Qaraqosh residents attend a funeral at Immaculate Conception Cathedral, which still bears damage from ISIS’ occupation. (photo: Raed Rafei)
Children participate in a group activity at the St. Paul Center for Church Services. (photo: Raed Rafei)
The Rev. Afram Philipos consults with engineers at the construction site of a new medical center. (photo: Raed Rafei)
Haitham Habib, center, stands with his brothers and nephew in his recently restored store in Qaraqosh. (photo: Raed Rafei)
Dominican Sister Marie-Therese Hanna looks at photos of damage to the Holy Family Orphanage before its restoration. (photo: Raed Rafei)
Sister Marie-Therese and Sister Muntaha Hadaya visit the home of Nadia Matti and family, who returned to Qaraqosh two years ago. (photo: Raed Rafei)
Children color at the St. Paul Center for Church Services. (photo: Raed Rafei)
The tangy smell of dried lime saturates the cramped living room. Issam Matti, 43, is brewing the fruit into an herbal tea known as noomi basra chai. To sweeten the popular Iraqi beverage, he adds a spoonful of homemade wildflower honey produced by bees he keeps in the mountains outside of the city of Dohuk.
Dohuk, in the Iraqi autonomous region of Kurdistan, with its nearby suburbs and villages, remains a refuge for thousands of Iraqi Christians displaced from their homes by ISIS five years ago.
“I lost everything, but gained my family,” says Mr. Matti of his displacement. On this typically hot August afternoon, he passes the tea to his guests, two clerics from the Church of the East. The memories are written on his exhausted face: a destroyed home, a ruined business, a past that can never be reclaimed. His face brightens momentarily; he hears the joyful voices of his two boys playing outside and the squeaking sounds of their bicycles filtering through the thin walls of his two-room caravan home.
Mr. Matti’s story is all too common among Iraqi Christians — a story of relentless instability and recurrent displacements in the past five years. For years, Mr. Matti, a graduate of a vocational college, had lived in Sinjar in a small Christian community on the border with Syria. He made a comfortable living distributing water to the town, running a print and copy center and producing honey. But when the regional violence became local, he hastily left with his then-pregnant wife, Aline, and their two boys, Aram and Oline.
“After our church was blown up, we were in a state of constant anguish,” he says. “We wanted to live among our people.”
For a while they moved between temporary homes with relatives in a village near Mosul, a major city home to centuries-old churches and monasteries. But soon after, ISIS invaded Mosul and the entire Nineveh Valley in August 2014, displacing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis. Fleeing north, the family was forced to stay in a tent in a makeshift refugee camp near Dohuk.
Finally, they were able to relocate to a caravan tucked behind a group of new apartment buildings on a hill overlooking the city. Containing eight apartments each, the four structures were built by the church to accommodate some of the many internally displaced people sheltering in Dohuk.
Today, Mr. Matti relies on a meager income from the small amount of honey he produces yearly and sells to relatives, a few odd jobs and support from the church.
Despite the routing of ISIS two years ago, and a relatively stable security situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, many displaced Christians are wary of returning to their homes. For some, their homes have been destroyed outright; for others, there exists no guarantee of employment or services; others still are held back by a lingering sense of mistrust toward their Muslim neighbors.
“The future is lost,” says the Rev. Afram Philipos, who helped provide medical services during the years of displacement in Dohuk. “We used to preach the importance for Christians to remain in their ancestral lands. But now we simply nod our heads in silence when people express their wish to leave Iraq.”
From a population of 1.5 million — Assyro-Chaldean Catholics and non-Catholics, Syriac Catholics and Orthodox, and other minorities — before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christians today are estimated around a quarter million, or just over half of 1 percent of the overall Iraqi population.
Throughout a decade of targeted killings and kidnappings in Baghdad and Mosul, emigration continued to impact the Christian population of Iraq. Many who remained chose to relocate to their ancestral communities in the Nineveh Valley, turning these once rural villages into thriving towns with shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants. However, the two-year occupation by ISIS — and the ensuing destruction and looting of these towns — drove many to leave for Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and, from there, to seek asylum in Australia, Europe, Canada and the United States.
To visit Iraq today is to encounter a people struggling to rebuild — and struggling, as well, with the question of whether they should even remain in Iraq.
