Iraqi Christians Return Home
11/1/2017by Campbell MacDiarmid | photos by Martyn Aim
Order helps hundreds of families displaced by Islamic State militants to rebuild their shattered town
The photograph on the floor of Sabhia Franso’s destroyed house in Karamles recalled more peaceful times in Iraq. The black and white picture showed a crowd watching a float passing in a parade. Atop the float is a cross standing beside a mosque. “Peace comes to a peaceful community“ is written below. On the back of the photo in blue ink: “Mosul Spring Festival 1970.“
Franso said those memories have now been replaced by the horror of more recent events. The 66-year-old woman and her 85-year-old husband were among the last of the nearly 10,000 inhabitants of Karamles to leave after Islamic State fighters overran their village on the Nineveh Plain in August 2014. Robbed at gunpoint and then forced to flee on foot, they have spent the last three years living nearly 50 miles to the east in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Now, with ISIS driven from northern Iraq, they are among the first families to have returned to their ancestral homeland, thanks in large part to an initiative launched by the Knights of Columbus at the 135th Supreme Convention in St. Louis Aug 1.
“The Knights of Columbus is taking a concrete step to save Christianity in Iraq,“ announced Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson during his annual report. “This weekend, your board of directors has authorized a new effort to raise $2 million to save a Christian town on the Nineveh Plain. ... Now we will ensure that hundreds of Christian families driven from their homes will return.“
In September, Franso wept as she entered her demolished home. Before, it was filled with happy memories of neighbors gathering in the living room before walking to church. Now, it was filled with dust and rubble from an airstrike.
Still, it’s good to be back, even if she and her husband are living temporarily in a nearby house that has already been restored. “Better to be back here, because it’s our village,“ she affirmed.
BUILDING FROM RUINS
Since 2014, the Order’s Christian Refugee Relief Fund has donated more than $13 million in humanitarian assistance, primarily in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region.
“Without the help of the Knights of Columbus, the Christians of Iraq would have disappeared,“ said Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, under whose auspices much of the refugee relief has been provided.
The K of C initiative to resettle and rebuild Karamles is part of the Nineveh Reconstruction Project, administered in partnership with the international papal charity Aid to the Church in Need as well as local Christian communities.
In October last year, at the start of the military operation to liberate Nineveh province, Iraqi security forces drove the Islamic State from Karamles. Nearly nine months later, in early July, the remaining fighters were dislodged from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, located just 20 miles west of Karamles. Today, only isolated pockets of Islamic State resistance remain elsewhere in Iraq.
In September, the government restored electricity to Karamles, though as with other towns across Iraq service has been patchy.
“Water is on for six to eight hours a day,“ said Father Thabet Habib Yousif, who is overseeing the restoration of the town from a busy church hall filled with paint, plaster and plumbing fittings.
The 41-year-old Chaldean Catholic priest was among the first residents to return in October 2016, just two days after the town was liberated.
“I expended a lot of effort to get here, and it was very dangerous,“ he recalled as he walked through the town’s quiet streets.
When he first arrived, Father Thabet found the churches burned, the cemetery vandalized. Every house was damaged — whether by arson, looting or neglect. His own childhood home had been destroyed in an airstrike. His response was stoic: “We expected the destruction. We have to start rebuilding.“
The task was a massive one, yet speed was imperative. Since being displaced, more than 200 Karamles families had left Iraq permanently. Some 500 more were living in exile in cramped displacement centers, rented homes or with relatives, in or around Erbil. Within a week of the town’s liberation, Father Thabet was directing a team of local builders and laborers.
In September, Father Thabet stopped at St. Addai Catholic Church to inspect the work of plasterers covering up smoke damage from an arson attack that destroyed parts of the building. A portrait of the church’s patron saint still hung in tatters, and bullet holes defaced the marble altar.
Masses were being held at the nearby St. Mary Chapel, the town’s most ancient house of worship. More than 150 people attended Mass for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Sept. 14.
“All will be repaired by Christmas,“ Father Thabet said, though he planned to leave the marble doorway soot-blackened as a reminder.
Already, more than 120 families are back home, living in houses that have been restored through the K of C-supported Nineveh Restoration Project.
