Christian Iraqi: American Is Who I Became

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WASHINGTON -- In Iraq, churches are under attack from Islamic radicals, making the nation the fourth most dangerous place in the world for Christians, according to the 2014 World Watch List.

It's one of the reasons why many Iraqis are fleeing their homeland.

Dark Clouds of War

Aseel Albanna fled to America from Iraq more than 20 years ago to escape what seemed like endless fighting. Yet her heart remains with her persecuted brothers and sisters.

Bright and positive, Aseel's personality took root from childhood even though many of the memories from her formative years were marred by the dark clouds of war.

"I just couldn't see any future for myself," Albanna told CBN News, recalling her experiences growing up during two cycles of warfare.

The eight-year Iran-Iraq War started when Aseel was only 10 years old. She was 19 when U.S. troops launched Operation Desert Storm.

Seeking Refuge

In 1991, she and her family fled their mostly Christian neighborhood just outside of Baghdad and sought refuge in neighboring Jordan.

After a month of pleading, she convinced her dad to take her to the United States, a country she'd always dreamed of visiting.

"I begged my father," Albanna recalled. "It was like a dream to me: liberty and freedom of expression. I didn't grow up with that so I really wanted it."

She and her father had round trip tickets to visit relatives in Lexington, Ky. They had every intention of returning to Jordan together but quickly discovered Aseel's aunt had other plans.

An Aunt Who Cared

"She told my father, 'I will never ever let her leave back with you!'" Albanna recounted. "My father was like, 'What are you talking about? She's my daughter!'"

Aseel was only one year away from receiving her architectural degree in Iraq under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

But her aunt helped her get into the University of Kentucky's architecture program as a fifth year student. Her father returned to Jordan, leaving his daughter behind on a student visa.

She graduated from college, pursued a career in design and has flourished in the U.S. ever since -- feeling more American as time passed.

A Dual Identity

After nearly 23 years living in the U.S., she decided to become an American citizen.

She took the oath on the 222nd anniversary of the U.S. Bill of Rights at a ceremony at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. -- home to the nation's founding documents, like the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

"Being Iraqi is who I am, who I've been," Albanna explained. "Being American, on the other hand, is who I became -- who I grew into."

Persecution in the Homeland

Still, Aseel cares deeply for her homeland and her people, especially the Christian community that faces growing persecution.

As an Iraqi Christian, she worries about the future of her native land, home to one of the world's oldest Christian populations. She describes what's taking place as a "very sad turning point in Iraq."

"I think it doesn't look good," she explained. "It's considered a very honest and fair community, and they gave a lot to Iraq -- to the country."

After the Iraq War began in 2003, Christians became an easy target. Many have been persecuted, tortured, or killed.

In the last 10 years, the population of Iraqi Christians has dropped from more than a million to around 500,000. Similar stories of persecution are happening in Syria and Egypt.

     ** Read more about Christian persecution around the world **
          

Katrina Lantos Swett, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, believes fellow Christians and human rights activists should pressure lawmakers to act now before Middle East Christians disappear from the map.

"There's just no doubt that ancient and historic Christian communities are threatened as never before," Latos Swett told CBN News.

"One of the most powerful things that individual communities, church communities, and people as individuals can do is to reach out to their member of Congress and say, 'You know what: this is a top priority with me and I want to know what you are doing about it,'" Lantos Swett said.

Being a Citizen

Meanwhile, Aseel hopes others can find a path to peace, freedom, and personal growth similar to the road she has traveled.

As a new American citizen, she has high hopes for the country she now calls home. She also plans to take full advantage of her new rights and freedoms, like voting.

This spring, she's planning to cast her very first ballot for a fellow Iraqi who's running for office in Washington, D.C. It's a scenario she knows full well is unique to the American experience.

"This doesn't happen in many countries, but it definitely happens in the United States," Albanna reflected. "It just gives me this hope you can do anything you want. You can be anyone you want to be. And, that's what's so beautiful about this country."

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John Jessup

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John Jessup serves as the main news anchor for CBN, a position he assumed after 10 years reporting for the network in Washington, D.C. His work in broadcast news has earned him several awards in reporting, producing, and coordinating elections coverage. Follow John on Twitter @JohnCBNNews and "like" him at Facebook.com/John.V.Jessup.