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Security Concerns Prevent Iraqi Christians from Returning Home - 2004-02-24

Many Iraqis who fled to Syria for safety before, during and just after the war in Iraq say they still are afraid to go home.

Nearly a year after the war in Iraq, Seita Daoud sits in a sparsely furnished, badly heated apartment in a poor neighborhood of Damascus. She says she is afraid to go home. "It was not easy to leave my country," she says. "I was born in Iraq. I raised my children there. But it is too hard and too uncertain there now."

A few days after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, Seita Daoud packed up her family of nine and headed for safety across the border in Syria. She had already sold off most of their possessions, keeping only a few family photos, including a portrait of her husband who had died years before.

Speaking the ancient language of her Assyrian Christian community, Seita says she is still not sure what to do. "I am ready to go back," she says, "but first I must be sure of security to raise my children. They all left their schools and their jobs. What will we find when we go back," she asks.

Seita is not alone. She says most of her Assyrian Christian neighbors, several hundred families, are here in Damascus with her. "Some," she says, "have arrived in the past few months. They say Iraq is too unstable for religious minorities."

Her son Yvan is blunt. "We number fewer than two-million," he says, "with no strong tribal leaders or big politicians to protect us."

U.S. officials and members of the Iraqi Governing Council insist ethnic and religious minorities, which make up about three-percent of the population, will be legally protected by any future government.

Yvan is not convinced. He says minorities suffered under Saddam Hussein and he does not want to see it happen again.

He acknowledges that Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community was harshly persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Now, he worries how Christians and other religious minorities would be treated if strict Islamists gain control of a future government.

His mother worries more about the violence and lack of jobs. "Where would we find work," Seita asks. "You need a connection to get work with the Americans." But she shakes her head. "And, those who do work with the Americans are afraid," she says, "because the Americans are targets and Iraqis working with them are too."

For 26-year-old Taygor, the decision to leave was easy. Like other university students, he says he had to sign up for military training and he did not want to fight to defend Saddam Hussein. He left school and Iraq well before war began. "Saddam ruined our lives. He ruined our society," Taygor says. "Everything that is happening now is a result of what he did when he was in power."

Taygor cheered when the U.S.-led coalition took control of his country, but he says he has no desire to go back even now that Saddam Hussein is gone.

Neither does 33-year-old Anwar Deriyawish, another Iraqi Christian from Baghdad. The former welder lived in a rented house with his wife and children. "I have nothing there. Why should I go back," he asks.

Anwar has applied for a visa to Australia, but speaks no English and is not optimistic he will ever go there.

In contrast, Seita Daoud has no doubts she and her children will return to Iraq one day. She just cannot say when that day will come.