Story

Iraqi Kurdistan: Marooned at the Mall

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The interior of a building that is now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Image by Sebastian Meyer. Iraq, 2014.

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Mark sleeps in a cubicle room inside an abandoned building that’s now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Image by Sebastian Meyer. Iraq, 2014.

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A young boy plays with burning garbage in an abandoned lot across the street from a camp for displaced Christians where he lives with his family. Image by Sebastian Meyer. Iraq, 2014.

Six weeks ago, as Islamic State militants threatened Baghdad, Suleiman, a member of Iraq’s Christian minority, abandoned his job at the airport and set out with his family for Kurdistan, the autonomous northern region that has become a haven for persecuted religious minorities. Along the way, their car was stopped at an Islamic State checkpoint. Terrified, Suleiman decided to flatter the terrorists in the hope that they might let him and his family pass: “Good job, I told them. After only twenty-four hours you have taken over here.’” Recalling the incident, he paused. “Really, I was thinking about death.” The militants took his papers (“They knew I am a Christian”) and all of his money before finally letting the car pass.

Sitting cross-legged on a mattress in a makeshift refugee camp in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, where he and his family had ended up, Suleiman pulled open his wallet. It contained a small blue bill: 250 Iraqi dinar—about twenty cents. In Ankawa, the affluent, predominantly Christian neighborhood where the camp was located, 250 dinar is enough for one bottle of water. For Suleiman, whose scant possessions (mainly toiletries) were laid out fastidiously on a shelf, not having any money meant not having an identity, nor any hope of regaining one.

Suleiman and his family were not alone. In mid-August, hundreds of displaced Christians who had fled to Erbil were moved by Kurdish authorities into the concrete shell of a half-built mall. Most of them were from Iraq’s northwestern Nineveh Plain, home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It made perfect sense, in a way: Iraqi Kurdistan is in the midst of an economic boom, the harvest of which, so far, seems to be half-built malls. With the Islamic State on the border, construction has come to a halt, and the malls and other developments—the future offices, apartments, and shops of the hyper-developed oil state that Kurdish leaders and investors like to envision—are being used to house the nearly 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have poured into Kurdistan.

Hauling foam mattresses, bright-blue U.N.H.C.R. blankets, and purses containing well-thumbed American visa applications, the Christian IDPs rushed to claim spots on the mall’s three floors. The structure, situated on a busy road, was exposed and dreary, full of construction hazards and looking more post-apocalyptic than pre–grand opening. Still, it was better than sleeping outside.

Displaced people from Karamlish, a town of about 10,000 that lies fifty miles west of Erbil, took the top floor. Up there it was open and breezy, relatively private, with good views of Saint Joseph’s Church, a fortress-like building topped by a glowing cross, where many of the displaced had spent their first nights. But being up high was also more dangerous. The outer walls of the third floor were unfinished, and just beyond them was a perilous drop onto the craggy rubble of a construction site. A temporary stairwell connecting the floors had no railing, and, in the middle of the structure, what would one day become the mall’s atrium was now a gaping hole.

On the first floor, families from Qaraqosh claimed space as far away from the busy main entrance as possible. Men policed that entrance, but they feared strangers; it was hard to know who belonged. Some refugees leaned their belongings against the cinder blocks that had been stacked into rudimentary walls. They were grateful for the privacy. Others gravitated to the open areas—temperatures had reached 110 degrees in Erbil and even a thick, hot breeze was better than nothing. They hung blankets and jackets on the rebar that jutted out of columns and tried to claim even a small bit of turf as their own.

Latecomers from Qaraqosh and nearby Bartella, as well as the sick or wheelchair-bound, were forced below ground into the future parking garage. Down there, the air was still. Sick IDPs lay on mattresses. Water dripping from buckets or plastic bottles formed puddles that never seemed to dry. A two-foot gap just below the ceiling let in some breeze, which brought along dust and garbage kicked up by passersby on the street; many of the residents blocked the opening with cardboard. It was dark even during the day. One elderly woman wept, sweeping bits of trash into a dustpan. She said that she felt like she was living in a grave, and that her real home was a ghost town.