Roughly 65 miles away from Dohuk, church bells ring to mark the beginning of another Sunday Divine Liturgy in Qaraqosh, currently the largest Christian enclave in Iraq. The main church tower of the fourth-century Syriac Catholic Church of Sts. Behnam and Sarah lies in pieces to the side, attesting to the brutality of the conflict that had left much of the town burned and destroyed. But the sight of hundreds of people of all ages and walks of life neatly dressed and flocking into the church — vibrant amid the scorched walls, broken statues and ruined icons — shows a returning population determined to revive their town.
Heavily armed security members of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a Christian militia formed after the invasion by ISIS, have blocked the streets with military trucks to protect churchgoers, reflecting a heightened sense of vigilance and alarm. The presence of security cameras on lampposts near churches is another sign people fear they are being targeted.
Safety aside, people seem most preoccupied with pressing financial needs.
“Giving should be regarded as an act of sharing and not of charity,” says the Rev. Awfi Ignatius in his homily, alluding to the economic difficulties faced by the people of Qaraqosh since their return a couple of years ago. The Divine Liturgy is being held in a makeshift tent adjacent to the church, which is still undergoing restoration.
Outside the church, three 30-something men with groomed beards and elegant, tightly pressed shirts stop to talk. Despite their appearances, they say that even after returning from displacement, they have been struggling to make ends meet, doing odd jobs as salesmen or working in construction. They all express the desire to leave Iraq. Two are hoping that their relatives will help sponsor their immigration to France. The other says he jumped on a boat in Turkey a few years ago to try and cross to Europe, but was caught before reaching Greece; he was returned to Iraq. He says he may try again, but this time through legal channels.
“We [Iraqi Christians] are like a scattered pearl necklace,” says Hanaa Ibrahim, 53, a mother who spends her free time knitting and gardening. Mrs. Ibrahim’s home is undergoing repairs with the help of the church, so she currently lives with her four sons and husband in the house of a relative who immigrated to Australia.
She attributes part of the problem to an ongoing “psychological warfare” to demoralize Christians, and explains that her children cannot find stable jobs.
Despite that, she hopes she can find a way to stay in Iraq.
“I don’t like to think about leaving,” she explains. “My whole life has been here.”
Strolling through the streets of Qaraqosh evokes the ambivalence of the current situation. Busy restaurants serve grilled meat, while freshly painted homes and active construction sites reflect a people struggling to return to normality. But, on the other hand, abandoned, burned and destroyed homes; unpaved roads; and piles of rubble and tangled wires on the sides of streets are a constant reminder that nothing is truly normal, that the wound is still fresh.
And there is a pervasive feeling among many in the city that those who left will never come back.
Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nathanael Nizar Semaan of Hadiab-Erbil says that roughly half of Qaraqosh’s 45,000 inhabitants have returned.
“The reconstruction and return of our people has been a testimony of heroism,” he says. “But the situation remains shaky.”
Even though damaged homes have been undergoing reconstruction with the support of the church and international organizations, many people remain too discouraged to return until better conditions prevail — such as some guarantee of services, job opportunities and, most importantly, safety. With very little representation in political and administrative institutions, many Christians here say they do not feel they have a place in the country. Yet some also express a deep-seated fear that the demographics could shift dramatically in traditionally Christian towns if departing families start selling their homes to non-Christians, or if the state decides to reconfigure land and administrative sectors.
While Christians in Qaraqosh and other towns of the Nineveh Valley say they prefer to live in tightly knit Christian communities for reasons of safety, the laggard pace of restoring economic ties with the surrounding Muslim community has been crippling the local economy. The church is supporting agricultural projects in the fertile lands around Qaraqosh — such as the growing of grapes, corn and roses — but these activities have yet to generate much income.
In the old market of Qaraqosh, Haitham Habib moves boxes of shoes from a truck into his shop with the help of his two brothers and nephew. The shoe shop was entirely burned during the ISIS occupation. With financial support from his family — and suppliers willing to provide him with merchandise without any cost until he sells it — he was able to reopen the shop. But business has been slow. Previously, many of his customers were Muslims who would come from nearby villages. Not anymore.
“There is no trust in our neighbors,” says Mr. Habib, who has a 6-year-old son suffering from cerebral palsy, requiring $60 every month for medical care. “If I had the means,” he says, “I would have left.”
