When Islamic State seized Mosul in summer 2014, the Iraqi city’s Syriac Orthodox Christians were given an ultimatum: convert to the jihadists’ extreme Salafist Islam, pay the jizya religious tax, or die. Two years on, those who fled are still not safe.
Sarmad Ozan, a 25-year-old engineering graduate who was deacon of his church in Mosul before the Iraqi Army’s humiliating rout in the northern city, is now appealing a British Home Office decision to deny him asylum.
In a climate where Brexit and a series of terrorist atrocities across Europe have dulled public sympathy for refugees and emboldened anti-immigrant sentiments, Sarmad’s treatment is a damning example of the inconsistency and culture of disbelief that has developed at the heart of Britain’s asylum system.
Speaking to RT ahead of his next appeal hearing, Sarmad describes the fall of Mosul and the first chilling weeks of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) domination.
“In 2014, 10th of June, it was forbidden in these days for people to go out of their homes because [the Iraqi Army] said it is a state of emergency, don’t go out. But after a few hours they announced that ISIS had taken over Mosul.
“Everyone fled Mosul during the night. All the families drove their cars to the nearest city or anywhere. We went to a monastery near Mosul. We stayed there for about two weeks.
“ISIS had taken Mosul, but they didn’t kill anyone at that time. They said we will not kill anyone, our problem is just with the government. So we came back at that time, went back inside our house and stayed there.
“But in the next month, in July, they announced in the mosque three options for the Christians inside Mosul. They say you should convert to Islam, or pay jizya, that’s like a heavy tax, or be killed after this 24 hours. So every Christian family left Mosul that day.”
IS didn’t let Mosul’s Christians leave without one final humiliation, however. Gunmen robbed them and turfed them out of their vehicles as they fled, forcing whole families to walk the full 85km (52 miles) to the next biggest Iraqi town not already under IS control, Erbil – a city administrated by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
“They made checkpoints at the borders of Mosul where they checked identity cards, because your religion is on your identity card,” said Sarmad.
“So whenever they see a Christian they grab everyone from the car and they take everything. So we left with nothing. We walked all that day towards Erbil. All the Christian families were walking that day.
“We arrived at night. Young people slept on the pavements, some people in tents, the church halls. We stayed in different places. Then we found a place in a church hall.”
The Kurds have held the line against IS almost singlehandedly since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men seized Mosul. But with their own designs on an independent Kurdish state once the fighting stops, Kurds only begrudgingly accepted the wave of Arabic-speaking Christians spilling into their territory. Sarmad says they were not made to feel welcome.
“Because we are Arab people, they don’t give jobs to us and they consider us from a different country … They don’t give jobs to the people who are not in the Kurdish party,” Sarmad explains.
“Kurdish people are from Kurdistan … They don’t want Arabic people inside Kurdistan. And they don’t give us any rights inside Kurdistan. So how can this become our country?”
Iraqis are not given refugee status in neighboring Arab states. If they don’t have family to stay with in Jordan, or elsewhere in the region, the alternatives for the internally displaced are to head south or to the capital, Baghdad. However, since the US-led invasion of 2003, sectarian conflict has exploded across Iraq. Christians, Sarmad explains, are not guaranteed safety anywhere.
“We were living, before 2003, without discrimination between people. You live with everyone without asking about their religion or anything. But after 2003 it become more difficult. When you are a Christian, when they deal with you, they talk with you, it’s in a different way.”
“There are no Christians now in Mosul, a minority in Baghdad and the south, we are a minority everywhere inside Iraq and this is difficult for the people. They can make fake checkpoints to check for the Christian, they can kill them in the checkpoint.”
“They call it a slow-motion genocide for the Christians inside Iraq. Because they are killing them day after day, 10 people in one day. Or maybe they will bomb a church. From 2003 until 2014 they used to bomb churches inside Mosul. They killed bishops and priests inside Mosul and even Baghdad and everywhere in Iraq. And the government cannot do anything for them.”
Despite the horrifying reality facing Iraq’s Christians, the Home Office has ruled against offering Sarmad asylum, claiming he can safely return to Kurdistan or Baghdad.
The decision is all the more astonishing as Sarmad’s older brother has already been granted UK asylum. As an ordained priest, who studied English in Britain, he was given refugee status in 2010 after bombs were planted outside the family home in Mosul.
“After he was ordained [and] it was advertised on the TV … we got a threatening letter to our house saying we will kill the Christians, we will bomb your churches and kill every Christian in the city, and they put his name as well in the threatening letter … After a few days, they put a bomb on the gate of the house.”
As Sarmad is an adult, and therefore not classified as a dependent, the British Home Office does not see the need to keep the brothers together, ruling he must return to his family in Erbil.
Sarmad graduated from the University of Mosul with a degree in engineering in 2013. After his arrival in Kurdistan he was awarded an Iraqi government scholarship to study his masters in the UK.
He moved to Britain in early 2015 to take English lessons before his course began. But as the violence intensified across Iraq, Sarmad’s state funding suddenly dried up. With no way to pay for his studies, and afraid to return to an increasingly hostile Iraq, he applied for asylum in Britain.
“I’m still appealing because it’s impossible to go back to a place with nothing. Our house is taken by ISIS. Everything taken by ISIS. Even our neighbors are now supporting ISIS. So how can I go to a place where they are all supporting ISIS? It’s like someone going back to die. That means if they want to send me back, they want to kill me.
“The situation there is unsafe and unstable. Even the Home Office admit that it is unstable inside Iraq and don’t advise anyone to travel to Iraq, but they want us to go back.”
Unable to plan beyond his next asylum hearing, trapped in a legal limbo, Sarmad laments the years and the opportunities robbed by the conflict and Britain’s unwillingness to guarantee his safety.
“I want to live as a normal person. I want to live normally. Because from 2014 until now, it’s two years, I’m just waiting and not doing anything. Our lives, all our Christian lives in Mosul, are ruined by ISIS and we are still not doing anything. We want to continue our lives.”