“WHEN I REMEMBER ESCAPING ISIS, ALL I SEE IS JESUS”
It is five years since ISIS seized the Iraqi city of Mosul, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Many Christians were among those forced to flee. Some who escaped Iraq as children are now grown up – including Bella and Sareel, two extraordinary, faith-filled 18-year-old girls.
Against the grey, Jordanian cityscape behind them, Sareel and Bella stand out.
With her eye-catching Batman jumper and blonde-streaked ponytail, Sareel is a splash of colour. She is creative in other ways, too – she writes and paints, she teaches drama classes to younger refugee children, and as a child in Iraq she danced ballet.
STRUGGLING FOR EXPRESSION
But, Sareel shares, it can be hard to be fully herself in Amman.
If she dressed the way she would like – in shorts, for example – she would attract criticism. “People are very closed-minded … too closed-minded,” she says.
Sareel cannot walk in the street with her cousin, because he is male. “People would think that this is my boyfriend … and they would spread rumours about me,” she explains.
Bella has long hair and a bright smile, and she too longs for greater freedom. Bella, who is also 18, met Sareel four years ago, in Iraq.
A WAR-TORN CHILDHOOD
Bella was born in Mosul. When she and her four siblings were growing up, periodic violence was normal. So, at first, her family did not take the warnings about ISIS seriously.
But as the fighters advanced, local Christians realised that this group was different.
“They killed a lot of people,” Bella says, her voice tightening. “Our neighbour stayed, and he would give us the news, saying, ‘They took the girls and the kids, and they killed the men.’ It was painful, because we had just run away from there.”
Bella’s family escaped one hour before ISIS invaded Mosul.
A TRAUMATIC ESCAPE
After sheltering with other Christians in a nearby sinkhole, Bella’s family sought refuge in Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan. But then, fearful that ISIS would descend there, too, the family moved to Jordan.
On her last day in Iraq, Bella met and made friends with Sareel in Baghdad. Sareel’s family lived in the capital, but, following a wave of ISIS suicide attacks on the city, her family also left for Jordan.
HOPING AND WAITING
After three years of brutal occupation, ISIS was driven out of Mosul in July 2017. But neither Bella nor Sareel plan to return to Iraq.
Instead, they are waiting to hear if they will be given visas for Australia.
Bella dreams of completing her education, which has been interrupted. “It’s too hard to wait,” she sighs. “Sometimes I feel as though I am waiting for nothing. Sometimes I feel hopeless – then maybe I pray.”
DREAMS OF JESUS
Sareel also finds comfort in her Christian faith. SAT-7 KIDS was her favourite channel growing up – she especially liked Bedtime Stories.
She has other treasured memories, too.
“Before I came to Jordan, somehow, every day I dreamed about Jesus,” Sareel says. “So now when I think about the past, all I think about is Jesus.”
“NEVER BE AFRAID”
Once, Sareel remembers, she dreamed there was an explosion.
“Jesus told me, ‘Never be afraid, I am next to you.’ He was holding my hand, and he told me, ‘Nothing will happen to you.’”
Asked if she tries to forget Iraq, Sareel is emphatic.
“No. Never – never. The best memories are in the past.” She pauses. “Because I was always proud that Jesus was with me.”