By: Robert Asher, Photo By: Andreas Stahl
October 16, 2012
The Christians of Syria, long one of the more prosperous ethnic communities in this area, have found themselves the worlds newest stateless people. Having fled the violence that has engulfed their neighborhoods, and unwilling to relocate to refugee camps where they fear their minority status offers them little protection, the ancient monasteries just across the border in Southern Turkey has become their sole refuge.
A cool October breeze blows through the courtyard of the Deyrulzafaran Syrian Orthodox Monastery. Traditional music plays softly on a laptop, reminding the families who currently reside inside these ancient walls of a home they have no way of knowing when they will see again.
The Turkish Office of Disaster and Emergency Management reports, as of October 15th, that over 100,000 Syrian registered refugees are now located inside its borders. With the Christians in Syria traditionally comprising 10-15% of the population, one can estimate a combined registered and unregistered 10,000 Syrian Christians have sought refuge in Turkey. Many Syrian Christians we encountered spoke of relatives in Sweden, as well as in Germany, Holland, and Australia.The. U.N. estimates that up to 710,000 people could be displaced from Syria to neighboring countries by the end of 2012.
At the Deyrulzafaran Monastery in Mardin room and board are free for all those willing to pay their respect to his eminence the Bishop Saliba Ozmen. The men, who’ve come seeking sanctuary with their wives and children, smoke and play chess late into the night, killing time while they wait for visa’s to an uncertain future in Sweden.
Despite the horrific crimes of the Assad regime being reported in the Western media, it has been until recently the only safe reality many Syrian Christians have ever known. Now they find themselves with nowhere to turn but the monasteries across the border in Southern Turkey, and asylum thousands of miles away in Europe.
Gerry Simpson, lead researcher for Human Rights Watch, confirms many of the fears these refugees have expressed about wanting to avoid the camps and conditions along the border further to the West, “Syrians are fleeing appalling violence in increasing numbers only to find themselves stranded in insecure areas.” Sixteen hundred Syrians are living under the gaze of Turkish border guards in a Syrian olive grove next to the border fence close to the Syrian town of Atmeh, near the Turkish town of Reyhanlı. Appalling conditions caused by heavy rains around October 5 caused thousands of others to leave. Some returned to their home areas, while others took shelter in Atmeh.
“The Kurds have taken control of our home town”, a wife and mother of three young children confirms. “Today they have begun compulsory teaching the Kurdish language in local schools”. This may not seem like a major issue, but considering that Aramaic and Arabic are the only languages this family has traditionally spoken, being forced to learn and adopt a new language comes as a sign their Christian community is being pushed even farther to the margins. Her family took the exceptional risk of paying a smuggler, “a muslim, not a Christian” she exclaims, to get them past Kurdish and government checkpoints and safely across the border. After receiving demands of millions of dollars from government soldiers, and one of their daughters as a bride to Kurdish fighters, they decided their only option was to reach the safety of the Deyrulzafaran Monastery in Mardin, Turkey. From there they have begun the long and often confusing process of applying for resident permits in Sweden, hoping eventually to join her sister who has resided in Stockholm for the past 25 years. Until just recently, the family were proud owners of a successful restaurant, living a comfortable life in Al-Hasaka in North East Syria. Her husband, once a head chef, is hoping for any job he can get once in Sweden, even suggesting he is willing to wash dishes. Having spent their entire life savings on dubious sources to acquire resident permits in Sweden, the desperation of the situation in Syria is clearly evident.
Not all have the required funds to cross over to Turkey, much less obtain the permits to emigrate to Sweden. Her parents and siblings remain in Hasaka, and she manages to keep daily contact on her Syrian telekom mobile from a window on the upper floors of the monastery which sits high upon a hill overlooking the vast Syrian plain below. “It is extremely dangerous to be Christian in Syria. The people don’t understand why some Christians have money and they do not. But clearly not all of us are rich”. According to Bishop Ozmen, families who lack the necessary funds to pay smugglers to get them across the border to Turkey on illegal backroads, now that the border has been closed by Turkish government forces, and the exorbitant fees required by middlemen to arrange resident permits in Sweden and elsewhere, have moved from the main cities to small villages in the countryside, attempting to attract as little attention as possible.
In the next room, a former Syrian soldier with four bullet wounds in his lower left leg explained how he escaped from the military while on a weekend break after being forced to assume excessive risks because of his Christian background. With the borders now closed by the Turkish military, this young man’s only viable route to the monastery was on dangerous illegal backroads. Now, he says he would like to join his sister in Frankfurt, knowing that if he returns to Syria he would be imprisoned or worse. As a former soldier in the Syrian army, this leaves him in a state of high anxiety as he is unsure if and how he will be accepted in Europe.
Speaking with Bishop Ozmen, he explains his desire for many of the refugees who’ve fled the fighting in Syria to remain in Turkey rather than moving on to Europe, “We should help the Christians to come here because this is their traditional homeland”. With over 20,000 already residing far away in Sweden, his feeling is understandable. Many who reside in Sweden most likely will not return home in the near future, resulting in a continual drop in their native population.
At the Deyrulumur-St.Gabriel monastery 100 km further to the east outside of Midyat, a sub Deacon detailed a rather grim picture for lives of Christians in Turkey, somewhat contradicting Bishop Ozmens desire for them to remain in their homeland. “A secular Turkey, one in which Christians are accepted and well treated should be seen with some skepticism, only intended to be used to gain the favor with the EU in hopes for future membership”. The Deacon details what he describes as a long history of Turkish government sponsored persecution against the Christians population in this region. Most recently in the 1990’s, with the Turkish government engaged in a long running conflict with Kurds fighting for a nation of their own, the government actively sponsored paramilitary elements known as village guards. These groups took it upon themselves to target with intimidation Christians who wished to remain neutral, resulting in tens of thousands fleeing to Europe, the deacon explains. Those who remained, even after the Kurdish insurgency dissipated in the early 2000’s, found large portions of their land and many of their rights taken from them, with excessive taxes levied on every detail of their lives. The success and prosperity many christians gained through legitimate labor and business practices being used against them. Now, with Kurdish PKK fighters taking advantage of the turmoil to the south, fears are rising that a return to violence is once again at hand.
Another Syrian mother of three told of Salafists elements in Syria kidnapping Christian children and demanding huge ransoms for their safe return. This fear alone is enough for any family to seek safety abroad, “If the situation in Syria gets better then we will have to decide what to do, but for now we would like to get to Sweden”. The reality for most Syrian Christians under the Assad regime was closely controlled by the Syrian Intelligence, often forcing brothers to inform on each other in exchange for most of their daily freedoms.
The fog of war is only growing thicker Syria. Assad has played extremely shrewd game by manipulating the Christian community. With the death toll from the start of the conflict in 2011 at well over 30,000, and with Christians comprising of 10-15% of the population, an easy estimate of 3000 victims looms large in the minds of most families desperately trying to get to safety. Honest families who were not actively part of the regimes corruption machine are now being targeted by a multitude of different factions for their perceived successes. Many Christians here strongly believe this land is as much theirs as it is anyone else’s, but find themselves willing to relocate to countries far away with few cultural similarities other than within their immigrant communities. Is this the end of the last native Christians?