Two religions one roof
A story of co-existence in a time of war and sectarian hatred
Maysun Yalda and Widad Fadill sit opposite each other, sipping tea under a brightly coloured rug. “It’s Jesus,” says Maysun, pointing towards the male figure sewn into the heavy tapestry hanging from her kitchen wall.
44-year-old Maysun is a Christian from Tel Kaif in Nineveh, some 400km north of 47-year-old Widad’s hometown of Fallujah in Anbar, a Sunni stronghold.
Last year both women were forced out of their respective hometowns when the Islamic State took control of Falluja in January and later tore through much of northern Iraq, killing thousands and displacing over one million.
Today the two families, whose paths would likely not have crossed, coexist under the same roof in a shared state of displacement in the city of Kirkuk.
4/4/2015, Kirkuk, Iraq: The house in Kirkuk where the two families live.
Decades of demographic reshuffling at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime in and around Kirkuk has fuelled and perpetuated ethno-religious tensions amongst the city’s residents, often leading to violence. But off the volatile streets and behind the steel gates that lead to Maysun and Widad’s shared home, an unlikely microcosm bears witness to the ethnic and religious coexistence that is still possible in Iraq.
A gaggle of children play in the quiet courtyard where the families’ clothes hang side-by-side. “Our children are very good friends,” says Maysun who recently congratulated her Sunni neighbour on a relative’s wedding day.
In Easter Widad joined her Christian neighbours and wished them well as they celebrated the resurrection of Christ amidst prayers and brightly coloured Easter eggs.
“There are no differences between Christians and Sunnis,” says Widad.
4/4/2015, Kirkuk, Iraq: Asma, Marwa, Marta and Abdullah gather every afternoon to play in the yard of their house.
Maysun & Ghanem, Tel Kaif
Maysun, her 60-year-old husband Ghanem Hormez and their three children became prisoners in their own home for a month when ISIS overran their town on 4 August.
While the rest of Tel Kaif’s Christian residents fled to the relative safety of the neighbouring Kurdish enclave, Maysun refused to put her eldest son Rony, who was born a quadriplegic, through the ordeal of a sudden move.
“We didn’t leave sooner because we thought the village guards would be there, but they deserted us,” says Maysun critically. Most government forces melted away in the face of the ISIS attack, leaving vulnerable citizens to fend for themselves. Maysun speaks loudly and quickly, often interrupting her husband as she brews coffee over a tiny hob.
29/1/2015, Kirkuk, Iraq: Ghanem Hormoz Gorgis 60 years old, prepares the usual meal of bread and milk for his boy Rony, 21, who has quadriplegia.
Ghanem, a gentle man both in mannerisms and speech, recalls the day the Sunni insurgents erupted into Tel Kaif, vandalizing one of the churches. “They told me I was an infidel and that I should convert,” he explains in broken English.
“They broke the cross of our church and put their flag on it,” he says, conjuring images of the infamous and ubiquitous black ISIS flag.
For just under a month the family remained indoors, trapped between the four walls of their own home in an attempt to draw as little attention to themselves as possible, while taking care of their frail son.
“Some of our [Sunni] neighbours protected us from Daesh,” says Ghanem, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Some of the 15 Sunni families who remained in Tel Kaif and still live under ISIS control brought them food and ice and often provided them with electricity. “However,” says Ghanem, “Sunnis in the village were often playing both sides.”
In a rare show of mercy the leader — or emir — of the ISIS unit based in Tel Kaif allowed the family to continue living under their rule as Christians, seemingly unconcerned about their presence. However as the weeks went by and the coalition airstrikes around them intensified, Maysun and Ghanem decided it was time to find a way out of Tel Kaif.
“I told the emir that our son was ill and that I needed to take him to a hospital — he then actually came to me and told us to leave because of the bombings,” explains Maysun matter-of-factly. It is unclear why the family was allowed to flee, other than a rare show of humanity by a member of ISIS.
4/4/2015, Kirkuk, Iraq: Najiba inside the church greets another christian from Kirkuk during the Easter celebration.
The emir provided the family with a car and instructed them to drive south to Kirkuk. The family however was forced to cross ISIS-held territory, prolonging their ordeal for another week. Ghanem and one of his sons were arrested twice but eventually released.
“They said they would convert us and take the women; they said they’d kill us. They talked a lot but didn’t do anything,” says Maysun who held and nursed her disabled son through their journey, careful to keep him in good health.
Like so many IDP families before them, Maysun and her family crossed the Maktab Khalid crossing, west of Kirkuk where they were greeted by Kurdish Peshmerga and escorted to one of Kirkuk’s churches. The same church that Widad and her six children had found refuge in four months earlier, on the 21st of May.
25/3/2015, Kirkuk, Iraq: Ghanem (Christian) is paying a visit to Widad’s house and she offers him some sweet which were given to her by the Imam of the mosque to celebrate the birth of prophet Mohammed.
Four years ago unknown anti-government forces planted a bomb outside the home of Widad’s brother in law, an Iraqi police officer. Both he and his wife were killed in the explosion while their two sons and one daughter survived.
Widad, whose husband died of a heart attack years ago took in and single-handedly raised her niece and nephews as well as her own three children. Today she lives with them and her mother on the top floor of the home they share with Maysun and her family.
“They’ve been left with no father or mother,” explains Widad sitting down at Maysun’s kitchen table to drink tea. Upstairs in her temporary home UNICEF boxes line the bare walls marked by damp rings and peeling paint.
“We left Fallujah because of the air strikes and because ISIS was inside the city,” she says recalling the masked men in military uniform who have been ruling over Fallujah since January of last year. Her brother, an Iraqi policeman, was taken by members of the insurgents and has been missing since.
