"Mandaeans just don’t have anything left," said Layth as he lit another cigarette off the small red heating coils warming his cramped one room apartment. His two young sons, aged seven and nine, were sitting on frayed mats on the cold concrete floor. They wore gloves and hats to fend off the winter chill. His pregnant wife looked on, pacing nervously as her husband spoke.
"If you are not Muslim in Iraq, you are considered trash," he said as he exhaled and looked at his boys. "Mandaeans are the last in the chain of humans. We don’t even have our own country anymore. There is just nothing left of us."
The last surviving Gnostic religion, Mandaeism pre-dates Christianity. Adherents venerate John the Baptist. Water is central to the religion — it is believed necessary to purify the mind and body. Weddings, funerals and other religious ceremonies are held on riverbanks in waist-deep water. The most devout Mandaeans even baptise their food before eating.
Layth is one of tens of thousands of Iraqi Mandaeans who have fled their country since the 2003 US-led invasion. He now lives in East Amman, Jordan, and is awaiting resettlement in the United States. He seeks a country where he and his family can practise their religion freely without harassment — or fear for their lives.
Layth’s troubles began soon after the invasion. At the time, he lived in Baqubah, a city 50 kilometres northeast of Baghdad on the Diyala river. A carpenter, Layth lived with his family above his woodshop. In early 2004, gun shots rang out on his quiet street.
"There were groups of fundamentalists that started fighting the Americans, and they escaped somehow, and the Americans opened fire. Their shop burnt down. Americans, when they hear one shot — even if it’s like 10 kilometres away — they’ll just open fire on everything."
Layth then rented a house, but was soon evicted. "The owners of the place knew we were not Muslims, so they came with guns and started threatening my wife. Because I didn’t own the house, I couldn’t do anything," he said.
Over two millennia, the Mandaeans have lived in the cities and marshlands of Mesopotamia, in what is now modern day Iraq. They survived Mongol invasions, bloody massacres at the hand of Sultans and Shahs, and even the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein.
Under Saddam, jobs in government and higher education were not open to Mandaeans. Mandaeans were bullied in school and sometimes ridiculed while performing river rites. But after the invasion the situation grew deadly as sectarian chaos engulfed Iraq.
In 2003, the late Shiite leader, Ayatollah Al-Hakeem, decreed that Mandaeans are "impure" and may be killed or forcibly converted. In 2005, another fatwa reportedly issued by the Information Foundation of Al-Sadr Office in Basra reiterated this edict, accusing Mandaeans of "systematic adultery" and "trickery". Since then, hundreds have been killed, kidnapped, and forcibly converted. While their community numbered up to 50,000 in Iraq before the war, today the number has dipped to 4000.
Layth’s account is typical. After being threatened by his landlord, the family went to Baghdad. But Layth still could not find a safe place there. "All the areas are either Sunni or Shia," he said. "We are neither one of them — who are we? We don’t have any protection from either group."
Unlike other religious minorities in Iraq, Mandaeans do not have larger support networks outside of Iraq or in safer areas within the country to provide assistance. Mandaeans are also absolute pacifists. They are not permitted to carry weapons or even defend themselves if threatened. Their peaceful ways have left many unprepared to deal with the call for open warfare. Layth had no choice but to leave Iraq.
He arrived with his family in Jordan in October 2004. Mandaeans arriving from Iraq — like all the other 700,000 Iraqi refugees there — have no rights under the law. "We are not allowed to work. My wife had to sell all of her jewellery and whatever else she could sell," he said. Layth was fortunate at first and found illegal work as a carpenter. But only months into the job he deeply cut four fingers on a table saw. While the wounds have healed, he has lost full use of his right hand.
"I am not a citizen, there is no compensation. No health insurance," he said. "If my son was to be hit by a car — I’d be afraid of taking him to a hospital because I have no rights as an Iraqi here in Jordan. We live in fear."
Layth lives off savings from Iraq and money sent to him from his father-in-law. Today, he awaits word from the International Organisation for Migration, the group processing his application to the United States. So far, less than a dozen Mandaean families have been resettled in the US since the invasion — a tiny fraction of the roughly 6000 Iraqis admitted into the US since 2003.
In nearby Damascus, thousands of Mandaeans are waiting for resettlement. While about 2000 Iraqi Mandaeans live in Jordan, up to 10,000 displaced Mandaeans live in neighbouring Syria alongside the estimated 2 million other Iraqi refugees. Like Layth, the Mandaeans we met simply want to be resettled and live in peace.
Sadi is one of them. We talked to him in his run down apartment off a dusty lane in Jeramana — a crowded hub for Iraqi refugees in Damascus. Sadi is partly paralysed by arthritis on his right side and walks with a heavy limp. Despite his disability, he operated a jewellery shop in Baghdad. The shop was one of the first things he lost in post-Saddam Iraq.
"The shop was bombed by a car loaded with explosives. I lost everything, my workshop with all my gold and the things inside," he said.
The war then found its way into Sadi’s home.
In early 2005, four masked men barged into his living room. "They were not after my money," Sadi recalled. "They were after my faith."
They wanted him to convert — Sadi refused. "Every man should be free to keep his religion," he told them. "All religions should be respected, and every man should be respected for his religion."
The men left that day, but returned two weeks later with guns. "The men were full of hatred and aggression and with hearts of stone," he recalled as his eyes welled with tears.
The men gathered his wife, daughter, and two young sons into the living room and demanded he convert. He refused again. "They then took my son out of my wife’s hands," he said. Samer was only four-years-old. "We were screaming and crying," he said, as they watched the men run from the house with his boy.
Three days later Sadi received a phone call. "You will find the corpse behind the Bilat el Shohadah school by the motorway," said a man’s voice. The line then went dead.
Sadi rushed to the place along the busy road. Samer was lifeless — heavily bruised and shot in the back of his head. The family moved to Syria soon after.
Like Layth, Sadi now lives off savings as he awaits resettlement abroad. Asked if he would ever return to Iraq he said, "The country has become a theatre for the chaos, for killings and kidnappings."
"The fundamentalists can now do what they want. They said there is no place for other religions. I don’t own a thing and even if I owned the world, if Iraq would become a country again, I would never return."
Names and locations have been changed.