Iraqi Christians find safety in north, but no jobs

ARBIL, Iraq Wed Sep 21, 2011 2:35pm EDT

1 of 2. An Iraqi Christian refugee woman with a child on her lap holds a rosary as she prays in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary at her house in Arbil, about 300 km (190 miles) north of Baghdad, September 11, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Azad Lashkari

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Menas Saad Youssef no longer fears being blown up while praying in a church. But she and many other traumatized Christians who fled Iraq's capital for safer areas have a new crisis -- no jobs.

Almost a year since a deadly church siege in Baghdad that killed dozens of people and prompted her family to seek refuge in the prosperous northern Kurdish region, Youssef sits at home, frustrated about her future.

The 28-year-old academic, who is still haunted by images of her friends lying in pools of blood at the cathedral where she prayed every Sunday, misses her job as an architecture professor in Baghdad.

"It's a safe place. I can go out at night," she said, referring to the mainly Christian area of Ainkawa in the city of Arbil, 300 km (190 miles) north of Baghdad.

"But the big problem is there's no work. So you feel good in the beginning and then when you try to earn a living, it's very difficult. We can't find any jobs."

Iraq's Christians -- most of them Syrian or Chaldean Catholics -- numbered around 1.5 million before 2003 and are now estimated at about 450,000-600,000, according to Christian leaders. Iraq has not conducted a full census since 1987, but the largely Muslim country is estimated to have a current population of about 30 million people.

While most of the sectarian fighting that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has been between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, attacks on Christians have increased in recent years.

Last October, 52 hostages and police were killed when al Qaeda-linked gunmen took more than 100 Catholics captive in a siege at the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in central Baghdad. Sixty-seven others were wounded in the incident.

It was the bloodiest attack against Iraq's Christians in the eight years of war that followed the invasion and struck fear into the Christian community, prompting hundreds of families to flee to the north or overseas.

"There are around 900 Christian displaced families who have settled permanently in Arbil province, including in Ainkawa, since the explosion at Our Lady of Salvation," said Kamran Abdullah, head of the Kurdish migration and displacement department in Arbil province.

"More people were displaced but some of them have returned to their former areas. Others have left the province to go abroad or to other provinces."

RELIGIOUS MINORITY

Iraqi Kurdistan has been an oasis of relative calm since 1991, when the zone became a semi-autonomous enclave under Western protection. The region has earned the reputation of being a safe-haven in an otherwise dangerous country.

But while the area has attracted foreign investment and construction is booming, Christians who have moved to Iraq's north say they are still marginalized.

"Christian people have no support from anyone in Iraq. We feel it's become the norm," said Abu Rani, who runs a small electronics shop in Ainkawa. He left Baghdad in 2007 during the height of sectarian violence.

One of the main obstacles to finding jobs is that anyone who moves into the region from elsewhere wanting to live and work in Iraqi Kurdistan must obtain a residence permit from the interior ministry of the Kurdish Regional Government. To get a permit they must also have a local sponsor who can provide assurances.

The permit, which needs to be renewed on an annual basis, has to be presented when looking for work.

"Unless you have such an approval, you can't find a job here (in Arbil)," said a member of the Chaldean Syrian Assyrian Council, who declined to be named.

"Our number has been diminished to this extent because we don't have any constitutional rights up until this moment. We are just regarded as a religious minority. We depend on other people's good will to find jobs, to live peacefully, to go about our way of life."

Iraq has an official unemployment rate of 15 percent, with another 28 percent of the workforce in part-time jobs. Much of the population relies on a national food ration scheme.

Abdullah said that of the families who had settled in Arbil province, 365 Christians have been employed by the government.

To help resettle Christians in Arbil faster, Abdullah said the migration and displacement office arranged for some of them to get work and university transfers to Iraqi Kurdistan from their home towns.

"It means that they work here but they are employees of the Iraqi government and get their salaries from them," he said.

Abdullah said 104 Christian students had been resettled in Arbil.

Youssef, who moved with her parents and siblings to Ainkawa last November, is still waiting for her permit.

"I left everything in Baghdad and came here to start from the beginning, from zero. Everything is confusing for me. I don't know what will happen in the future," she said.

Her parents, both dentists, have secured their permits but the family still had to rely on help from relatives overseas to furnish their house in Ainkawa, for which they pay $700 a month in rent. They left most of their belongings in Baghdad.

Despite the frustrations, Youssef and her family say they will not return to their empty home in the capital.

"I will never return. In Baghdad there is no security. You never know if there is a bomb behind you or in front of you. It can be anywhere," said her father, 63-year-old Saad Youssef.

The only other option is to leave the country, something the family does not want to do.

"All of the Christians here want to go to another country ... especially the youth. I will stay here. It's my country, I will not run away," said Youssef's 25-year-old brother Khalid.

(Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi; Editing by Jim Loney and Paul Casciato)

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