In his 15 short years, Fadi Habou has lived a story almost too tragic to believe. He was kidnapped off a street in Baghdad at age 9 and ultimately set free in exchange for the life of his father.
His family, part of the diminishing Christian minority in Iraq, fled to the north of their country for four years before moving to Lebanon, where Fadi now works up to 11 hours a day wrapping chocolates. The $300 a month he earns pays for his family’s rent in a rundown neighborhood north of Beirut.
Fadi doesn’t go to school, doesn’t have friends. In the eyes of the Lebanese government, he is illegal. In the eyes of the United Nations, he is a “displaced person.” In his own eyes, he is a lost boy.
“Before, I used to be very good at school, and I had lots of friends,” Fadi says, speaking Arabic through an interpreter. “My only hope is to return to school. … I have no sense of humor now, no friends.”
Fadi Habou, 15. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
The story of Fadi and his family is truly horrific. Yet such atrocities are becoming increasingly common among Iraqi Christians, who are targeted by Muslim extremists in their home country.
As the violence escalates, Christians are seeking refuge outside Iraq’s borders. Although they might find relative peace and some degree of physical security away from home, they also find estrangement, poverty and a lack of civil rights as aliens in a land where they are trapped between religious and geopolitical forces.
Fadi lives with his mother, Amal Toma; sister Donia, 13; and brother Mark, 6, in a sparsely furnished apartment in a Shia-owned building. People on the streets speak Syriac. As young Mark watches Japanese cartoons, the evening call to prayer can be heard emanating from a mosque directly across the street.
Fadi's mother, Amal Toma. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
If ever a family were caught in a cultural clash, Amal Toma and her children are the perfect, painful example. Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic, can only assume her husband of 22 years, Fouad Habou, is dead.
No one in the family knows who the kidnappers were – or what religion they practiced, if any – but the sense is the family was targeted simply for being Chaldean Christians.
In 2005, Fadi was taken, and the family received a note with a phone number to call. Over the phone, the kidnappers demanded $20,000 in 24 hours or else they would “cut (Fadi) into pieces and put him in a bag on the front door.”
Amal and Fouad, a taxi driver, approached local churches and friends for help and managed to collect $5,000. They contacted the kidnappers and negotiated a meeting spot, and Fouad made the journey to rescue his elder son. He never returned.
Fadi remembers being told by his captors that his father had paid. He then was dropped off in an unfamiliar place, where he was scared and didn’t know the way home. Ultimately, he encountered an acquaintance who took him to Amal. But Fadi never again would see his father. The kidnappers contacted Amal again and told her she had 24 more hours to raise $20,000 for her husband’s return. Knowing the task was impossible, she told police of her situation. Shortly thereafter, kidnappers told her, “Consider yourself a widow; your husband is dead now.”
After two months of continued threats, Amal took her family north, leaving behind Baghdad for good. After four years in the north, she relocated again to Lebanon. Having secured tourist visas, she brought her children to Beirut, where she thought she’d find greater job opportunities and more money than in Syria or Turkey. Her aspirations, though, have been thwarted at seemingly every turn.
Donia Habou, 13. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
Amal suffers from rheumatism, which prevents her from working. Her son Mark suffers from epilepsy, which prevents him from attending school. Donia works alongside Fadi and says her only dream is to return to school someday. The $300 a month she earns pays for the family’s food and other needs.
Donia and Fadi say their co-workers are largely Iraqis, under 18 years old. Their hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a 15-minute lunch break, though Donia says the children often stay until 6:30.
When they come home, they enter a living room furnished with two old, hard sofas, a TV resting atop a cabinet, and two yellow plastic chairs. A fan sits in one corner of the room, helping to circulate the stagnant air.
A shrine to Mary in the living room. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
The walls are virtually barren, but for two items. Above the TV is the wedding photo of Amal’s oldest daughter, who now lives in Australia with her husband, an Iraqi with Australian citizenship.
The family has applied for refugee status with the United Nations in the hope of being able to move Down Under, a common location for Middle Eastern émigrés. After seven months, however, there has been no word on their paperwork.
Yet somehow, hope remains. Amal says her greatest dream is for every one of her children to have equal rights. As she speaks, she sits across from her apartment’s only other decoration, a picture of the Virgin Mary, with a candle and ribbon dangling from the image.
Her Christianity is what sustains Amal, even through unspeakable adversity. “I still have a lot of faith,” she says. “I am a strong believer, so I have hope.” Click here for more daily reports from Lebanon.View ACO in Lebanon in a larger map