The Christians living in the mall knew that they were just a few among a multitude of IDPs. Some were quick to point out that, compared with other minorities in Iraq—the Yazidis in particular—they were lucky. The Islamic State had not ambushed them in their homes. Instead, the Kurdish peshmerga who had been guarding the towns had determined, in the days before the U.S. began assisting them with air strikes, that they had to retreat and regroup. The Christians were warned, and given time to leave. Most received word through an unexpected late-evening phone call. “Some areas fall by fighting,” Stephen, a Catholic priest from Karamlish, told me. “We fell by cell phone.”

“No one is prepared to receive 20,000 people in one day,” Father Douglas, a local priest, said, as he watched parcels of food aid being unloaded in the mall’s basement. The bulk of the aid came from a local Catholic diocese, with about 20 percent coming from private donors; so far, they had sufficient food and medical aid. Father Douglas was a familiar type of religious leader, as concerned about the mental well-being of his congregation as their spiritual devotion. Messages on a whiteboard in his office across town urged IDPs to “stay positive and stay strong.” He’d seen worse. “I’m from Baghdad,” he liked to say. “To me, this is a picnic.”

Each plastic-wrapped parcel contained moderate portions of belly-filling staples: rice and soft cheese, cooking oil, pasta. They rolled off the back of a truck into the eager hands of the Bartella and Qaraqosh IDPs, who looked both relieved and embarrassed. Back home, most had jobs. I met electricians, nurses, famers, and pharmacists, as well as airport cooks who proudly referred to themselves as “chefs,” drivers now without cars, and grocery owners who imagined their inventory feeding the Islamic State.

Daniel, a Qaraqosh native in his twenties, with faint acne scars and spiked black hair, had worked as a janitor in a wedding hall, cleaning up after the last guests had drained their drinks and gone home. Sometimes he was there until sunrise, sweeping the floor and scrubbing the tables—but that meant the wedding had been particularly large and probably happy.

“To be honest, our life in Qaraqosh was really good,” Daniel said. “We worked. I had two laptops, an Xbox, a camera.” He missed Facebook and God of War III, a combat video game loosely based on Greek mythology. He hadn’t been to church in five months. “I don’t know why,” he said, looking at the floor. “I don’t know what to say. I just always feel bad.”

Daniel lived in a corner on the first floor of the mall, but he hadn’t met many of his neighbors. One of them, a young mother, had traveled fifteen hours in a car with her eight-day-old baby. A seat in the car cost a hundred dollars, and the trip had been slow and frightening. But it hadn’t been uncomfortable, she told me—there was air-conditioning, and they let her carry her son on her lap for no extra charge. Her husband was still in Baghdad.

The boy slept swaddled in white cloth, and each adult who touched him seemed to receive a shock of delight. But Daniel only nodded at the baby, chuckling to see the source of the crying that kept him up at night. Choosing not to interact with other people, or to bond with neighbors over a shared horror, is a right that many of the IDPs seemed determined to exercise. No comfort, not even a newborn baby, could compare to the comfort of familiarity. Even though they were out of immediate danger, suspicion colored every interaction.

Small groups of roving men monitored the flow of people between floors. A local priest, one of these informal guards told me, had advised them to keep an eye on who came and went. Their behavior mimicked what they had experienced crossing the border on their way to Erbil. Security is paramount to the success story of modern Iraqi Kurdistan, and the influx of IDPs has fueled widespread anxiety—hence the rigorous profiling of refugees at Kurdish border checkpoints. “You cannot undermine your own security just because you are doing a humanitarian job,” Safeen Dizayee, a Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) spokesperson, told me.

Many Christians I spoke to assumed that their religion had helped them get through the checkpoints at the Kurdistan border. It was hard for them to feel guilty about the preferential treatment. Still, some Christians in the mall declared that they could no longer live among Muslims, which seemed both an acknowledgment of their homelessness and an expression of their newfound prejudice against their former neighbors back in Iraq. (The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but their strong collective identity generally derives more from ethnicity than religion.)

“At the Erbil checkpoint we had to get a taxi, but they were scared of us,” Daniel said. “I told the taxi driver, don’t be afraid, we are Christians. We are just happy to be alive. The driver relaxed. He said, ‘I’m sorry that I have to take money from you. We are peaceful, we just want to live our lives.’ But when you tell them you are Muslim, they give you a paper that lets you stay for seven days. They don’t trust Arab Muslims.”

