ISTANBUL, June 15 (Compass Direct News) – Since Iranian native Nasser Ghorbani fled to Turkey seven years ago, he has been unable to keep a job for more than a year – eventually his co-workers would ask why he didn’t come to the mosque on Fridays, and one way or another they’d learn that he was a convert to Christianity.
Soon thereafter he would be gone.
Never had anyone gotten violent with him, however, until three weeks ago, when someone at his workplace in Istanbul hit him on the temple so hard he knocked him out. When he came back to his senses, Ghorbani was covered in dirt, and his left eye was swollen shut. It hurt to breathe.
His whole body was in pain. He had no idea what had happened.
“I’ve always had problems at work in Turkey because I’m a Christian, but never anything like this,” Ghorbani told Compass.
A carpenter by trade, Ghorbani started working at an Istanbul furniture maker in November 2008. From the beginning, he said, the Turks he worked with noticed that he didn’t go to the mosque on Friday. Nor did he behave like everyone else.
“If someone swore, I would say, ‘Don’t swear,’ or if someone lied, I said, ‘That’s not honest,’” he said. “You know Turks are very curious, and they try to understand everything.”
Although he tried to conceal his faith from his co-workers, inevitably it became obvious.
Soon after he started his new job, Ghorbani and his family found a new apartment. On the planned move-in day, New Year’s Day, his boss sent the company truck along with a truck driver to help; members of the Christian group that often meets in his home also came.
“When the [truck driver] saw all these people at our house, he was surprised,” said Ghorbani’s wife, Leila, explaining that he seemed especially surprised to find foreigners among the group. “It was big news back at the factory.”
Ghorbani said that in the following months the questions persisted, as well as pressure to attend the mosque. He avoided these as best as he could, but he admitted that two mistakes confirmed their suspicions. Someone from work learned that he had a broken personal computer for sale and bought it, only to find Christian documents and photos on the hard drive. Secondly, a mutual friend later admitted to a co-worker that he went to the same church as Ghorbani.
“The attitude in the entire factory changed toward me,” said Ghorbani, chuckling. “It was like they had agreed to marginalize me. Even our cook started only serving me potatoes, even though she had cooked meat as well. I didn’t say anything.”
In May the truck driver who had helped the Ghorbanis move finally confronted him.
“Your country is a Muslim country,” he told him, “and you may have become a Christian, but you are coming to Friday prayers today.”
On May 22 during lunch, his co-workers told him they were taking him to the mosque that day. “You are going to do your prayers,” one said.
Ghorbani brushed it off and, to appease them, said he would come after lunch. But as they were about to leave for the mosque, he asked them why they only pray once a week – and told them that as a Christian he couldn’t accept it and wouldn’t join them.
After the day’s last delivery and pick-up, the truck driver returned to work. As everyone was getting ready to leave, from the corner of his eye Ghorbani saw the truck driver walking up to him, and felt the blow of his fist on his temple. When he regained consciousness, some co-workers were washing his face in the bathroom.
They told him a little about how he was beaten, put him in a cab with one of their colleagues and sent him home. That evening, his fellowship group was meeting at his home. They had just sat down for dinner when Ghorbani arrived later than usual.
“He walked in, and he was limping because his right side hurt,” said an Iranian friend who was at the meeting. “There was dirt all over his clothes, and there was blood in his left eye. When I saw him I got scared. I thought that maybe a car had hit him.”
Wanting to avoid a hospital visit and questions from police, Ghorbani went to a private doctor a few days later. The doctor instructed him to stay home for three weeks to recover from the injuries: badly bruised ribs, shoulder, shins and eye, and internal stomach bleeding.
When he took the medical report to his workplace the following day, co-workers told him that his boss had fired the truck driver, and that even though management was very happy with his work, it would be safer for him to look for employment elsewhere. They said the truck driver blamed Ghorbani for losing his job and had threatened to kill him if he ever saw him.
“I have a family and home and nothing to lose,” the truck driver said, according to co-workers. “If I kill him, the worst thing that could happen to me is that I do some jail time.”
Ghorbani’s friend said that even if other Iranian converts to Christianity don’t suffer violence as Nasser has, life for them is full of pressure and uncertainty at work.
“Maybe for Christians by birth there are no pressures or problems, but people like us who want to [leave Islam to] follow Jesus are fired,” said the friend.
He explained that following their faith means living righteously and not stealing or cheating their bosses out of time and wages.
“That’s when the marginalization starts, when you resist doing wrong,” he said. “But if you live the way they do, lying and stealing, they don’t notice you’re a Christian.”
The Iranian friend said that even before he converted to Christianity in Turkey, his colleagues would pressure him to come to the mosque for Friday prayers because he was a foreigner.
“After becoming a Christian, the pressure gets worse,” he said. “The way they look at you changes … and, honestly, they try to convince you, [saying] that you haven’t researched your decision well enough.”
Now running his business out of his own home, the friend said no one can disrupt his work because of his faith, but he is a rarity among Iranian refugees in Turkey.
Ghorbani’s wife said the New Testament is clear on how to respond to attacks.
“The Bible says don’t be surprised when things happen against you, but love more, because you suffer for Christ,” she said.
Hope for a Future
The Ghorbanis said they are thankful for their time in Turkey, though their future is unclear.
The family first fled to Turkey in 2002 after realizing that their families were becoming aware of Nasser’s newfound faith. Ghorbani had worked in the Iranian Armed Forces for 10 years before he was fired in 1995 because, as a secular Muslim, he refused to attend Quran classes, which were necessary for keeping his job or being promoted.
For the following eight years, the government kept close tabs on the couple, questioning them every six months. Ghorbani could not travel outside of Iran during this period.
In 2001 he became a Christian under the influence of a customer who ordered furniture from his shop. As soon as Ghorbani’s passport was issued, he fled to Turkey; his family followed a few months later. Soon his family also espoused Christianity after his wife had a dream of Jesus saving her from sinking sand.
“We have learned the truth, and it has set us free,” Leila Ghorbani said.
The family is in the process of applying to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to re-open their case; their first application was denied three years ago.
According to the UNHCR’s most recent Global Report, in Turkey there were 2,100 Iranian refugees and 2,300 asylum-seekers from Iran in 2008. Although there is no data on how many Christian Iranians are living in Turkey, it is estimated that there is an Iranian house church in each of 30 “satellite cities” where the government appoints refugees and asylum seekers to live.
The Ghorbanis have three daughters, ages 20, 17 and 2. Ghorbani said he and his family would be in danger if they were returned to Iran.
“As a Christian I can’t return to Iran, or I risk losing my life,” Ghorbani said. “If they catch me, because I was a lieutenant they will directly hang me.”
Report from Compass Direct News
As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.
ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.
In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.
It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.
Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.
“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”
Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.
Christian Sisters Killed
Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.
But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.
The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.
There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.
Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.
Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.
“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”
Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.
“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”
Strangers in Strange Land
The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.
“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.
He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.
A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.
“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”
All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.
They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.
Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.
Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.
He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.
Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.
When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.
“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”
Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.
The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.
Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.
Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.
“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.
Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.
The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.
“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”
His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.
Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.
Report from Compass Direct News