| Anna Totonchy in her Lake Oswego boutique with daughter Nora. |
IMAGE: Jenna Biggs
In August she got a disturbing phone message from her older Muhamad in Baghdad, explaining that his front door had been covered in blood-red paint during the night.
There also was a letter on his doorstep with a bullet on top. The content was concise—get out or you and your family will be killed. The message to the 51-year-old Christian businessman came less than a year after four men wearing black masks tried to kidnap his 15-year-old nephew as he was leaving school. When Totonchy returned the voice message, a strange man answered her brother's phone.
Later that day, she got a phone call from another family member in Jordan that both her brothers and their mother, all Christians, had escaped—squeezing their families and a few essentials into two taxis headed for the Syrian border.
"The Christians—they can't fight, their mentality is different. They grew up with peace," says Totonchy, referring to the 1 million-plus Christians she says are now targeted for slaughter by insurgent militias in Iraq.
Growing up in Iraq, Totonchy attended the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Kirkuk every Sunday and says she never felt discrimination from Muslims. When she was 24, an Iraqi-born American wooed her and married her. In 1976, he brought her home to Oregon where she had several jobs before opening Anna's Bridal Boutique 14 years ago in Lake Oswego.
Totonchy, 54, admits, "Not all Iraqis are angels," but blames paid thugs from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia for targeting Iraq's Christian community. She adds that the only good thing Saddam Hussein did was use force to scare anti-Christian zealots into submission. "These guys aren't used to freedom," she says. "They saw the freedom and went crazy."
About 40,000 refugees (about the population of Tigard) flee Iraq each month for Syria. But the addition of nearly 1 million Iraqi refugees there has disrupted the Syrian economy and caused the country to rethink its visa requirements.
Syria hasn't formally announced its latest immigration rules. But international news reports quote U.N. refugee officials saying Iraqi refugees can stay in Syria for a month before getting a longer three-month permit. That permit can be renewed for another three months if the refugees leave Syria for a day, then return.
The six months for Totonchy's family is up at the end of March. She says this means they'll have to leave their tiny, shared apartment outside of Damascus for an uncertain fate in Iraq.
Totonchy's family plans to go into hiding with relatives in Baghdad, but the danger of being discovered by militias is high for a Christian family.
"They are really scared and they don't want to go back," Totonchy says. "There is no safe place."
Under pressure from the United Nations and refugee advocacy groups, the United States announced in February that it will admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year. Ben Sanders, spokesman for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, says, "Christians are definitely high on the list to get resettled because they won't be able to go back safely."
But Totonchy doesn't know how to help her family gain refugee status. And time is running out.
"We need help to get them out of there but I don't know how," she says. "It's hell on earth in Iraq."