They wait. They watch. They pray.
That is all the family of former Modesto resident Hanna Amo can do back here in the Valley.
Amo is a 59-year-old Assyrian Christian with permanent U.S. resident status. About two years ago, he left his job selling cars in Modesto to return to Syria with hopes of helping his son and family join other kin in America. Instead, they were among the scores of Christians captured Monday by Islamic State forces in Syria’s Hassakeh province.
Amo and son Martin were taken into the mountains. Martin’s wife and two children remained in their village under Islamic State guard. Islamic State fighters confiscated their captives’ cellphones, or most, anyway. Someone there managed to call Amo’s relatives here Monday to tell them what happened.
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Amo’s wife, Angie, lives in Modesto with daughter Manar. Another daughter, Martina, lives in Chicago. Three of Amo’s sisters and a brother all live in Modesto, including sister Sharlet David and her husband, Romel.
Monday, Romel David went to have coffee with Angie. The pained look on her face spoke volumes.
“I asked her, ‘What’s wrong,’” he said. She told him what she knew and feared, that her husband, son and family are in great peril. When David returned home, he went online to get information and began piecing together what had happened to Amo and his family.
“I get a lot of it from Al-Jazeera, Syrian satellite TV and the national news agency,” he said, adding that he avoids CNN and Fox because they are “too agenda-driven.”
According to reports, the Islamic State wants to swap the Christian captives for imprisoned Kurds and Islamic State fighters. But the Islamic State’s reign of terror is growing, David said, and it has hit home.
“(Angie Amo) didn’t sleep last night,” he said. “She wonders, what about her grandchildren? Were they cold? Were they able to sleep? Are they hungry? She’s denying herself because she doesn’t know what they are getting.”
Romel David came the U.S. as a child from Iraq in 1963. For all of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s horrors during his two decades in power, he held the various factions in Iraq together, David contends.
“He was a tyrannical dictator – horrible – but he maintained order,” he said.
When the U.S.-led coalition forces toppled Hussein’s regime in 2003, there was no succession plan, David said. That left a void for the Islamic State and other extremist groups to fill the power void and create chaos throughout the region and beyond.
“I don’t think you’ll find an Assyrian on the planet who would have traded what we had for what we have now,” he said.
Hanna Amo returned to Syria two years ago, resuming his duties as a reserve in the Syrian army, Sharlet David said.
“He was in a tank unit,” she said.
In recent months, the Islamic State has stepped up its campaign against Christians, journalists and humanitarian aid workers with vicious beheadings. They also demanded that all crosses from the churches be removed, Romel David said.
“And they imposed a poll (per person) tax on Christians that was more than they’d make in five years,” he said.
They could pay up, face the sword or leave, he said. Getting out isn’t as simple as it seems because neighboring countries can’t handle or won’t take more refugees.
“I don’t know how you fight an idea – an extremist idea that hinges on hatred and destruction,” David said. “Every Assyrian Christian wants their children and grandchildren out of harm’s way, to enjoy the fruits of America and to live in a country where they’re not fearing someone coming into their homes and taking lives.”
Which is what Amo wanted when he returned to Syria two years ago to get his son’s family out. Instead, his family in Modesto wonders where he and son Martin are being held. They pray for the safety of Martin’s wife and children. They turn, as always, to Jesus.
“Christ said, ‘Follow me,’” David said. “This is the price we pay for our faith, and we accept it. The challenge right now is to not harden our hearts with hatred, to remind ourselves of the constant love of Christ. Our pain is no greater than when his mother watched them drive nails into his hands and feet.”
But painful nonetheless. It’s hit them in a way they’ve long dreaded.
“My mind is over there,” said Sharlet David. “It’s hard. I want him to be OK, for them to be OK. I’m praying for them.”