You’ve probably seen the story of Mariam and Sandra. Two little girls from Mosul, a city which, before July 2014, was home to thousands of Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Christians for over 1500 years.Two little girls who lost touch with each other when monsters raided their homes and changed their lives forever. My heart cracked as Sandra cried at the sight of her friend and broke entirely when Mariam tried to offer consolation. Words spoken in their mother tongue via satellite would have to replace the kind of hug only a best friend can give. “La bakhyat, Sandra” (Don’t cry, Sandra). And yet despite everything they had experienced, those two best friends still wanted to go back to Mosul. Home.
Watching those two girls reminded me of myself. I was 12 years old when Iraq invaded Kuwait. I still remember sitting in the hotel room that summer watching my mother’s face crumple as she received the news over the phone, the immediate lump which formed in my throat and the instant feeling of panic and confusion. We were Iraqis. Our passports said so but Kuwait was the only life I had ever known. As the day dragged painfully on, each family member tried to process what had happened – my siblings and I grieved for our past: our friends, our school, our bedrooms – all the things that seem so important when you’re a child while my parents worried about our future, as adults often do. And as the weeks went by,and though we heard the horrible stories of the destruction that was taking place, it made little difference to any of us. We just wanted to go home. Home. Such a small word but oh, the comfort which lies within it.
When news of ISIS first broke in Iraq, the diaspora suddenly became an expert on what was best for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. I was no different.. “Just get them all out of there,” I raged from the security of my own home. “They don’t need to be there anymore. How many more genocides must we endure?” Until, one sleepless night, my mind ticked back to how my family and I felt when we lost our home and the life we knew. Even that experience could not remotely compare to what was happening to those in Iraq. I was only tied to my home by familiarity. Not history. My footsteps did not fall in the place my ancestors walked. My Sundays were not filled with the sounds of church bells, which had been ringing for centuries. My neighbours did not call each other Shwawa. Imagine then, the bond between these indigenous people of Iraq and their home.
I believe this bond is why each eyewitness testimony and interview I have seen following the attack on Khabour features villagers declaring their desire to return home. Back to their village and their land. I can imagine them daydreaming about walking along the banks of Khabour again and, in the summer, swimming in its waters. It also explains why, after months of living in refugee tents and unfinished buildings, the majority of displaced Assyrians/Syriacs/Chaldeans, Yazidis and other suffering people in Iraq still refused to flee overseas, waiting instead to go home – even as the threat of winter loomed. It is why we must continue to seek a safe haven and why we cannot stop until it is granted. It is not an arrogant request, nor an outrageous demand. It is an assurance of safety; a basic human right, a need (a need not a want).
We are fast approaching the one year anniversary of our people being driven from their homes in Iraq. One year since they have been able to sleep in their own beds, brew tea on their own stoves and make kilecheh (traditional biscuits) in their own kitchens. One year since their children saw their childhood come to an ugly and abrupt end. Children like Mariam and Sandra, 2 little girls whose story may have seemed worlds away from those who watched them on tv. But they are not. Their story is our story. It is the story of our parents and their parents before them. It is the story of thousands of Mariams and Sandras over the last 100 years who have had to face death, fear, separation, hunger and heartache. Sandra’s tears echoed countless tears which have fallen from the eyes of children who needed a hug from someone who had been ripped away. Like an unwanted inheritance, our genocide is being passed on from one generation to the next. As we watch our history being erased, our artefacts being turned to rubble, and the cradle of civilisation itself falling from the branches of humanity, we know this cannot be the legacy we leave behind. European Union Parliaments may be passing resolutions in our favour, countries may now be recognising Seyfo, UNESCO may be condemning Islamic State’s destruction of Assyrian historical sites but the truth is there is only one thing that will prevent the same fate from befalling our future generations, one solution that will allow our people to return home. Safe Haven. Now.