“This project has had an immediate impact on the displaced people from Karamles,“ Archbishop Warda said. “Before, most of these people were completely filled with uncertainty. They wanted to move back to their homes, but most of them had no money to repair them. This project has allowed them to begin moving back as a group, which has made all the difference.“
Calling the project a “tremendous success,“ Archbishop Warda added that more help was critical. “We still have several more towns that need a project like this in order for them to be stabilized enough so that the long term rebuilding of viable communities can take place.“
FERTILE GROUND FOR HOPE
In the heart of Karamles, a small grocery store has already opened. Maher Lahib, the 24-year-old storekeeper, said that when his family returned July 24, they were the first to stay and live full time in Karamles since the liberation.
“We came back to repair our home, open our shop and plant our fields,“ Lahib said. “In Erbil we were paying for rent, and we just didn’t have the ability to keep paying.“
After local militias known as the Nineveh Protection Units, consisting largely of Assyrian Christians, took charge of security for the village and nearby towns, his family was not afraid to return.
“We have faith in God,“ he said, “and also the guards who protect the village.“
Lahib offered to leave his store to show off his family’s replanted fields, a short walk outside the town. After lying fallow for three years, the fields have sprung back to life after planting, though the olive trees have died without water. Lush rows of eggplants, beans, cucumbers, peppers and arugula are already producing healthy crops.
“We’ve been farmers for a long time; we’re experienced,“ said Lahib. “Things grow fast.“
Maher Lahib’s 20-year-old brother, Miron, was tending the fields with his friend, Sam Haitham, 17. After watering the plants, they checked the springloaded traps they had laid out around a pool of water. The traps are intended to catch cropeating sparrows, which make good eating themselves when caught, according to Miron. Boiled or fried, they are especially good with beer, he said.
Back at Maher’s store, 42-year-old Shafiq Shabi dropped in to buy a bag of locally grown green peppers, two pounds for 750 dinars (about 60 cents). Shabi had recently returned home and was happy to be back, a broad smile spreading across his face.
“It’s my village and I’m comfortable here,“ he said with joy.
Shabi strode off, stopping to kiss a neighbor’s baby, but then returned to invite us for coffee with his family. Because their home was still damaged, they were living in the house of a neighbor who had emigrated to the United States. Such arrangements are common in Karamles, allowing families to return quickly while their homes are being repaired.
As his wife, Shatha Shamoon Tajo, poured coffee, she also could not help smiling.
“We’re living in heaven,“ she said. “I’m smiling at everything at the moment. When we were displaced in 2014, we didn’t have hope that we would ever be able to return.“
Living in displacement was a source of endless depression, she recalled. The stress and sorrow manifested itself in vague ailments.
“We were going to the doctors a lot,“ she said. “But we didn’t want to leave Iraq. We have deep roots in this village, our forefathers are from here. How could we leave the land that belonged to our grandfathers? Since we’ve been back, everyone is happy and we have energy again. No more doctors.“
Still, a major challenge remains, said Shabi. Like many men in this largely agricultural community renowned for its produce, Shabi is a farmer. But his fields have yet to be cleared of mines. Last month, sheep grazing on a nearby hill detonated two hidden explosive devices. The unexploded rockets and mortars lying in nearby fields make it clear that many more explosive devices need to be removed.
With military and demining agencies busy clearing homes in urban areas, the fields have yet to be prioritized. “If the lands are cleared, then we will replant,“ said Shabi.
This hasn’t dampened his mood though, he said, his green eyes twinkling. He’s just happy to be home again.
“We’re sleeping easy with the security, and there’s electricity and water,“ he said. “This is a happy ending to a sad story.“
CAMPBELL MACDIARMID is a New Zealand freelance journalist currently based in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS TO CO-SPONSOR WEEK OF AWARENESS FOR PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS NOV. 26-DEC. 2
ON NOV. 26, the Solemnity of Christ the King, the Knights of Columbus will join the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in sponsoring a day of prayer for persecuted Christians. This day will kick off a week of awareness and education on the issue of Christian persecution, concluding Dec. 2.
During the week of awareness, Knights are encouraged to work with their parishes to distribute materials on this issue and raise money in support of the Order’s initiative to provide $2 million to resettle and rebuild Karamles, an ancient Christian town in Iraq that had been occupied by Islamic State militants. Christian families have already begun returning to Karamles at a cost of about $2,000 per family.
“The survival of Christianity in the Middle East hangs in the balance,“ said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson during his annual report in St. Louis Aug. 1. “I ask every council to make sure that this effort receives the highest priority within your council and your parish.“