Mayayadah Al-Khatear, left, Khalid Al-Khatyar and Noran Baba-Alloos recount the harrowing story of their lives before arriving in Canada a few months ago. Photo by Matthew Bodnarek

Escape from ISIS

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • April 22, 2019

EDMONTON - The photos tell the story of the Al- Khatyar family.

There are older ones of brothers Mark, now six, and nine-year-old Majd, on a tricycle they rode on the streets of Mosul, Iraq, their hometown north of the capital, Baghdad. Others show them beaming with their parents, Khalid Al-Khatyar and Noran Baba- Alloos. Another shows Khalid in the successful pharmacy he owned for years.

Then there are more disturbing photos. The ones that show the trashed and burned out shell of a building that used to be their home. It was destroyed in an attack by supporters of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, after the terrorist group took over their city and homeland.

Noran still remembers when they first saw the photos of their home — and the impact on her son Majd.

“He saw the picture and said, ‘Mom, why do they this? What happened to my toys and my room?’

“Up until this moment, he remembered everything — more than me,” Noran said tearfully.

“I’m very sorry for him because he remembers. … Sometimes I don’t have any answer for him.”

It has been a harrowing — at times life-threatening — journey to Canada for the Al-Khatyars, a Christian family who fled Iraq with their lives and just the clothes on their back.

They have now made their home in Edmonton with the help of St. Thomas More Parish and dozens of volunteers who helped them settle.

Throughout their ordeal, Noran said they were sustained by their strong faith when they had little else.

“If we don’t have faith, we can’t do anything,” Noran said. “We have a great trust in our God, because I know that if God was not with us in these hard years, maybe we would have been killed.

“We believe that God was with my family from the first moment. He took our hand and helped us with every step.”

The parish’s 32-member refugee sponsorship committee has helped 17 families settle in Edmonton.

The Al-Khatyar family arrived Feb. 14, and Khalid’s sister, Mayayadah Al-Khatear, came a week later.

When the family arrived, it was -26 C outside and they had been travelling for 25 hours straight f rom the i r temporary home in Lebanon. But it didn’t matter.

“I feel peace for the first time after many years,” Noran said.

However , their arrival in Canada was bittersweet, because Khalid and Mayayadah’s aging parents are still living by themselves in Beirut, waiting for their visas to be approved. How long that will take is uncertain.

Before the ISIS attacks, the Al-Khatyars lived what they considered a normal life, even in a country that weathered the rise and fall of dictator Saddam Hussein. Khalid ran a successful business. Noran took care of their boys. And Mayayadah was a firstyear pharmacy student at the University of Mosul.

They were among the 12 per cent of Mosul residents who were Christian. However, with the American invasion and retreat, ISIS filled a power vacuum, and many Christians left.

Soon, the Al-Khatyars started feeling the pressure too.

In 2008, the demands that Khalid pay tribute to ISIS began.

In a letter he provided to immigration authorities, Khalid said a threatening letter was left in his garage, vowing that his family would be killed.

“I was always in danger,” Khalid explained.

Noran said she never knew if her husband would make it home after work.

“He may be killed because he’s Christian. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow, what will happen to your kids. But at the same time, I trusted in God and He will not leave me alone.”

On June 10, 2014, when ISIS entered Mosul, fighters went door to door, burning houses and looting homes. The Al-Khatyars packed up their extended family of seven and fled Mosul, heading north to Qaraqosh. Soon they learned that ISIS was closing in.

With barely two hours’ notice, they fled again, escaping what they say would have been certain death.

They were forced to leave their house, business and possessions.

“They stole our house, my husband’s pharmacy, and burned it. Everything ended in one moment. Everything you built. Your future,” Noran said, crying. “We lost everything. We thought: We’re leaving Iraq for the future of our kids. We don’t want them to live what we lived.”

The Al-Khatyars tried to find refuge in Jordan as other Christians had, but they couldn’t obtain a visa. Instead, they lived for four years in Beirut, where life was not easy. The cost of living was high and Khalid could barely find work as a cashier.

The family initially applied for asylum in Australia, where Noran’s relatives live, but they were refused entry three times because they were a family of seven, including Khalid’s parents.

They applied to Canada, where a family friend in St. Albert brought the family’s plight to the attention of St. Thomas More Parish. The committee there had experience settling refugees. A couple of years ago they settled six families at once.

Volunteers found a house for the Al-Khatyars to rent and furnished it.

“It was like one of those reality TV shows,” said committee chairman Eric Green. “We all came at 10 o’clock in the morning and three hours later, poof! It was like a show home. Everything donated from the parishioners of St. Thomas More.”

Young Majd was particularly pleased with the new home.

“The first day at this house, after we came from the airport … he said, ‘Mom, I have a new room? This is my room?’ It was so amazing,” Noran said.

“I’m happy for my kids. We can start again. I was very happy. It was amazing.”

Under the sponsorship program, the federal government loaned the Al-Khatyars the $12,000 cost of their trip. Once they are settled, they have to start repaying it over eight years. And the sponsorship committee only looks after their basic needs for a year.

The Al-Khatyars, as other families, will have to find work, child care, groceries and life in a new country, but by all accounts they are well on their way.

“My family really wants to thank the whole St. Thomas More community,” said Noran. “From the first moment we arrived in Canada, they have been there. They are helping us with everything. Really the community makes me feel like they are my family. With them we are not alone, we have a family here in Canada.”

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