The exodus of Middle Eastern Christians from ancestral homelands is no recent phenomenon. During the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Assyrian refugees fleeing persecution in Anatolia were resettled by French mandate officials along the Khabur Valley, where they cultivated lands previously grazed by nomadic pastoralists.
Towns like Dizen flourished as large scale irrigation projects transformed the region into Syria’s breadbasket. By the 1990s the town had over 400 inhabitants.
Today there are as many churches as congregants in the once flourishing settlement,
though one mudbrick structure is now a ruin holding farm equipment and Islamic State militants set fire to the other two.
The extremists seized the town for three months in early 2015, leaving behind destruction and desecration. The 60 families of Dizen fled to nearby Hassakeh, then many travelled on to Lebanon and lives in exile in Australia, America and Europe.
“It was a difficult time,” said Mr Isho, 69, recalling returning to find the family home ransacked.
“It was shocking finding crucifixes and statues of Mary lying broken in the street,” added Mrs Suleiman, 61.
It was not the first tragedy that Syria’s civil war had inflicted on the family. In 2011, the first year of the ongoing conflict, their 20-year-old son Isho was killed while fighting in the Syrian army.
The next year another son Chamoun, 25, was kidnapped by Islamist militants while taking a bus from Damascus. They have never heard from him again but have not given up praying for his return.
“We stay because we still hope he will come back,” said Mr Isho.
Beyond that there is little to keep them here. With a son in Melbourne and a daughter in the Netherlands, they have options to leave. “We have the papers ready to move to Australia,” said Mr Isho.