Smuggled from her home and into hiding in a Switzerland church, Juliana Taimoorazy followed her father as he led his family to Germany in 1989. Just one year later, the Taimoorazy family came to America as refugees after turning themselves in to the German police.
Twenty-seven years later, Taimoorazy is sharing her story around the world. She came to Hillsdale on Oct. 4th to speak at an event hosted by Students of Hillsdale Advocating Learning and Observing the Middle East, or SHALOM, where the club screened “Faithkeepers,” a film that is not yet widely released and portrays the personal stories of oppression and abuse affecting people of faith in the Middle East.
“When I was harassed and displaced, I did not know why all of that was happening to me,” Taimoorazy said. “I was being prepared to be worthy of this work.”
The club organized the event after the Philos Project, a Christian organization that promotes positive engagement in the Middle East, reached out to the club’s president, senior Emily Rinaldi. Taimoorazy is a senior fellow with the Philos Project, and also serves as founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, where she helps Christians who are experiencing persecution. She said she never had to ask herself why she advocates.
“It’s my identity; I’ve grown up with the persecution story,” Taimoorazy said.
She is the grandchild of a survivor who fled his homeland, traveling hundreds of miles on foot to the Iranian/Russian border. By the end of the journey, his feet were penetrated by the cloth covering them.
“He was 12,” Taimoorazy said.
As the film began, she told the students to think about this stripping of identity, the genocide, the economic loss, and the post-traumatic stress disorder left in the minds of millions.
Statistics flashed onto the screen periodically — “Globally 100 million Christians face religious persecution…In 1915, Christians made up 20 percent of the Middle East… Since 1975, 3.5 million have fled…Up to 700,000 fled Syria in the past 5 years…In August 2014, 7,000 Yezidi men were killed.”
The film explained the Islamic State also persecutes Muslim minorities, like the Yezidis.
Taimoorazy said that, despite the persecution, everyone’s resilience in three things stands out — their faith, their future, and themselves.
“They lost everything through their faith in Jesus Christ, so we are commanded by St. Paul to stand with them,” she said.
Taimoorazy said educating others and encouraging them to donate, even in small amounts, to organizations like the Iraqi-Christian Relief Council, can change thousands of people’s lives.
“A priest picked my mom out of a crowd and paid for her education,” she said. “She instilled the love of education in me. He helped thousands through one person — my mom. The effect is incredible.”
Taimoorazy said the U.S. government neglects Iraqi Christians because they are not strategically valuable, possessing a fighting force of only roughly 500 people. She said the people of America need to put pressure on their lawmakers.
“American Christians have not become one to take us more seriously,” Taimoorazy said. “What people need is aid right now.”
Over the past couple years, several Hillsdale students have taken trips to Israel through a Christian program called Passages, which aims to educate college students about biblical and modern Israel. Both Rinaldi and Vice President of SHALOM Rachel Reynolds had the opportunity to experience Israel last December.
“We went to the Gaza Strip, and it was heart-wrenching,” Rinaldi said. “They are in danger everyday of missiles landing in their homes. A woman gave us clay disks to write what we wanted and place on the Gaza wall. Despite the turmoil, you still can have love for your country amidst a sad situation.”
Rinaldi said SHALOM provides students the opportunity to learn from speakers on campus year round.
“Learning about Israel [and the Middle East] is a huge step into advocating for it,” Rinaldi said. “There are so many complex issues that I feel like people think ‘wow this is too complex; I don’t want to deal with it’ so I feel like it’s my job to help them.”
Lydia Reyes, a junior at Hillsdale who is going on the Passages trip in December, said she wants to bring Taimoorazy back to speak to parishioners at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hillsdale.
“My abuelo was sent to Castro’s gulags in Cuba,” Reyes said. “I grew up hearing these stories, so I feel like I can identify.”
Taimoorazy reminded the students of the history showing religious persecution in the Middle East has been occurring for 14 centuries. She said it is only now that the severity is being exposed to the rest of the world.
“At the beginning of the film, you said that you wanted us to be heart-broken,” junior Katie Kish said. “My heart could not be broken more.”