Widad remained in her city for another four months before she packed her life and family up and led them to Kirkuk. They initially lived in the skeleton of an unfinished home until a local church offered them housing.
“It didn’t matter to them that we were not Christian, there is no difference between Christians and Sunnis,” she says, pausing for a moment and adding, “It pains me as much to see Christians being hurt as it does Muslims.”
Widad sits surrounded by two of her sons and one nephew, Marwan, who lost his eye in the explosion that killed his parents. His younger sister, Asma, also suffered severe wounds from the attack. “I prefer Kirkuk to Fallujah,” says the boy holding his aunt’s hand.
“I won’t go back to Fallujah in that environment, I like Kirkuk but it’s hard because we don’t have that much money and no one is helping me,” says Widad who receives $200 a month from the government as part of her late husband’s pension.
Though Widad’s petite stature is dwarfed by Maysun’s exuberant ways and continuous chatter both women have the same resilience and matriarchal qualities about them.
29/1/2015, Kirkuk, Iraq: Widad Fadhil, 47 years old is seen helping the kids to get dress before going to school.
As the war in Iraq continues, the violence that engulfed the country shows no sign of abating as the Islamic State persists with its rampant attacks and more families are displaced by the ongoing conflict. The Sunni insurgents have taken control of large swaths of both Anbar and Nineveh and while the fighting in both provinces rages on, its residents remain displaced and far from home.
Widad and Maysun have no dreams of returning home in the near future — they know it’s a futile wish. Instead the two women focus on building their new lives — even if temporary — in Kirkuk, in a unique alliance that has seen two families from two different worlds converge into one under the same roof.
Read next story
The air is thick with dust and the smell of sewage in Chermo camp where a cluster of prefabricated cabins house 196 members of the Shabak minority. Brittle fencing draped in freshly-washed clothes separates the makeshift homes from a busy highway; a linear strip of hot tarmac that runs from the town of Chamchamal to the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The barren piece of land was lent to the families cost-free by a wealthy Kurdish tribe.
On August 3rd 2014, ISIS insurgents attacked the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar in an attempt to expand their so-called ‘caliphate.’ During the weeks following the fall of the city, the Sunni militants who see the Yazidi people as devil worshippers carried out a genocidal campaign, killing tens of thousands of people and kidnapping over 5,000 women who they later sold into sexual slavery.
YEARS OF WANDERING IN THE LAND OF IRAQ
When the Americans came so did al-Qaeda waving the banner of religion. They made a few military operations against the Americans to gain people’s trust and support, but then started slaughtering them. Either you supported them or they killed you. Meanwhile, they wore shorts in the evening and played sports with the Americans to convince them that they were not terrorists.
AT THE CHICKEN FARM
The chicken farm stands amid an expanse of wheat fields at the end of a long dirt road several kilometers from the nearest village. It was lush and green when the 47 Sunni Arab families from Jarallah arrived and the ripening wheat stalks rippled in the wind. Now the harvest is over and the parched golden stubble gives up clouds of dust when the wind blows.
THE EXEMPLARY SCHOOL OF SITAK
Isn’t this the story of every mosque, house and city in the Middle East? A mosque is built over the ruins of a church which has been built over the ruins of a synagogue which has been built on the ruins of an ancient temple; and someone comes to ruin it all over again. Ruins inherit ruins, and generations follow generations. They rise from the ashes and restore everything, a long feverish struggle for survival. We cannot call it a war because it isn’t, regardless of the fact that we are all fighting for a dream.
The Kurds in northern Iraq were suffering under the burden of a long frontier war with the Islamic State (ISIS), a financial crisis and the arrival of more than one million people displaced by war, altering the ethnic balance of their proto state. Shaqlawa, once a popular holiday destination had become a shelter for thousands of Iraqi Arabs fleeing the grinding war further south who now outnumbered the local Kurdish population.
OIL AND BLOOD
Zaidoon’s seventeen year-old cousin, Jamal, darts through the refinery’s enormous storage drums. He is trying to fill a jerry can with gasoline for one of the truck drivers who’s pulled up in an empty tanker. Jamal runs over to the huge drum that holds the gasoline and throws open the spigot at the bottom. A jet of black liquid shoots out which then turns clear. Jamal cups his hand and catches some of it, bringing it up to his face as if he’s about to take a sip.
THE ORPHANS OF ALQOSH
One evening late in the summer of 2014 people from five villages in the province of Nineveh streamed onto the roads along with the orphans from Alqosh. Between their cars and ISIS stood only burning pyres of rubbish and an emptying no man’s land. Milad Hani, 9, and his brother Wissam, 11, were part of the exodus.
THE BUTCHER OF KHALAKAN
Thirteen year-old Ali fled the violence in Salahaddin and found refuge in the remote Kurdish village of Khalakan where he works as a butcher.
In the camp one morning a plane passes overhead and Awatif, Adam’s wife looks up with a start. Marwan doesn’t hear the noise and continues to cut hair in his make shift shop. For Sulaiman returning home seems a long way off after news of the killings. Stuck between different factions in Iraq and trailed with suspicion, Adam, Marwan and Sulaiman must build their lives again at edge of Kirkuk.
GRAND BAGHDAD HOTEL
I can’t remember my experience in the Grand Baghdad Hotel just by merely thinking of the name because this place looks nothing like a hotel nor does it have anything to do with the glamorous name it bears. Instead, I think of the charming film The Grand Budapest Hotel where cinema beautifies tragedy and where protagonists die smiling or in the middle of a romantic kiss.