Amman – Inside St Mary’s Church in Marka, on the outskirts of the capital Amman, Iraqi Anne Danyale al-Basi cries when she talks about her son, Rami.
Since the operation to retake their home city of Mosul began on October 17, the 14-year-old doesn’t talk much. Instead, he comes straight from school to the church room they share with other Iraqi Christian refugees and turns on the news.
“He spends all his life in this room now,” Basi told Al Jazeera. “Since he started watching the battle, all he wants to do is go back to Iraq.”
In the chaotic years following the 2003 US-led invasion in Iraq, she said her son watched as Mosul became the site of kidnappings and ongoing threats by armed groups. He wanted to study engineering, hoping to one day help rebuild his city.
Instead, the family said a final goodbye to their home one morning in July 2014, when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group gave Mosul’s Christians 48 hours to decide to flee or die.
“Because we’ve been forced out of our own country, Rami believes there is no country that will be ours,” Basi said. “But what kind of future can my children have if we go back to Iraq now?”
The family was among an initial 1,000 Iraqi Christians flown to Amman by the aid organisation Caritas Jordan in August 2014, almost two months after ISIL, also known as ISIS, took over the city. Back then, refugees piled into church halls stacked with mattresses and emergency supplies, believing Jordan was a short pit-stop on the road to resettlement in a new country.
We will watch the news of Mosul until the end of our lives,
Yet, two years on, many have found themselves stuck in limbo.
Inside makeshift rooms separated by curtains, towers of luggage lie stacked in corners and family pictures are taped to the walls. News programmes broadcasting scenes from Iraq’s battlefield break up the afternoon quiet as refugees return home from mass.
Almost 12,000 Iraqi Christians are still in Jordan under Caritas’ guardianship. According to the organisation’s spokeswoman, Dana Shahin, more than half of then are from the Mosul area.
Shahin says that many of the families have split modest apartments in Amman and its surroundings. Others, like Basi, still rely on churches – St Mary’s alone houses some 25 people.
The multi-pronged offensive includes some 25,000 troops spanning Iraqi security forces, federal police, Kurdish fighters, Sunni tribesmen and Shia militias. Still home to more than one million people, provincial capital Mosul is the main target of the operation.
As mixed brigades enter surrounding villages, the struggle has onlookers wondering whether these victories could pave the way for Iraq’s religious minorities to return home.
But for Basi, that possibility has long passed.
“We will watch the news of Mosul until the end of our lives,” she said. “But returning is impossible, I don’t want my kids to ever have to go through another day like the one in 2014.”
Shahin, Caritas’ spokeswoman, said the feeling is a common one for refugees here in Jordan.
“We hear the same answer, but it’s a sad thing because we would like [to] preserve the presence of Christians in the Middle East,” she said. “But of course this is not easy for the families actually living in this situation.”
Former residents also fear what will emerge in ISIL’s wake. Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, was home to a mosaic of different religious and ethnic groups. Martin Daniel, Basi’s brother, who also lives in Marka, said this delicate balance has been irrevocably disturbed.
“Mosul was made up Sunni, Shiites, Yazidis and Christians, we were all raised together,” he told Al Jazeera. “But we worry after Daesh [ISIL] leaves, there will be war for control among them all.”
Daniel spent 18 years fighting with an Assyrian Christian unit of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. But when ISIL closed in on Mosul, he and his family joined Basi and headed to Jordan. Now he is watching the unit he once fought with march towards the city he left behind.
“When I see that my brigade is moving forward, my instincts tell me to go and fight,” he said. “The only thing stopping me is my children.”
While the battle rages in Iraq, Christians taking refuge in Jordan still eye brighter futures abroad.
That plan materialised for Basi and Danyale in October, when both families were granted asylum in Australia. They are due to leave Jordan within a few months to start a new life. But for others still waiting in Marka, solutions have so far been elusive.
“We have applied [for resettlement] at the Australian embassy, but haven’t heard anything yet,” Raghad Sabah, another Mosul resident living at the church, told Al Jazeera. “But we stay here because we lost everything in Iraq, we have nowhere else to go.”
As Iraqi forces set their sights on retaking the city, bigger questions are emerging about what – and who – will control areas so many different groups once called home. When ISIL descended on Mosul back in 2014, Sabah said she watched city officials and security forces flee the chaos alongside civilians.
“I watched with my own eyes as Iraqi soldiers switched from their uniforms into civilian clothing, drop their weapons and run from the city,” she said. “Not once has someone from the Iraqi government asked about us since then; if we return, who can we trust to allow us to live there?”
From Jordan, she has seen what has become of Mosul play out on the news and has tried to keep in touch with friends still Iraq. But she said it is not the physical destruction keeping her from returning home. Rather, it is the scars left behind from that day in July 2014.
Sabah bounced her son on her knee and fiddled with a beaded bracelet on display outside her curtained room. She is sometimes able to sell the handmade jewellery to visitors for a little extra cash.
“You see places you used to study, work and live, destroyed, ancient churches demolished; this is not an easy thing to watch,” she said. “But the real problem is that there is no more trust; not only for the Christians, but everyone, because we have all suffered this trauma.”