CRS in Iraq

From Caritas Leader to Refugee in Syria

By Liz O'Neill

Khalwa Elia talks about her experiences as an Iraqi refugee in Syria.

Not long ago, Iraqi native Khawla Elia was at the peak of her professional career. As the secretary general of Catholic Relief Serivces partner agency Caritas Iraq, the buck stopped at her desk. She was responsible for everything, from hiring the right people to supervising the programs that helped thousands of Iraqis forced to flee their homes after the 2003 invasion.

"I barely had enough time to scratch my head," says the effervescent Khawla. "Life at work was very full and rewarding." She and her husband, a math teacher in Iraq for 28 years, were proudly raising their two sons in a neighborhood not too far from her extended family in Baghdad.

Not an Easy Choice

Everything changed in 2006, when sectarian violence erupted in Iraq, leading to a threat of civil war.

"It was hard to believe the violence—just like a volcano that suddenly erupted," she says. "People were running up and down the streets with their machine guns. Someone even fired a bullet at our house, just for fun."

"We endured it for as long as we could," she adds, "but when our fellow Iraqis started threatening us just for being Christians, we couldn't take it anymore."

Suddenly, she says, they were treated as intruders in their homeland. "They called us dirty because we were Christians," says Khawla. "They used to call my boys horrible names just for being the sons of a Christian woman."

The name-calling quickly escalated to harassment in the form of a letter threatening the family because they are Catholics. "I knew from experience that people were kidnapped—even killed—because of their religion," says Khawla. "We knew then that we could no longer live safely in our beloved homeland."

It wasn't an easy choice for Khawla or her family. She spoke proudly of being an Iraqi, of spending her entire childhood in Iraq, of meeting and marrying her husband there and thinking that, someday, she'd enjoy her grandchildren in the country where she was born and raised.

As she and her family were packing their car to flee the country, someone approached her son and said, "What are you still doing here? Didn't we tell you to leave?" They hit her son with a gun, and, as he lay bleeding on the ground, Khawla remembers crying uncontrollably. "No one would come help me. It was as though the rest of the neighbors were just too afraid to come out of their house and help us." The family fled to Syria, where they've lived as refugees ever since.

A Show of Solidarity

"CRS has helped me a great deal since I came to Syria," says Khawla. "My colleagues from CRS kept in touch with me, offering to help in whatever way they could. They made me feel that I'm still remembered by someone."

"We have no one here; no one asks about us, no one really cares about us here—except for my friends from CRS," she adds. "They have done so much to help me psychologically. I can't even tell you how good that feels to be remembered."

Khawla and her family have applied for resettlement to the United States, a long, drawn-out process that can take years. For most Iraqi refugees, it's a long shot. In the meantime, neither she nor her husband can work in Syria, where the unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent. And like most Iraqi refugees who have fled to other countries, her family is running out of money.

"We're living in a crisis now, but we're hopeful things will get better for us. We have hope, and we believe in God. It's the only way we can get through the day."

Liz O'Neill is CRS' communications officer for Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.

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