Raising a family in Baghdad these days is a frightening prospect. So it's no surprise that most middle class Iraqis who can afford to send their children abroad have already done so.
As the holy month of Ramadan comes to an end next week, the absence of those kids will be painfully obvious. Sahar Issa, a journalist living in Baghdad, says she's already experiencing that void ahead of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end Ramadan.
"No one is left. My son has gone. Everyone is gone," she says. "My mother and I were just sitting over Iftar [the Ramadan meal that breaks the fast] and she was telling me, 'Sahar, what do you think we should do for this Eid? We want to have like the same banquet.'"
At her family's traditional Eid celebrations, upwards of 100 people from Issa's family typically share lunch or dinner. This year's observance will be much smaller. "I was telling her, 'Mother, there's no one here. You know, banquet for whom? They're all gone,'" Issa says.
The exodus from Iraq is growing every day. Issa says travel agencies are so besieged that flights out of Baghdad are fully booked up to six weeks in advance. But she herself isn't thinking about leaving, even though England was once her home and she felt the allure of returning to London for many years.
"I could see the stores, the shops, the public library. That was my home," Issa remembers. "When I came back to Iraq, my heart was still there. I lived in Iraq and I worked in Iraq and I raised a family in Iraq and this war comes along. ... And I thought I would be the first to go, because, you know, I have another home — or at least I have a feeling of another home."
But that feeling has faded over the years. "This is my home," Issa now says of Baghdad. "I don't want to go anywhere else. I don't want to be chased out of my home. If my son is in danger, I have to send him away. If my daughter is in danger, I have to send her away. If I had a brother, if I had a father, if I had a husband, all these people would be in danger. They would need to go away. But I don't want to be chased. I want to stay here."
That's an option for Issa, but not for many Christians in northern Iraq. In recent weeks the militant group ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — has seized wide stretches of territory in their heartland. Issa's daughter witnessed their plight; she practiced dentistry in Hamdaniya, a district in northern Iraq, until about two weeks ago. There, Issa says, her daughter saw many Christian families fleeing from nearby Mosul, northern Iraq's largest city, to Hamdaniya.
"She has friends there, she has colleagues there. Their homes are gone, the electricity is gone, the water is gone," Issa says. "Her friend called her yesterday and she was crying she was telling her, 'Our family home in Mosul is gone.'"
Those Christians, who have a history in northern Iraq that predates Islam, are the "original residents of this area," Issa says. "That they should be chased away in this manner is horrible."
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