One afternoon in early September, a crowd formed in the mall’s basement. “We are disrespected, all of us!” a man shouted, waving his arms. His audience shuddered. “I waited for three hours and all I got was this,” he said, holding up a bag of chocolate cookies and one of powered milk. “There’s no rice. When the rain starts, the basement will be full of water. They’ll throw us into the streets and kill us because of this,” he said, pointing to the cross around his neck. “Either you are Muslim, or you will die.” His voice cracked. “Our government treats us so badly. We don’t want them anymore. We want the European government. There are only 200,000 of us, Europe could take us.”

Among the IDPs on all floors the desire to leave Iraq was unmistakable. The project of securing a visa to America or Europe was a distraction from the empty days, one that replaced the jobs and social lives they had left at home in Nineveh. Many people clutched applications and new passports like trophies, which they displayed to each other or to visitors as proof of their determination. It was clear to them that Kurdistan, in spite of its autonomy, was very much a part of Iraq. They had themselves blurred the borders when they crossed them.

One large family was trying to nurse their four-year-old son back to health, but in the dank atmosphere of the basement they were pessimistic. A doctor, the mother told me, had said that the child could die if they didn’t move in one month. He needed treatment abroad. “The only solution is to leave this place,” she said. The woman also needed to see a specialist; she had been hit by a car, and her foot was twisted and deformed, the outer toes folded toward the middle.

Absorbing the influx of refugees and IDPs has given Kurdistan the chance to prove that its reputation for progress and open-mindedness is more than just rhetoric. In many important ways it has succeeded. There have been very few reports of harassment by locals, and the government has worked quickly to set up camps and to offer as much assistance as possible, even when foreign aid has been slow to materialize. The humanitarian burden shouldn’t be underestimated. “Can you imagine if 560,000 people in one month went to France or to the U.K?” Dizayee, the K.R.G. spokesperson, asked me. “Do you think even they could manage?”

But in other ways, the crisis has amplified some of the region’s difficulties. Budget disputes with Baghdad, which have gone unresolved since January, make it difficult to pay for the humanitarian efforts, and not all of the blame for these disputes can be pinned on an intractable central government. Profiling at checkpoints may be justified by officials for security measures, but it hampers the image of Kurdistan as an ecumenical refuge.

There are also limits to how comfortable IDPs feel in Kurdistan. Many in the shopping mall were upset by the Christians in Ankawa, who hadn’t opened their homes to refugees. No one in Bartella would ever let another Christian sleep on the street, they said. One Karamlish man complained about being rebuffed by the peshmerga back in Iraq, which, he said, showed the limits of Kurdistan’s inclusivity. “I said, ‘We are here, we have 1,800 people. Give us guns and we will fight,’” he told me. “They said, No, we will fight for you. Go sit.”

The crisis has also exposed some of the ways in which Kurdistan’s economic growth has made it a more difficult place to live. Finding affordable housing in Erbil is daunting, and the price of groceries has soared. The cost of living is untenable for IDPs with limited resources. And Kurdistan’s medical infrastructure, which has long been underdeveloped and stymied by government inefficiency, has buckled under the weight of ailing refugees. The Christians in the Ankawa shopping mall were grateful for the security, but had no desire to stay.

Meanwhile, Father Douglas treated his congregation as though they were in hospice care. It was his job, he said, to make them feel comfortable and cared for, and to reinforce their connection to their religion. But even amid his feel-good rhetoric, he did not urge the displaced Christians to stay in Iraq. He expected that within a year, 50 percent of Iraq’s Christians would be gone, whether physically relocated or, as he somberly predicted, psychologically out of reach. “During the service, I say, ‘Think about your kids,’ ” he told me. “Only the parents can make this decision. Not the government, only the parents.”

The family with the sick four-year-old built their lives in the mall basement around their determination to leave. They stacked their children’s passports next to their mattresses, brandishing them whenever an aid worker or journalist visited, and snuck onto neighborhood wireless networks when they could, to connect with friends and family on Facebook who had already made it out. They sent query after query to U.N.H.C.R., and they checked and rechecked pending visa applications as though they were overturned hourglasses. Each small action was another step out of the country. “The only thing we can do is find a good place for our children,” the father said. “These children don’t love Iraq.”