Iraqi Christians are caught in the middle and hitting the road

An Iraqi Christian woman prays at a community center in the Kurdish city of Erbil in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 27, 2014.

KHAZIR CHECKPOINT, Iraq — Lilian stood by the side of the road at this dusty checkpoint along the Erbil-Mosul highway. In skinny jeans and a polka-dot blouse, she looked a bit out of place.

Most of the other Iraqis on the road are very poor, while Lilian an her family are middle class. Most of the other Iraqis fleeing now are doing so because they couldn't afford to before. Lilian and her family are fleeing now because the violence finally hit too close to home.

A little after midnight Wednesday night, Lilian and her family heard shells drop near their home in Karamlish outside Mosul. Unable to tell if the violence was getting closer or not, they decided to hit the road. By 6 the next morning they were on their way to Erbil located in Iraq's relatively safe, semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

"We heard that Daah doesn't hurt civilians, but I don't know," said the 21-year-old student, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the insurgent group currently taking on the Iraqi government.

"Honestly, I don't know what we will do," she said with a nervous laugh.

Everyone in Iraq is worried, but Lilian and her family are worried for slightly different reasons than most other people. They are Christian, and while the sectarian divisions plaguing Iraq are mostly between Muslims, the violence that has resulted spares no one. 

More than two weeks after ISIL and other Sunni militias swept across northern Iraq and claimed Mosul, civilians continue to flee their homes — many of them Christian. Mosul's archbishop told local news outlets thousands of Christians have fled clashes near Mosul over the past few days.

The United Nations estimates that so far this year more than a million Iraqis have been made homeless by violence.

The clashes that drove Lilian and her family from their home were in the Hamdaniya district east of Mosul, according to local news reports. Kurdish security forces were reportedly digging defense trenches, trying to set up a checkpoint that would protect the Kurds and Christians in the area when violence erupted.

Lilian's aunt, Afnan, said it felt like the entire village emptied out Thursday morning. "Everyone was leaving," she said. "It was so quiet, there was nothing."

An Iraqi Christian woman prays at a community center in Erbil, June 27, 2014. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

Farther down the highway, another family from Hamdaniya is caught in traffic. The father, who asked not to give his name for fear of reprisals, spoke with red, puffy eyes. He didn't sleep at all last night, kept awake by the sounds of shelling. At sunrise, he and his wife, their 6-month-old baby and his mother-in-law hit the road.

"It was so safe before. I don't know how the fighting got so close," he said. Immediately after militants overran Mosul two weeks ago, he said he considered fleeing, but then things quieted down. Kurdish security forces partially took control of the area.

"I trusted the peshmerga," he said of the Kurdish security forces. "But now, we'll just manage ourselves, we don't need to trust anyone anymore."

Many of the families fleeing violence outside Mosul have come to the small Christian neighborhood of Ankawa on the northern edge of Erbil. Most hotels in the area are at capacity, so churches and schools have opened their doors. Classrooms and offices have been converted into dormitories, as desks and pews make way for sleeping mats.

Fadi Sabah and his family have staked out a corner of a classroom on the first floor of St. Joseph's elementary school.

"We've already seen this one time before," Sabah said, bouncing his sleepy newborn son in his arms.

While Iraq's Christian communities are some of the oldest in the world, their numbers have dwindled. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the country's ensuing civil war, some estimate the Christian population fell by more than half. Many Christians took advantage of liberal asylum programs to emigrate to Europe and the US.

Iraqi Christian families at a community center in Erbil, June 27, 2014. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

Sabah says he would like to leave Iraq, but for the time being he doesn’t have the money or the connections to make that happen.

On a desk in the corner of the classroom, Sabah’s sister-in-law unpacks a small suitcase full of food and blankets. She says she has enough baby formula for another two days at best.

Out in the hallway, local religious groups have dropped off cases of water, sandwiches and more sleeping mats. Another organization has begun a registration process copying down information from identity cards onto handwritten ledgers.

Sabah isn’t shy about placing blame for his family's current predicament. “We have no one else to thank, but Mr. President of course,” he said, now more angry than sad.

“I’m not Muslim, but I can understand the Sunnis,” he said. “[Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] only ever helps the Shia and just hurts everyone else."