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Monday, July 3, 2023

From the Land of Martyrs, Young Catholic Refugee Lives in No-Man's Land

Persecuted Christians Struggle in Lebanon 

by Susan Fox

An artist and a young lady 

She is pretty, young, hopeful and works hard. She is a painter, a novelist, plays Volley Ball and piano. She is 24 years old, but legally in Lebanon, she doesn’t exist. 

She is forbidden to work and can’t go to school, and if she met with the Lebanese police they could put her in prison.  She is an Iraqi Catholic refugee, one of 50,000 who settled in Lebanon fleeing persecution from the Islamic State from 2014 to 2019. In Lebanon, the Iraqi refugees try not to travel. The Lebanese checkpoints are dangerous to their  freedom.

Her poignant face graces more than 100 bill boards in Germany with the words, “Are you for violence or people?” sponsored by the relief agency Misereor in Germany. 

Her family lived in Telluskof near Quraqosh on the Nineveh plain  in Iraq in 2015 when she was 17 years old. ISIS terrorists plowed into her town, giving her a choice: convert to Islam, pay a tax or leave all your possessions.  “Those minutes were ringing church bells, the sounds of crying children and the screaming of elders and mothers who did not have cars to escape!  Hunger, thirst, fear and crying!  No one felt us like God! He was our strength and He who gave us patience!” she said.

Are you for violence or people? 

Her name is Alvera Tohi, a Chaldean Catholic. She, her parents and three brothers moved to Lebanon and tried to immediately to join relatives in the United States. But they have waited six long years for an initial interview, and they are still waiting.  

She was no stranger to ISIS danger. Five ISIS terrorists invaded Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad during the Mass on Oct. 31, 2010. Alvera’s cousin, her friend and 46 other ordinary Catholics were killed.  “My father’s cousin is Chaldean, but she happened to go to a Syrian Catholic Church  that Sunday.” Now all 48 are in the process of canonisation. It is said God chooses His martyrs, not the other way around.

On March 5, Pope Francis entered the killing ground of Our Lady of Salvation Church. For his historic trip to Iraq, he  took what is called the path of the pearls of Babylon. The  riches of Iraq are its martyrs. He asked the Iraqi people to come home and save Christianity in the Middle East. 

The riches in Iraq are counted in dead, not jobs. Alvera says no, she won’t come home. “I love my heritage. I’m Chaldean. I’m proud I am from Iraq, but all my relatives are living in San Diego and we want to be together there.” Iraq is still dangerous. Witness the suicide bombings in Bagdad on Jan. 21, 2021 that killed 32 people and injured another 110.  Plus Iraq has a new government, which is unstable.  There is no work for young Christians there. There is no longer a future. 

“My dream was to study business because I always feel that I am a leader and strong, this dream was the right of every young man and woman in Iraq. In 2014 all my dreams  that I had built were destroyed, and everything evaporated.”

Alvera Tohi did not give up. She has impacted the lives of nearly 2,000 Iraqi children by giving them an education at  the Angel of Peace School in Beirut. Lebanon won’t let them go to school, so the Iraqis organised one for themselves. Currently she has 240 pupils. “About 4 years ago, I decided to dedicate my life to children and the needy, so I felt that Divine Providence always accompanies me. And because I am a refugee like them, I certainly know their suffering.”

Many Iraqis have moved on to Australia  (75 percent) and Canada (10 percent). But Alvera and her family held on for the United States, and so got left behind in a no man’s land of legal instability. About 900 Iraqi families are still waiting with her. They want to go to any country that is safe and offers a future. 

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