For hundreds of displaced Christians in northern Iraq, uprooted from their homes by Islamic State militants five years ago, the opening of McGivney House in Erbil offers a promise of a new beginning.
“I’m so happy here,” said Nahrain Samir Shamoun, bustling around her little kitchen in preparation for Christmas last December. “What I love most is the feeling of finally being settled.”
Just a month earlier, Nahrain and husband Rami Nourir, both 37, were living in cramped conditions with Rami’s extended family — with no savings, precious little income and no prospect of living independently. Nahrain’s family had lost almost everything when the Islamic State group seized control of the Nineveh Plains region in 2014. They were forced to flee from their home in Bartella, an Assyrian town where Christians have lived since the second century.
In November, Nahrain and Rami were among the first families to move into McGivney House, the 140-unit apartment building constructed by the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil with assistance from the Knights of Columbus. As the building neared completion last March, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson made a visit, accompanied by Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil. The Kurdish Regional Government also assisted the project by upgrading the power grid in the Ankawa district to accommodate the facility. McGivney House is now providing 120 high-quality, rent-free apartments to young impoverished families, for a period of five years each. By February, the 20-unit Pope Francis Venerable Care Home on the first floor will welcome 40 elderly residents together with an on-site medical team.
The opening of McGivney House is the latest step in the Knights’ support for persecuted Christians in Iraq since 2014, which Archbishop Warda has called “historic work.”
Through its Christian Refugee Relief Fund, which has contributed more than $25 million in humanitarian assistance in the region, the Knights of Columbus has helped the archdiocese address pressing needs, including emergency food distribution, medical care and education. Since the defeat of the Islamic State group in the Nineveh Plains region in May 2017, the Order has facilitated reconstruction efforts there, including $2 million to help displaced residents return to and rebuild the ancient town of Karamles.
“Whenever the Knights saw a need they responded immediately,” Archbishop Warda said. “This is really charity with a merciful face.”
The opening of McGivney House, the archbishop said, has helped the archdiocese with one of its greatest responsibilities: to give back dignity to the most vulnerable displaced Christians — an almost impossible task back in 2014 when Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, unexpectedly received tens of thousands of people within 24 hours.
Nahrain will never forget how those nightmarish days affected her family. Thinking the danger was temporary, they crammed into a church minibus and fled to the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, some 50 miles to the east. Nahrain’s aunt, a nurse, did not manage to escape. She was tortured and abused, forced to convert to Islam, and compelled to treat wounded militants until her rescue in 2017.
“What happened was a tragedy. We had homes, businesses, cars and good lives in Bartella, and we left everything behind,” Nahrain said. “We thought we were just leaving for a few days. We had no idea we were leaving for so many years.”
After the forced exodus, Christian homes were looted and set ablaze, and livelihoods destroyed. Although Erbil is relatively safe, job opportunities are scarce and rental costs often prohibitive. So, for many families, McGivney House offers a lifeline.
The new residents are among the community’s poorest. Though many had successful careers prior to losing everything in 2014, financial circumstances precluded them from traveling to neighboring countries to seek asylum or rebuilding their former homes and lives.
For former Mosul residents Rana George, 39, husband James Albert, 40, and their two young children, McGivney House has offered respite from 16 years of uncertainty and instability.
“From 2003, Christians in Mosul started being persecuted, so we moved from place to place and it was a very hard time,” said James, a former security guard at one of Mosul’s churches. “We were living in Mosul when IS came and we fled with everyone else. Since then, for five years, we have lived off charity.”
The couple, who are Chaldean Catholics, returned just once, after liberation, and found their former rented home collapsed and the interior stripped of every item, leaving them with almost nothing. With few work options in Erbil, they often went without food to pay rent each month, so moving into a rent-free apartment in McGivney House has alleviated a major source of worry.
“It’s early days for us here but so far, so good,” said Rana. “We are happy, thank God.”
Though the one- and two-bedroom apartments in McGivney House are modestly sized, they are finished to an exceptionally high standard and partially furnished. Families need to buy just a few items, such as sofas, tables and soft furnishings, to finish off apartments with their own personal touch.
“It’s great here, and it feels like we’re living outside Iraq, in Europe, because all the systems and services work,” said Rana Abdul Ahad Younis, 37, who is a basketball coach. She and her husband, Moqdad Abdul Ahad Messehi, 38, a writer, have a 5-year-old daughter. Their apartment is “perfect for now,” said Moqdad, adding with a smile that they might need more space in the future if they are graced with more children.
Moqdad fled his hometown of Mosul in 2005, after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ushered in a period of sectarian violence. He tried living in Syria and Turkey but obstacles prompted him to return to Iraq in 2011. He and Rana married in 2013 but, since then, they moved from one shabby rented place to another, suffering from poor basic services and unpredictable landlords.
“Finally, daily life has become easier for us,” Rana said. “And I want to give a very big thank you to the Knights of Columbus.”
Bara Dia Ghanaen and Soleen Sami Ibrahim, both 30, similarly struggled to find good housing in Erbil for themselves and their 8-month-old daughter, Patricia. Bara fled persecution in Baghdad in 2010; he and Soleen have been married a year and a half.
“At our last place, the owner lived above us and complained whenever the baby cried,” said Soleen, a physical education teacher. “We had no privacy or personal space there. We are safe and secure here, and we know no one will tell us to leave or suddenly raise the rent.”
Archbishop Warda said the stability of guaranteed rent-free accommodation for five years was crucial for newlywed Iraqi Christians.
“Building a family is important, but some young people are postponing having children for economic reasons,” he said. “It’s the Church’s responsibility to help with that.”
More fundamentally, projects such as McGivney House have also helped to maintain Iraq’s diminishing Christian community, Archbishop Warda said. About 1,500,000 Christians lived in Iraq before 2003; now that number is estimated to be fewer than 200,000 as thousands of families seek asylum abroad.
“Of the 13,000 families we started caring for, 8,000 families have returned to Nineveh and 2,500 have stayed in Erbil,” the archbishop said. “We cannot control people’s decision to leave the country, but we can give them options and it’s proven by the numbers that such support has helped keep Christians in Iraq.”
Five years ago, in this outlying district of Erbil’s Ankawa suburb, the Daughters of Mary Convent had to put chairs outside their little chapel to accommodate the hundreds of displaced people coming for Mass.
Today, former wasteland stretches are being transformed into Iraq’s newest Christian district. A stone’s throw from the recently completed Sts. Peter and Paul Church and a Christian school, McGivney House stands at the heart of this new community, helping some of the country’s long-suffering Christians to finally envision a future for themselves in Iraq.
TOM WESTCOTT is a British freelance journalist based in the Middle East.
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