In the Hammam al-Alil camp for displaced families from Mosul, there are many stories told about the hardships locals suffered while the extremist group known as the Islamic State was in control of their city. But there is one story that has drawn more attention than most, and that resulted in a steady stream of journalists, and even politicians, finding their way to two particular tents in the camp.
The tale of two women, one Muslim, who wished to be known as Um Saleh, or the mother of Saleh, and another Christian, Rafidain, has had a particular resonance with locals here. Neither woman wanted her full name used for both social and security reasons.
Rafidain is a 43-year-old Chaldean Christian, who first came to Mosul with her parents 30 years ago, when they were escaping the Iran-Iraq war. When the Islamic State, or IS, group took over the city of Mosul in mid-June of 2014, she soon discovered that she had only two choices.
As the rockets fell, we would all hold hands and take turns reading verses from the Koran and then the Bible.
Rafidain lives by herself and had switched off her mobile phone so she did not realize that elsewhere in the city, all of Mosul’s Christian population had been given a choice: Leave the city at once or convert to Islam. Most left. But by the time Rafidain found out about this edict, one of the first that the extremists gave in the northern city, it was too late for her. Now Rafidain could either give up her faith, or be killed.
Together with another Christian family, who also decided to stay in Mosul – dozens of Christians did remain and they all had their own personal reasons – Rafidain went to one of the courts set up by the IS group. There the group converted to Islam.
“I was not afraid but my companions were trembling,” Rafidain recalls. “In fact, we were playing with fire. We could all have been killed.”
Rafidain says that even after she converted to Islam, the IS fighters watched her carefully. They fined her for going out without a headscarf on once and one of the IS fighters even proposed marriage to her; she refused him.
Meanwhile Um Saleh, who is 45, and her family were having troubles of their own. Their house was chosen to be a weapons depot for IS fighters and they were forced to move out. They eventually moved in next to Rafidain’s place.
“At first I was scared of my new neighbours,” Rafidain explains. “I thought that maybe their sons were members of the IS group. But then after I visited them I discovered they were very kind hearted.”
Um Saleh remembers the first time she met Rafidain. “She was very thin and very pale,” Um Saleh says. “She seemed very jumpy – and I felt sorry for her. I told her she could come to our house whenever she wanted to. I told her to treat me like her mother, even though we are around the same age.”
Rafidain started to spend more and more time with her new Muslim neighbours, often going home only to sleep. Although she felt safe in Um Saleh’s house, Rafidain’s relatives did not approve.
“Some of them stopped talking to her, saying she had only converted so she could marry a Muslim man,” Um Saleh recounts. “But we knew this wasn’t true and that she had converted to save herself. We told the IS members that she really was a Muslim because if they knew she had just converted to save her life, they would have killed her, and probably us too.”
After the battle for Mosul began in February, conditions in the city worsened drastically. Rafidain moved in with her neighbours full time and the two women became even closer.
“Rockets were falling like rain,” Um Saleh says. The women used to sleep in one room together and the men in another. Um Saleh would hold one of her daughter’s hands and one of Rafidain’s hands. As things got worse, the whole family began sleeping in one room.
“We would all hold hands and take turns reading verses from the Koran and then the Bible,” Um Saleh says.
Eventually the family decided they needed to leave the battleground – the situation was intolerable. Rafidain and Um Saleh decided to go together. Rafidain says she gave Um Saleh her golden cross and some money. “Keep this until we reach the Iraqi troops,” she told Um Saleh, crying.
Holding one another’s hands tightly, shaking with fear and keeping their heads down in order not to become targets for the IS snipers, the two women walked through the wrecked city.
“When we finally arrived to where the Iraqi army was, it was like we were finally able to breathe,” Rafidain says. “I sat on the floor, lifted up that black veil and began to cry. It was like I had three years’ worth of tears hidden inside me. I had been so lonely – but this family had saved me from that.”
The family’s first stop was at the camp for the displaced, where their story became well known. When the Christian church in Erbil, the nearby capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, heard Rafidain’s story, they offered to bring her into the semi-autonomous zone, where it is comparatively safe. There are a larger number of displaced Christians there. However, Rafidain refused, saying that she wouldn’t come unless Um Saleh and her family could also go.
Given the tightened security conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan, which makes it difficult for Arabs to enter the Kurdish region, this was not possible.
Rafidain got a lot of phone calls from her relatives elsewhere, many of whom questioned her desire to live with a Muslim family, strangers that she did not know. “These are not strangers,” she told them in her own dialect, “they are my family.”
So after three months in the camp for the displaced, Rafidain moved back to Mosul, now that the IS group have been mostly pushed out of the city. Rafidain has returned to her own home in the Mansour neighbourhood of Mosul and Um Saleh is living in a small apartment in the New Mosul area temporarily, until she finds a place closer to her sons’ workplace – the family’s old home has been destroyed. Rafidain was trying to convince her to move closer to Mansour and after NIQASH visited, she was able to do so.
So why didn’t she go to Erbil or Dohuk, where her life would have been more safe and secure? “These people overwhelmed me with their care and their love,” Rafidain says. “I will never forget their good deeds.”