BEIRUT — Standing in front of a local Assyrian church, Jack Zayya, an Assyrian Christian refugee from Syria who arrived in Beirut two months ago, recalls the difficult journey from his hometown of Al-Hasakah, situated in northeastern Syria and home to many Christians and Kurds. "We are searching for the quickest way to go to Europe or Canada, maybe America."
Before the war, Zayya led a good life in Syria, making a home for his wife and two children. "I had a car wash and, thank God, it provided for us for a long time," he says. "But it's all gone now — the house, our belongings, the car wash, everything."
During the first two years of the conflict, Al-Hasakah was relatively calm. But when President Bashar al-Assad's military forces pulled out of the region in 2013, local residents had to fend for themselves against a variety of armed factions. They were able to protect the area for several months, until Jabhat al Nusra arrived and took control of much of Al-Hasakah towards the end of that year.
"Things were hard under [Jabhat al Nusra], but it got much worse when Daesh arrived," Zayya explained, using an Arabic name for ISIS.
Kidnappings became a regular occurrence, and Assyrians, who numbered around 40,000 of the 1.2 million Syrian Christians before the violence started in 2011, have often been targeted. ISIS took an estimated 220 Assyrians hostage by ISIS in late February, and only 19 have been released to date. One Assyrian refugee from an Al-Hasakah area village, who asked that his name not be used, says that nearly 90 relatives from his wife's extended family are among those still held by ISIS.
"No negotiating" with ISIS
"Kidnappings were about getting ransom from rich families or individuals at first," Zayya says. "With Daesh, though, there is no negotiating. We had to pay the jizya tax or die." He's referring to the compulsory tax that religious minorities are required to pay under the ISIS rule.
After a hard-line ISIS sheik was appointed as emir of the Al-Hasakah area, ISIS removed crosses from the churches and destroyed them. Wearing a crucifix was forbidden, Zayya says. Christians weren't allowed to drive or ride in automobiles, and women were mandated to wear burkas.
Al-Hasakah, Syria — Photo: haitham alfalah
"Our children saw many beheadings," he says. "We were obligated to watch public executions. What kind of world is that for kids to grow up in? They were always scared."
As of July 2014, ISIS controlled an estimated 35% of Syria, with other hard-line Salafist groups controlling large swaths elsewhere.
Since then, U.S.-led coalition forces have used airstrikes to push the militant organization back in certain parts of the country, but ISIS has strengthened its grasp on core areas.
In February, ISIS swept through roughly a dozen villages in northeastern Syria. In April, after a long battle against rebel forces, the terror group took over an estimated 90% of Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus.
Beirut's local Assyrian community has helped organize the flight of Assyrian families from Al-Hasakah and elsewhere to Lebanon, negotiating an exception for Assyrians despite Lebanon's borders having been officially closed to Syrian refugees for months.
"More are coming"
There are some 800 Assyrian families from surrounding communities who have been exiled to Al-Hasakah, according to Lebanese Assyrian Church Bishop Yatron Koliana, who works with the government to facilitate shelter for Assyrian refugees.
"Of course, we're in touch with the families that are still in Al-Hasakah," he says. "When they want to come, they send us their names, we send their names to the border and they are let in. Now the Lebanese army will not let a Syrian citizen into the country unless his name is on the list."
He adds, "I'm sure more are coming. They're giving us new names every day."
Upon arriving in Lebanon, the displaced families continue to struggle for survival, largely because they are legally barred from working in the country. Most of the families fled under attack and were unable to bring more than what they could carry with them along the dangerous trek.
Assyrian church in Hal-Hasakah, Syria — Photo: Bertramz
Many have had to resort to working menial, under-the-table jobs, such as construction and other forms of manual labor. They are nonetheless burdened by expenses for health care, education and rental costs while in Lebanon. "The three biggest problems they face are sickness, education and a place to live,” the bishop says.
"For the time being, most families are dependent on donations to get by. Now we have the capabilities to continue because we have food and money donations, but how long will these last? This situation can't continue for much longer. Another six months? Difficult. Another year? Impossible."
On Easter, ISIS bombed an Assyrian church in Tel Tamer, an Assyrian village in eastern Syria, according to the Assyrian Network for Human Rights. The bomb was detonated as Assyrian and Kurdish fighters attempted to retake the village from ISIS, which has controlled it since early March.
Bishop Koliana says he and others in the church have urged Assyrians in Syria to remain steadfast. "I'm telling them not to leave this land," he says. "This is our land. They say, 'OK, we're with you. This is our land, but what are we supposed to eat? Dirt?'"
For his part, Zayya says he doesn't want to return to Syria. "We didn't used to have sectarianism in Syria," he recalls. "We all lived together. We didn't ask our neighbors about their religion."
But those days are long gone. "We're not returning."