[Read the companion story What is the first day for a refugee like?]
“First day? I remember the first day,”Nabeel Aywab smiles timidly as he remembers his arrival in the United States. “It was paradise. First day here, I felt like I finished everything.”
Refugees who are persecuted for their Christian faith have been fleeing from Iraq, a country that is predominantly Muslim, since the Gulf War. In the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2010 “Report on Religious Freedoms,” it is estimated that the Iraqi Christian population has decreased from between 800,000 to 1.4 million in 2003 to about 500,000 (or about percent of Iraq’s population) in 2010.
Aywab is one of those who fled.
Where’s home to Aywab now?
“My home? Me? This is home,” he says as he looks around the living room. Two couches, a coffee table, a ticking clock – and he repeats himself, “This is home.”
Aywab has lived in the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect for three months, along with his wife, mother-in-law, and two children. The small townhouse they reside in is shared by two families – five adults and five children. Aywab has found work doing the laundry in a hotel nearby. He likes his job.
“Everything’s good for my children,”he says. “They are safe. I go to work in the day, and the home is safe. The children, wife, my mother in law.” His eyes fill with tears as he seems to realize the weight of his situation.
Being a Christian in Iraq
Aywab chuckles softly when he considers his placement in the Chicago suburb.I didn’t plan to come to America,” he says. “I just had to get out. Not for me, but for my children.”
He slowly begins to recall the night that would trigger the family’s escape from war-torn Iraq:
“Six people, while my family is sleeping, come for me: One of them comes with me, and my wife and children go in the hall. My mother-in-law sits in the corner. They have machine guns on her head, and me, and my family. They say, ‘I’ll kill you. You’re not Muslim.’ See, I’m Christian, I’m not Muslim. They tell me, ‘You need to pay $5000. Not pay? I’ll kill you.'”
He did not have $5000, and knew this threat on his family would be enforced if he did not buy himself time. Aywab begged for three days to come up with the money. They accepted his plea, and Aywab immediately fled with his family to a second home they owned in different neighborhood in Baghdad.
The Iraqi constitution recognizes Islam as the official religion but guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, increased terrorism and violence in Iraq has restricted people’s rights to freedom of religion.
For three months, Aywab and his family did not leave home. “One neighbor, a Muslim, he gave me everything,” says Aywab in recalling how the family ate without shopping and got by without income. This neighbor’s kindness also gave him hope in the midst of the threats against his family.
UNHCR estimates that as of March 2010, 1.5 million Iraqis had fled and continue to remain outside of the country, of whom, 13 percent are Christians.
Christianity helped Aywab maintain peace in the midst of so much terror. “I love Christianity. I believe in Christianity,” he says earnestly.
Leaving Iraq behind
After spending three months in hiding in Baghdad, Aywab managed to sell all of his possessions and collect his savings from 15 years of working as a manager at a local gas station. The family took off for Turkey, where they imagined they could practice their religion freely, and build a new life.
It felt right to leave, he recalls, but “Turkey was not good for me. There’s no love for Christians.”
Aywab and his family lived for two years in Turkey. Unable to find work, the Aywab family lived off of their savings from Iraq. After two years, he was finally able to pay the $6,000 needed to finalize his paperwork for the United States.
Despite reaching the United States with a meager $200 to his name, Aywab felt his dreams had been realized the moment his plane hit O’Hare Airport’s tarmac. He misses his parents who, for lack of the financial means to afford it, have not been able to leave Baghdad. However, he is happy to have made it this far.
“My dream? Now?” Aywab contemplates. He pauses and smiles. “Nothing. I come to America for future my children, not for me. My future is gone. My future for Iraq is gone.”
With no plans to return to Baghdad, Aywab is simply happy to be in his “paradise.”