An American husband and wife team helped more than 100 Iraqi Christian refugees escape ISIS terror threats in their homeland and flee to Europe.
Joseph and Michele Assad, former U.S. counter-terrorism officers, helped arrange for 25 families, 149 refugees in all including 62 children, to board a privately-chartered plane in the Kurdistan region of Iraq on Dec. 10, and land in Kosice, Slovakia, where they will be granted asylum within a month.
“We are so proud of Slovakia,” Michele Assad told ABC News 20/20. “They were very courageous to make this decision and it wasn’t an easy one to make, yet they did. … We hope other countries will have similar courage.”
ABC News 20/20 followed the refugees throughout their journey, from a church providing them shelter in Iraq to starting a new life in Slovakia.
Tens of thousands Iraqi Christians fled their homes in Qaraqosh in the wake of ISIS attacks. Many ended up in refugee camps, carrying little but their most prized possessions. About 560 refugees ended up at the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq.
Contracted by the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, the Assads have spent the past four months forging a close partnership with Father Douglas Bazi at Mar Elia.
“We are rescuing people that are at their most vulnerable, and Christians happen to be part of this group that is the most vulnerable,” Joseph Assad said. “Muslims have other Muslim nations that they can turn to. They can go to other Arab countries. They can resettle there. Christians are having a much more difficult time resettling in some of these Arab countries.”
Glenn Beck's charity, Mercury One’s Nazarene Fund, raised more than $12 million for the evacuation and resettlement efforts. The Assads were managing the risky plan of getting the refugees out of Iraq and finding a country that would grant them asylum so they can start their lives over.
“It is very nerve-wracking because, I mean, you want everything to go right,” Joseph Assad said. “There's a lot of logistics. There are buses. There's luggage. There are airports … coordinating with the authorities.”
Assad, an immigrant to the U.S. from Egypt, said he and his family came to the states after fleeing religious persecution.
Motivated by their own Christian faith and the suffering they have seen, the Assads have made saving the Mar Elia refugees their personal mission.
“It’s about giving these people a chance, like somebody took a chance on me,” he said. “Giving these children hope … allowing these people to leave with dignity.”
For the past few months, the Assads have been coming to Mar Elia, forging friendships, vetting the refugees, gathering visas for them and fighting to find a country to accept them.
Joseph Assad said they tried negotiating with “at least a dozen countries” before Slovakia agreed to take 25 refugee families. “We knocked on a lot of doors,” he said.
Slovakia, a predominantly Catholic country, was ready to accept the families. But after the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, public sentiment began to shift.
Slovakia agreed to provide asylum for the 149 people. But both the Assads and the Slovakians wanted to be sure that none of the refugees posed a security threat. Building on their own counter-terrorism expertise, the Assads created a special vetting process.
“You have to kind of know what the red flags might be, so you know how to look for them,” Michele Assad said. “We asked for everything about them and their families … their former jobs, whether they have ever … worked for a military or intelligence before.”
Joseph Assad said they were “very confident” they were not rescuing anyone who could be a terrorist.
“These people have been vetted,” he said. “We know 100 percent they are not extremists and that they were desperate, they were vulnerable, and they were in need.”
When the refugees arrived in Slovakia, they were taken to a reception center where they will have to stay for at least six weeks as Slovakian officials conduct health inspections and review visa documents.
Joseph and Michelle Assad told “20/20” the Slovakians should be praised for their hospitality and humanity.
“I tell people, ‘don’t be afraid of refugees.’ There is a way to show compassion and do it intelligently,” Joseph Assad said. “We can show this compassion. So I think there’s a whole lot more that we can do."