For Mr. Habib and many other parents, the main encouragement for them to stay is the church’s strong commitment to the education of their children.
In the lively St. Paul Center for Church Services, hundreds of children come every day to take summer lessons in catechetics and Christian values, learn hymns and watch animated films about Jesus and the saints. The center, run by priests and young volunteers, also offers classes in music, computer literacy and English, as well as counseling and courses for young couples preparing for marriage.
“We focus on entertaining methods that foster cooperation among children,” says Father Ignatius, who manages Christian teaching for children, stressing the importance of such a program in encouraging the return of families, despite difficult economic conditions. Nearby, children participate in a group activity that tests their knowledge of the Bible in a playful environment.
“We need to plant the seeds of endurance and of Christian values in the hearts of our kids,” the priest explains. “They are the future.”
Educators are routinely trained to help tackle social issues that might affect youth, such as drinking and excessive online gaming.
Teaching is also the priority for the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, who reside in Qaraqosh at the Immaculate Conception Convent, a building from the 1960’s restored a year and half ago after sustaining heavy damage during the years of occupation and war.
“The psychological situation of our students is difficult,” says Sister Muntaha Hadaya, who teaches math at the Dominican Sisters’ school. She says instability and the lack of jobs affect the children’s morale.
“They need a lot of motivation, because the atmosphere in most households is depressing,” she explains. “Parents are constantly preoccupied with life’s many needs.”
The high rate of success of their students in official exams and the increasing demand for education have prompted the sisters to build a larger secondary school that will accommodate around 350 students. The new school will be equipped with laboratories and computer rooms.
But college education and securing jobs later on are the biggest challenges for Christian Iraqi youths.
Faten Butros, 24, is a fresh college graduate with a degree in computer engineering. “We, as Christians, work and fight hard to get a good education,” she says, reflecting on her difficult years in college in Kirkuk. In 2016, she had to hide with her classmates under mattresses in their dorm rooms when ISIS stormed the city. Despite the worries of her parents after she escaped that ordeal, Ms. Butros insisted on returning to her studies when ISIS was defeated. For months after that, she spent five hours a day on the road to get to school, braving many checkpoints.
Her sister, Rita, 21, is currently studying medicine in Mosul.
“I don’t feel always safe going there. The mentalities are backwards,” she says, adding that she commutes with nine other Christian students from Qaraqosh to Mosul frequently. “But my desire for the best education possible keeps me going.”
Mosul was emptied of its Christian inhabitants after ISIS seized control in 2014. Despite the city’s liberation two years ago, Christians now feel unsafe living there. Nearly all of its storied churches and monasteries now lie abandoned or in ruins.
Dr. Jamil Nicholas Jako, an ophthalmologist working at the Mar Narsai charity health center in Dohuk, is a former resident. Dr. Jako sold his house in Mosul in 2012 because of the growing prevalence of an extreme Islamist ideology hostile to Christians. He lives now in Dohuk with his five children, all college graduates with no fixed jobs. They help him run an eyewear shop.
“I would never go back to Mosul, but I want to remain in Iraq. I can’t leave now,” he explains.
“Every stone is best in its natural place.”
Raed Rafei is a Beirut-based journalist and independent filmmaker whose writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Forbes Arabia and the Daily Star of Lebanon.
The CNEWA Connection
Security in the Nineveh Plain remains dicey: While ISIS no longer occupies Mosul, Qaraqosh or any of the other towns and villages of northern Iraq, members of the terrorist group — and their extremist sympathizers — remain hiding in plain sight. Competing militias, representing conflicting interests and parties, jealously control their territorial gains, hindering the movement of people and trade. Such insecurity thwarts not only the return of displaced families to their homes — dampening dreams of life revived — but also impacts the flow of aid to assist in reconstruction efforts.
CNEWA’s assistance to the peoples of northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan remains constant, however. This is largely due to its targeted nature, sound planning and the discretion of our partners as they accompany their people. These efforts include: health care to displaced families, care for the elderly and those with special needs, school fees for students, nursing formula and milk for infants and their mothers, support of catechetical and formation programs for children and young adults, and various agricultural projects for families living in more stable areas.
To learn how you can help, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).