came to Ankawa for the quiet life. The 28-year-old says he fled Baghdad three years ago because insurgents kept trying to kill him for working with the United States military.
His new venture is a beauty salon. The rooster he holds upside-down is about to be sacrificed for good luck. The bird flaps its wings and arches its neck, trying to right itself, as Jerjis recalls what drew him to Ankawa.
“I decided to move when I heard my cousin say this place was just like Baghdad in the 1980s,” he said. “Baghdad is my home but this neighbourhood has given me a future I could not have there.”
Ankawa is a largely Christian town of concrete villas and bustling small businesses on the outskirts of Erbil, capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous and relatively secure Kurdistan region. Since 2003, its population and its perimeter have expanded dramatically with the influx of refugees fleeing violence in Baghdad and Mosul.
Always diverse, Ankawa has become a vivid microcosm of the Christian dialects and denominations that once thrived across Iraq. Though the newcomers placed an inevitable strain on resources, officials and older residents acknowledge that they have also invested heavily in the local economy.
“The displaced Christians revived Ankawa,” said Jerjis. “It used to be a village of mud houses. Now it is a civilized neighbourhood.”
Holding down the rooster on the threshold of his shop, he severs its head with a sweep of a knife. Blood spurts across the floor. Following Arab custom, Jerjis dips a hand in the blood and places a crimson print by the doorway. Above the palm-print, he uses a bloodstained finger to paint a cross – the symbol of his faith.
“Living in Ankawa does not mean I have forgotten my roots as an Iraqi Arab,” he said.
Christians have inhabited Iraq for more than two millennia. There were an estimated 800,000 to one million followers of the faith prior to 2003.
In the turmoil that followed the US-led invasion, the Christian population has dwindled substantially. Under attack from criminals and hard-line Islamist militias, tens of thousands fled to neighbouring countries such as Syria.
Ankawa is an anomaly – one of very few places in Iraq where the Christian community has expanded over the last six years.
Security is the main reason for this, according to the town’s mayor, Fahmy Maty. A suave former lawyer with a constantly ringing cellphone, Maty credited the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, with accommodating the Christians’ growing needs.
In the last six years, he said, three new neighbourhoods had been built around Ankawa, and land for some 4,000 new homes had been set aside. The town’s population had nearly doubled, from 10,000 in 2003 to nearly 20,000 at the latest count.
Despite the rapid expansion, he said friction with Ankawa’s older Christian residents and the Muslims of Erbil had been avoided, “The Christians behave compassionately towards the refugees.... We also have no problems with our Muslim brothers.”
As in the rest of Iraq, Chaldean Catholics are the largest sect in Ankawa, followed by groups such as Assyrians, Syriac Christians and Armenians.
Between them, they speak a range of dialects and languages, from Syriac and Aramaic to Kurdish and Arabic. Some Christians regard themselves as ethnically distinct from other denominations, others do not.
The degree to which they identify with nearby Muslim communities – be they Kurdish or Arab – also varies sharply. According to Maty, the displaced Christians from Mosul and Baghdad generally speak fluent Arabic, with little or no Kurdish. Ankawa’s older Christian families, meanwhile, speak fluent Kurdish and little Arabic.
“The displaced people are unlike us,” said Habib Shamoon, a 64-year-old Christian carpenter in the traditional Kurdish garb of baggy one-piece suit and cummerbund. “We are Kurds but they are Arabs,” he said, helping himself to hot beans from a roadside vendor.
At a school for Assyrian Christians in Ankawa, 17-year-old Raabil Shlemkho said he took most of his lessons in the Syriac language. “The displaced Christians do not study here,” he said. “They study at their own schools, in Arabic.”
Lubna Khalil, an 11-year-old Assyrian schoolgirl, said in halting Arabic that the newcomers spoke a “different Christian language and did not know Kurdish”.
Um Marina, a Christian refugee from Baghdad, said she was not overly troubled by the language gap – her young daughter had already picked up the Ankawa dialect.
Far more upsetting for her was the relatively high price of living and the chilly reception from some locals.
“My neighbour was Christian but she never greeted us for the first few months that we lived here,” she said. Um Marina said she had taken up work as manager of a local store, selling wedding dresses, because her husband had been unable to find a well-paid job.
Sami, a building contractor who refused to give his last name, said he considered Ankawa his new home. Originally from a Muslim neighbourhood in the violent city of Mosul, he said he fled after his neighbour of 20 years began threatening him.
“At first I suffered here but now I make good money from my business,” he said. “I will not consider leaving Ankawa. Let’s say it in sectarian terms – this is where I can be with my people, the Christians.”
Mayor Maty said the high rents in Ankawa were partly the result of soaring demand, created by the new refugees. He added that he expected Ankawa’s economy to continue booming, fuelled by the foreign organisations that had set up base there.
The US has a heavily guarded consulate in Ankawa, and several aid agencies and oil firms also rent large villas in the area. Cranes and cement mixers toil on construction sites along the perimeter. Among the many buildings going up, one structure has recently been torn down – a police cabin on the road into town.
“The police are everywhere – we don’t need checkpoints,” said a grey-haired American man shopping at a local store. Behind him, burly foreign men with shaven heads and sunglasses inspected bottles of liquor.
Outside the new beauty salon, Jerjis was tidying up. He said he planned to give the slaughtered rooster to an employee who was too poor to afford meat. From a window, a woman called out, “Make sure you clean the pavement.”
“All done,” Jerjis replied, splashing water over the bloodstains.
Abeer Mohammed is an IWPR senior local editor and Neil Arun is an IWPR Iraq editor.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight