Syria Crisis

Syrian Christians Find Safety From ISIS In Beirut

When Islamic terror groups arrived in their Syrian hometown of Al-Hasakah, Assyrian Christians were systematically victimized. The lucky managed to flee.

Syrian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon
Syrian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon
Patrick Strickland

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."

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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