Nuri Kino (centre) and Layal Nehme interview a refugee in Beirut for a report and film on the Christian exodus from the Mideast. Photo courtesy ADFA

Mideast exodus continues as Christians lose hope

  • June 30, 2023

Layal Nehme is drawing upon her background as a singer, songwriter and composer to remind the world of the plight of Christians and their continuing exodus from Iraq and Syria.

Nehme is from a well-known family of Maronite (Eastern-rite Catholic) musicians in Beirut, Lebanon, and is also an accomplished media and communications professional who has worked on Lebanese and Turkish TV.

Deeply concerned about the continuing exodus of Christians from Iraq and Syria, and their harsh lives as destitute refugees in Lebanon, she is using her communication skills to draw attention to the matter and to call on the international community to respond to their desperate pleas for assistance.

Working with the Sweden-based advocacy and humanitarian aid organization A Demand for Action (ADFA) that runs several projects for refugees in Lebanon, she is researching and writing a report and producing a short film, highlighting the ongoing tragedy of these Christians.

For Nehme it has meant countless hours of pro bono work, meeting refugees in their homes and in the streets of Beirut, interviewing, recording their stories in words and on video, and collating information for the report which is still a work in progress.

“Every family I interviewed shared their stories of fear, pain, loss and displacement,” Nehme said.

She noted three common themes running through all these refugees’ stories. They had given up hope of living in peace in their homelands; their lives in Lebanon are filled with misery and despair; and they yearn to be relocated to a country where their human rights are respected. Canada or Australia are often mentioned.

The exodus of Christians from their historic homeland took off when ISIS, the Islamic militant movement, captured a huge swath of Iraq in 2014 after then U.S. President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of American troops (which ended in 2011) following the American invasion in 2003. Despite the military defeat of ISIS, the exodus of Christians from Iraq and Syria continues unabated. According to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Christians continue to leave Iraq at a rate of 20 families a month. 

ISIS targeted Christians in both countries, forcing many to flee. Christians represented four per cent of the Iraqi population 20 years ago (more than one million people). But today they are less than one per cent. And Christians made up about six per cent of the Syrian population in 2011. But today the 400,000 members of various Christian communities make up less than two per cent of all Syrians.

 New troubles are further accelerating emigration, including the continuing economic crisis, the catastrophic earthquake that struck Aleppo, Syria, and in Iraq, the fragile security situation, combined with poor governance and discrimination.

A growing number of Christian refugees have arrived in Lebanon, dreaming of a more peaceful and stable life in the last outpost of Christianity in the Middle East — only to find their hopes dashed by oppression of a different kind. As refugees, they have no rights and live in extreme poverty in spaces barely fit for human habitation, lacking basic needs including opportunities to make a subsistence living, health care and education. Humanitarian aid organizations such as ADFA, Catholic Near Eastern Welfare Association (CNEWA) and churches are their only sources of support.

It’s a story that has largely disappeared from international news cycles.

Nuri Kino, a Swedish journalist and activist who founded ADFA in 2014 to alert the world of the ISIS genocide of Christians, said the time has come to remind the international community again that the situation of Mideast Christians is still fragile.

“ADFA has advocated for the rights of these genocide survivors and followed their progress since the fall of Mosul in 2014 when so many of them fled in terror,” said Kino. “Now we are gravely concerned that nine years later their situation has not significantly improved.”

This is why Kino persuaded Nehme, a longtime supporter of ADFA, to undertake the report and film.

Haifa Tawfiq is an Iraqi Canadian Christian activist in Toronto. She has worked with ORAT (Office for Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto) and continues to advocate for persecuted Middle Eastern Christians.

“Even Christians who wanted to stay in Iraq are now trying to leave,” she said. “Seizing of Christian homes and properties by extremists is an issue. And women are not safe at night.”

Nehme describes the refugees’ view of Canada as a promised land.

“Many see Canada as the land of hope,” she said. “Canada has historically welcomed people seeking a safe sanctuary,  provides social supports for integration and has a reputation for respecting diversity.”

 Nehme and Kino are hopeful that despite the apparent indifference of the international community, reports like this from ADFA and other respected NGOs will effect positive changes.

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