SAJE — Father Kriakosmi, the priest of the village Saje outside Dohuk, doesn't complain about the inconveniences caused by masses of displaced people arriving here. As he undoes the top button of his black shirt, revealing his white collar, it's not a sign of fatigue or defeat, simply a reaction to the suffocating heat in this northern part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
He opened his church and his school to accommodate the Christians, most of them Chaldeans like him, who came from towns and villages conquered by ISIS terror groups south of Dohuk, such as Mosul, Qaraqosh, Tel Keppe and Alqosh. "We don't welcome just Christians," he insists. "This morning, 150 Yazidi families settled in the village."
Following Father Kriakosmi's example, local authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region have opened schools and public buildings to the displaced, while others are sheltering under bridges or inside unfinished construction sites. In the Dohuk province alone, there are now more than 400,000 refugees, most of them Christians and Yazidis.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 700,000 people displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, scattered across hundreds of different sites. The UN, which provides them with aid, is building three extra camps there this week.
In Saje, houses under construction have also been requisitioned to accommodate the newcomers. Four Yazidi families consisting of about 30 people have moved into one of them. A large carpet adorns the entrance to the house, which otherwise consists of just bare concrete walls and a roof.
Desperation for the displaced
Garbage litters the floors, and the deprivation of these farm families from a village near Sinjar is plain to see on the faces of the women and children. The men try to appear strong. But then one of them has to carry his sister, who fainted from the heat and lack of water, to a car that will drive her to a health center.
Father Kriakosmi organizes assistance for these refugees with the help of someone who himself has had to flee his home with his family — Moin Basim Slem Ajaj, a former member of Mosul's council, who is carrying the list of people eligible for food supplies and other products when they arrive.
Ajaj, a former Iraqi army engineer, speaks a little English and is the embodiment of educated Iraqi society. People like he and his wife, a social researcher, are among the country's progressive elite.
He says that day the Islamist militias entered Mosul, the governor had already left with his delegation four or five hours before. "They had left us alone," Ajaj says. "We knew they were close but not that they would be here so quickly." He says that the army defected in two hours, after the first rumors about the Islamists approaching reached Mosul's council. "And the Arab population provided no help whatsoever to the minorities targeted by the Islamists," he adds.
Faced directly with ISIS members, he was forced to hand over his $4,000 life savings and one of his two cars. "Then they hit me and ordered me to leave instantly, to abandon my house. We used to live in 180 square meters. Now there's four of us in ten square meters, but Father Kriakosmi was generous enough to give us shelter."
In Tel Keppe, where they first sought refuge, and in Alqosh, the same scenes were repeating themselves. "At night, young people would run through the streets shouting that Daesh ISIS in Arabic was coming, and so each time we had to flee, with women and children, leaving what little things we had behind," Ajaj explains. Before they left Mosul, ISIS members offered him a deal. "I could stay if I converted or if I paid. At the end of the day, even if Christians wanted to pay, they couldn't go on living in Mosul."
Installed in Saje for now and with no idea how long they will stay, Christian refugees try to live one day at a time. "We don't understand anything about this war," says Murad, a large man. "We could be forced to flee again if Daesh keeps gaining ground. They're very close, and all they want is to wipe us off the map."