[Ramy Yaqo, a 23-year-old Iraqi Christian, was forced to leave Mosul for a safer haven after ISIS invaded his hometown in mid-2014. PHOTO: Amber Nasrulla]
Ramy Yaqo is an Assyrian Christian who lived and studied in Mosul, Iraq, until ISIS invaded in June 2014. He and his family had to relocate to nearby Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city. During that summer, the Muslim friends he’d grown up with and studied with, were frantic. Calling him, saying he and his family needed to immediately leave Qaraqosh. “ISIS is coming and they will kill you,” he recalls.
ISIS fighters soon advanced on the city of 50,000. “From the loudspeakers in the mosque they were shouting that Christians would have to convert. Or die,” Ramy says.
On the morning his family planned to leave, Ramy stepped into the street to take one last look at his neighbourhood. It had emptied over night. He was shaken by the silence. The family piled into a cousin’s jeep and they joined up with other stragglers. Ultimately, 10 Christian families drove north in a convoy to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq.
When they got there the city was crowded with Iraqis who had run from ISIS. His family went to St. Joseph’s Cathedral and was told it was full. They were directed to an open-air camp on the grounds of Mar Elia Catholic Church and have been there ever since along with 670 other internally displaced Christian Iraqis. Ramy, his sister and parents have made a temporary home inside a shipping container. The camp received basic supplies from Erbil residents and soon had financial support from the Canadian government as well as international aid from other countries.
“There’s not much privacy,” Ramy says, “but I know how lucky we are to be here. Alive.”
The trajectory of his life has been determined primarily by war and outside forces — two Gulf wars, al-Qaida and ISIS. He’s hanging on to hope.
He’d love to escape war. To have choices. To start a new life. But what is the path out of Iraq for a 23-year-old, single and jobless man displaced and dispossessed?
It’s true that Ramy doesn’t fit the profile that private Canadian sponsors look for in a refugee. He doesn’t fit the profile the Trudeau government gives precedence to: Syrians, families, women, children and sexual minorities at risk.
The government isn’t motivated to resettle young, single Syrian men either, who, according to the UN, rank among the most vulnerable.
“While few civilians have been left unscathed by the continuing brutality of the Syrian war, it is civilian men who make up the largest community of victims.
"Civilian men perceived to be of fighting age have been targeted by warring parties during ground attacks. They are also the primary civilian victims of enforced disappearance, torture and unlawful killing,” according to the United Nations Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic published in September 2015.
A lucky few make it here
Ramy’s uncle and two cousins left Mar Elia for Jordan within weeks of arriving in Erbil and, from there applied for refugee status to Canada. They now live in Mississauga. They were recently sightseeing in Niagara Falls, Ont., and loved it. He wants his family to move as well. “But we have no money. No savings. Nothing,” he says. And Jordan has tightened its borders.
Ramy can’t rely on his uncle to get him out of Iraq. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, contrary to popular belief, refugees cannot sponsor every member of their extended family. In fact, the law permits reunification with only a limited range of family members. For instance, you cannot sponsor a brother or sister (unless they are orphaned). And, as of Aug. 1, 2014, you can’t sponsor children who are older than 19.
Lacking family you can hope for the kindness of strangers. Given that there are 1.5-million displaced Iraqis and 1.8 million Syrians in Iraq, the odds are not in Ramy’s favour.
Furthermore, according to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, only nine private sponsorship applications were received for Iraqi refugees in January, compared to a monthly average of 160 in 2015.
And during the five years from 2010 to 2014, roughly 17,000 Iraqis were resettled in Canada as government-assisted refugees. That’s about 3,400 annually.
Ramy is not angry. He is heartbroken. He mourns his future. He was studying engineering in Mosul and had a job placement. He wishes to continue his studies.
He tries to keep his spirits up by volunteering during trauma therapy sessions at Mar Elia.
“Oh, are you a counsellor?” I ask.
“No, just reception,” he says sheepishly.
When not volunteering he remembers his former life. His Muslim friends in Mosul feared for his safety but now it’s Ramy’s turn to worry. He talks to them sporadically on WhatsApp.
“If ISIS found out they were talking to me, a Christian, my friends would be killed. I am very scared for them,” he says.
His eyes water but he smiles and looks away. He fiddles with the tiny wooden cross around his neck.
“I would love for them to get out of Mosul.”
And he would love for his Assyrian Christian community to find a permanent safe haven. Even if that means leaving Iraq. Canada. Europe. Anywhere. Somewhere.
“The world is a big place. We just want a tiny spot of a place to live in,” Ramy says. “To live with dignity. There has to be something for us.”