May 2018 | By Ninar Keyrouz
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the The Assyrian Journal.
During my last trip to Beirut to visit my family during Christmastime, I didn’t expect that catching up with a friend over a cup of coffee at the mall could turn into a conversation about a real life, almost Hollywood-like horror scene. Welcome to Beirut, I guess! My friend Jack, who works at the Beirut-based Assyrian Support Committee started telling me the story of “Mark”, who was kidnapped by ISIS and then eventually released, and I stopped looking at the happy faces of the people around me and became eager to learn more about this “Mark.”
I have read about stories of people like him, and they have deeply affected me. But to actually meet someone who describes to you living under ISIS, was life-changing and humbling. I promised him that I would share his suffering with the world in the hope that the international community does something for every “Mark” who is out there!
Hostages of ISIS
He started with a smile, asking how I was doing. I hope that my face hid the fact that I was feeling nervous about the conversation and deep pain at his plight. The man, who will be referred to as Mark, told me the story of how he wound up here in Lebanon. Before ISIS, he lived peacefully and worked in a local school along his wife who taught English there while operating a small bookstore part-time.
They had a decent peaceful life until the war started in Syria. They were first visited and harassed by different rebel groups until ISIS came and attacked them. The Assyrian and Kurdish forces who were guarding them couldn’t defeat ISIS since they had heavy arms.
On a night that seems unforgettable to Mark “you have to get that date, he’d tell me” February 23, 2015, Mark woke up to ISIS members shouting “Allahu Akbar”. He knew right then that they would come for his family, and went to his wife asking her to stay by the kids and prepare them in case they got attacked, but before they had the chance, ISIS members dressed as civilians kicked down their doors yelling at them.
They dragged the family out by their clothes and separated them in different homes in the village. The next day they took the hostages in Hummers to Hawija in Hama, Syria, before transporting them to Sheddadeh in Hasake, Syria, separating men from women and children. Mark recalled his fear among the men who didn’t know where their wives or children had been taken, with rumors that they had been sent to Mosul striking fear in their hearts. He still feels guilty till today that he even forgot to check where his son was, as he was dragged in the line of men. He didn’t have time to look for him. His son was behind him, but Mark couldn’t even look back. With unknown airstrikes and bullets heard throughout the night, a sense of deep desperation and dread filled the captives.
The hostages would be transported from Hawija to Sheddadeh and then to Raqqa in Syria, where they remained in captivity for almost a year, until January 14, 2016, another date he made sure I write down.
Their time in Raqqa was the scariest, as he did not see his family for the entire year they were there, being separated from his wife and children; he did not know anything about their fate. Mark and his family were forced to attend lessons on Sharia law and the Quran while being berated for being kuffar, or “infidels” in Arabic. They’d hear sounds of torture from the small cells they were kept in without knowing the source. His youngest son, now 10, would be forced to watch beheading videos. Both his children are still traumatized and being treated by the Assyrian Support Committee.
Stuck in Lebanon
Eventually, Mark and his family were released, and although he wanted to flee Syria right away, he had to wait a year in Syria while the Syrian authorities processed his application and made sure he wasn’t an ISIS member. Now stuck in Lebanon, Mark is not legally allowed to work and is only able to support himself through his 63 year old father who works as a mechanic in the United States.
Although he is comfortable living in Lebanon because of its more liberal and tolerant society, he struggles to afford rent, medication, food and putting his kids through school. If it wasn’t for his father, he would not be able to survive. Thousands of others like him do not have help from abroad like Mark does and without international support, they will sit there suffering, waiting, and hoping to get asylum abroad. Mark’s application for asylum to the United States was rejected, and he now hopes his application to live in Australia will be accepted.
Back to Syria?
The saddest part of talking to Mark was hearing about him talk about the future of Syria and how optimistic he was to return. He would love to go back to live in Syria, however not only is his house destroyed and looted, but there is there is no longer a community left. Most of Mark’s family and friends live abroad and he wants to live around his family.
Additionally, he told me that it would be tough on his children who are deeply scared by their experience. Mark hopes to take his children abroad to receive an education, and then maybe things will have calmed down by then and they can come back to Syria when things are better. Despite all of their hardship, Mark is generally optimistic about the future and confides in his wife about his plans to return to Syria in the future.
As I wrap this up with my friend Jack, we both agreed that awareness may have been raised about the plight of Christians in the Middle East but not enough aid is being sent to them so they can get their lives back on track. “Relief is not enough”, Jack would repeat to me. “They need long term solutions, and the work of NGOs and the international community can never be done. These communities have suffered from persecution but also discrimination since before the war, they lived in poverty and did not have equal opportunity in education or employment. How are they supposed to survive or thrive in their societies as equal citizens?”
The image of the Christians’ future in general and that of Assyrians in particular did not seem very bright for Jack or Mark, and while I hope sharing this story makes some difference in their life, I can’t help but remember Jack’s words: “Everything that has happened to the Assyrians since over 100 years ago, and nobody did anything about it. Now it’s happening to all Christians in the Middle East today!”
Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, Ninar Keyrouz is a Film Producer and a Media and PR Specialist with a degree in Film Production from the Lebanese American University. In 2015, she co-produced the award winning documentary Our Last Stand which showed through the eyes of a Syrian American Christian woman, the plight of Christians in Syria and Iraq under the persecution of ISIS. The feature documentary screened in major cities in the U.S. and Europe including screenings at 4 E.U. parliaments. Ninar is the Director of Media and Communications with In Defense of Christians, a Washington D.C. advocacy group whose mission is to protect Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. She is fluent in English, Arabic, French and Assyrian (modern Aramaic).