Six weeks after ISIS overtook their village outside of Mosul, Iraq, Sief and Jacob Jebrita said they received an official cease and desist letter from the terrorist group saying their work was forbidden under Islamic law. The two brothers, partners in a small photography and videography business, lost their sole source of income. But that was just the beginning.
Sief Jebrita, who fled Iraq after ISIS took over his village, with his sons.
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Sief and Jacob shared their story while sitting in St. Mary, Mother of the Church in Amman, Jordan, with a delegation of religious media. The church, led by Fr. Khalil Jaar, has become home to more than 150 Iraqi Christian refugees who have fled their homes while ISIS continues to push through the region.
Because of their Christian faith, Sief, Jacob, and their families were targeted by ISIS. They told me of a soldier ripping an earring out of a girl’s ear, slicing it open because it was not acceptable for her to wear jewelry. As ISIS militants forced people out of their homes, they would not allow them to bring anything with them at all except the clothes on their backs. They told me the story of one mother walking with her little boy who was forced to leave behind his bottle of milk after a soldier knocked it to the ground and shouted at them. As the situation worsened, they said they saw Yazidi men killed for refusing to accept Islam, and Yazidi woman sold into slavery in Mosul – $500 for younger women and $100 to $300 for older women.
During the initial fighting to overtake their village, the brothers said that two of their neighbor’s children were killed. While the community was literally burying its dead, the militants attacked a second time. That was when the brothers decided to take their families and leave immediately, first to Erbil, where they were assured they could return home if only they paid a tax. But both told me that they knew in their hearts that they could never return.
“We can’t go back because not only of ISIS, but because our neighbors have turned against us too,” Sief lamented.
They spoke sadly of how all the people in their village, Muslims and Christians, had lived together peacefully. But when ISIS came, everything changed. They acknowledged struggles between Christians and Muslims have existed since 2001 – but not like what is happening now. They said their neighbors shunned them, possibly out of fear or apprehension of being seen as abettors.
So with only the barest of possessions, they left Erbil and eventually made it to Jordan, where they ended up at Fr. Jaar’s parish. Sief underscored that this is a tragedy for all Iraqi people, not just Christians. All are suffering at the hands of ISIS. Every night the refugees gather to pray and discuss their situation, trying to figure out what do to next. They are no longer living in constant fear — and they appreciate the generosity of Fr. Jaar and the Jordanians — but no one wants to go back. No one trusts the government — or the neighbors who turned against them.
But despite everything, they believe that from this terrible situation, God can make something good.
One night when some of the men began to despair at how much they had lost, an older woman they thought was sleeping suddenly sat up and said, “Do you want a clearer miracle than this? We have lost everything, but we did not lose our faith.”
With the help of Fr. Jaar, the Christian community in Amman, the Jordanian government, and the support of one another, they are acclimating to their new life. Fr. Jaar said any country would be lucky to receive these families — that they are good people with much to offer. He does not consider them refugees but guests.
I found the courage and fortitude of these displaced Iraqi Christians inspiring. Despite the hardships they faced and the daunting challenge of creating a new life in a new land, they remain faithful.
“This is the time to be strong, to love and help, and to be in solidarity with all people.” Jacob told me through an interpreter.
Cynthia J. Martens is Senior Director of Circulation and Production for Sojourners.