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“Now we are part of a community”: Youhanna, Yosra, & Abeer

Youhanna and Yosra, and their four adult children Martin, Alen, Aiden, and Abeer are from Qaraqosh, Iraq. In 2014 they were forced to flee their home when ISIS invaded and destroyed their predominantly Christian area. After spending several years in asylum in Lebanon, they had the good fortune of being sponsored to come to Canada by Harvest Bible Chapel. Martin arrived in September of 2017 and the rest of the family arrived in January of 2018.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Youhanna, Yosra, and their daughter Abeer to discuss what being a refugee means to them, and how having a sponsoring church has impacted their lives. In sharing their story, they are hopeful that other churches will consider refugee sponsorship and settlement as a tangible way to live out the Gospel message and serve those whose lives have been turned upside down by persecution and war.

(This interview was conducted through an interpreter.)

1.      If you are comfortable, please share a little bit about where you are from and why you had to flee.

We are from Qaraqosh, a town that was once home to 50 thousand people on the outskirts of the city of Mosul. Now the city is home to only 20 thousand people.

Many generations of our family lived in Qaraqosh before us. The first churches were established in Qaraqosh 1300 years ago, and we believe that our ancestors were among those founding members of the church.

The first churches were established in Qaraqosh 1300 years ago.

In August 2014 we left our town after ISIS bombed Qaraqosh. Too many people died. We had to leave our beautiful home, our clothing store, and butcher shop. As a minority community, we got word from neighbouring churches that Daesh1 was coming.

We moved to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. There were no places to live there and we had to sleep in a garden out front of a church. There were people in the roads, in the garden, in abandoned buildings. Wherever there was space, there were people staying. They even opened the schools, hospitals, and government offices for refugees to stay. Many other towns and villages around Qaraqosh also emptied out.

We had to sleep in a garden out front of a church.

We stayed in Kurdistan for one month and then we left Iraq for Jordan. We heard that the United Nations process there was fastest. But we ended up only staying in Jordan for nine days, because we would be prohibited from working there. So we left for Lebanon on the 8th of October, 2014.

2.      What does it mean to you to be a refugee? How does that word make you feel?

To be a refugee is so difficult. The difference [between being a refugee and living a normal life] is like that between the earth and the heavens. When you are in your house and in your work in your life back home you manage everything without any huge problems. And then all of a sudden you have the worst problem. You have to run to get to a safe place and even if you arrive you need to find work and figure out how to find help. It is truly a miserable situation.

In Iraq, usually one person can work and support the family. But when we arrived in Lebanon we all worked whatever job we could find because we had no rights.2

Now that we are in Canada we are not refugees and we do not use that word.

When we were in Lebanon we were simply waiting. We had no idea about our future. But now that we have arrived in Canada we are part of a community. We receive help from the church to help pay for our apartment, go to appointments, and learn English. Now that we are in Canada we are not refugees and we do not use that word.

3.      What is the most difficult thing about being a newcomer in Canada?

We came to Canada in January, so obviously the cold. There was so much snow. And the trees just looked like dry bushes. Now [in the summer] it is so beautiful. But to be honest, it is really the language. Not knowing English makes life difficult. But other than that we feel no problems now.

4.      What is the most enjoyable thing about life in Canada?

Canadians are such helpful, respectful, nice people. We feel free here, and we can practice our Christian faith in peace. We have the freedom to walk everywhere with no fear.

The family’s home in Qaraqosh before they fled.

Photos of the inside of their house taken by a neighbour, after the destruction.

5.      Tell me about your relationship with your sponsoring church.

We see our sponsors as our family, because they have been so good to us. They have supported us from the very moment we arrived. We even have our own personal ESL teacher from the church. It is like a special, private lesson! People are always coming by and asking how we are doing. Really they are such a blessing. Their love for us reflects true Christianity.

6.      What are your hopes for the future?

We dream for a better future for our kids. First of all we want them to get jobs and get married. But most of all we want them to be able to live in peace without fear.


1 Daesh is ISIS' Arabic name.

2 Because they could not get work permits as refugees in Lebanon, they had no recourse if employers mistreated them. 

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