Chamsa Hadaya stands surrounded by family members. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
An Iraqi Christian girl prays at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the predominantly Christian Iraqi town of Qaraqosh. (photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)
As a wife, mother, sister-in-law and aunt of a large Christian family from the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq, the last four years have been harsh. Our lives changed in the middle of the night in early August in 2014 when my husband Boulos, our three daughters and one son fled the invasion of ISIS, left behind our family farm and found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Before our displacement, we shared our large house with our extended family of 25 people, including grandparents, aunts and uncles and their families. Together, we enjoyed a very strong feeling of belonging to the land and to our community. The men of the family spent their time with agricultural and farming activities, which provided the family with income, stability and sustainability. The women took care of the house and with raising our children, and of course lending a helpful hand to our husbands, too.
Our displacement and exile destroyed our way of life and dramatically altered the structure of our family and how we related to one another. We lost our home, our fields and our income. We had to split up — we could never have afforded to rent a large house to shelter the whole family.
Right after we fled Qaraqosh, we used some of our savings and spent a few days in a cheap motel. We then rented a small apartment for a few months, but we ran out of funds as our stay lengthened from weeks to months to years. We had to quit the apartment and find another place provided by the church that was a prefabricated room in the camp of Ain Kawa — near the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. We stayed there for more than 15 months.
Life was unbearable during our stay in the camp. We had no income and we were completely dependent on charity for every single need. We experienced real destitution and we felt weak, humiliated and alone — strangers in a strange land. Nothing but our faith gave us real support: We felt God’s presence in our daily life, and this gave us hope and determination to hang on for a better life.
I cried. I prayed to God and asked him for his help to preserve our dignity — and God heard me! One of the organizations working in the same camp where I lived offered me a job in the kindergarten, and with this income I was able to help support my husband and family.
I have to admit that, spiritually, I have passed through some difficult times. I questioned God many times, wondering, “How is it possible that he has abandoned us?” But after all those moments of fear, I have finally surrendered my life and my fate to God.
My mother taught me how to live my faith, how to face crises and adapt to change. She taught me how to synchronize my hands and my mind to achieve my goals. Thanks to the image of my mother and her encouraging whispers that have accompanied and guided me in such difficult times, my hope in God has become so strong that now I live it in every single detail of my life. And now, again, I take this opportunity and this experience to pass it on to my children.
Following our return to our homes in a liberated Qaraqosh in September 2017, our joy was mixed with pain and bitterness. Our beloved home was gutted by fire and our fields were destroyed, but yet our joy was unbelievable; we were home! We were back in the home of our forefathers, our pride!
But the initial excitement subsided as the brutal reality hit us. At the beginning, Qaraqosh — once a city of 50,000 inhabitants — was like a ghost town, very few people returned to live amid the destruction. It was hard to walk around and see the ruins everywhere. The path of destruction included schools, churches, hospitals, factories and houses. But we thought it was necessary to return home, where we could work and support ourselves. Since our house is uninhabitable, we have rented an apartment. My husband and his brothers have returned to the fields to revive them for planting. As for me, I found a temporary job in the power company and in the evenings I provide tutoring for extra income to help my husband and my family to rebuild our home.
The situation is improving now, and life is returning, but slowly. The return of the churches, of our priests and sisters, and the opening of our schools is encouraging us to have some confidence and hope for a better future. We know tensions swirl all around us, yet our return is the first step for reconciliation and rebuilding. And we wait for the government to be serious about us and to take full responsibility.
With our neighbors, we wait in hope the Lord will revive us just as he did with the people of Israel as they returned from their exile and captivity.