Outside of the Christian-majority village of Karamles — where the Knights of Columbus has contributed $2 million toward reconstruction efforts since 2017 — people cheered and waved as Pope Francis passed by in his motorcade en route to Erbil on March 7.
Although the pope did not stop in the northern Iraqi town, a cross created from the burned pews of Karamles’ St. Addai Church stood prominently behind him earlier that morning in Mosul. And later that day, Pope Francis prayed before a partially restored statue of the Virgin Mary from St. Addai while celebrating Mass in Erbil.
Two days after Karamles was liberated from ISIS in late 2016, Father Thabet Habib Yousif, St. Addai’s pastor, discovered the Marian statue with its head and hands cut off, on the floor of the charred church. Since then, the Chaldean Catholic priest has been coordinating the town’s reconstruction efforts in concert with the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a coalition of local churches and charitable organizations, including the Knights of Columbus, working together to resettle predominantly Christian towns in the region.
“When the financial support from the Knights of Columbus arrived, we were able to expand our work,” Father Thabet said, noting that the Iraqi government provided no funds. “With this and other donations, we have now reconstructed more than 500 houses in Karamles.”
Although 30% of the town’s population moved abroad, and many internally displaced persons remain in Erbil, approximately 450 of the 820 families that fled the town have returned.
Sfook Younis, a farmer, moved his family into their rebuilt home just over a year ago, after the birth of his second son, Jonas. “We would like to thank the Knights of Columbus for all they’ve done in Karamles,” he said. “Without them, it would have been very, very hard for us to come back. This reconstruction would have taken all profits from several years of harvest.”
Younis was able to use what little money he had to fix his tractor, which ISIS had stolen and damaged, and resume his livelihood. Agriculture and carpentry previously provided much local employment, he said, adding, “Work opportunities would bring more people back here.”
For Sanaa al-Qastoma, a 51-year-old widow, the funds provided by the Knights of Columbus to rebuild her home have made an incalculable difference, as her three sons had nothing left after spending their modest savings on her cancer treatment.
“Our house was completely burned, and we had no money because we had spent everything on doctors,” she explained.
Qastoma still makes weekly two-hour car trips to Iraqi Kurdistan for treatment, but she said moving back into her own home had an almost immediate positive effect on her physical and mental health.
Although many buildings remain burned and gravestones in the village cemetery lie smashed, life in Karamles, with its everyday challenges, is gradually returning to normal. And while scars of ISIS remain, its residents see Pope Francis’ visit — and the ongoing K of C support — as signs that they are not forgotten.
TOM WESTCOTT is a British freelance journalist based in the Middle East.
By Jim Graves
When Noori Barka first saw images of Pope Francis meeting with Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on March 6, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“I never thought I’d see a pope welcomed by Iraqi leaders,” said Barka, who is past grand knight of Mar Toma Council 10981 in El Cajon, Calif., and president of a biotechnology company in nearby Spring Valley.
Barka emigrated from Iraq in 1980 when the Christian population stood at 1.4 million. Today, fewer than 300,000 Christians remain. The exodus that began during the 2003 Iraq war accelerated rapidly in 2014, when Islamic State militants swept into the region, targeting Christians and other religious minorities for genocide.
“Most who had the resources fled,” Barka said, “but those who could not were forced to endure abysmal poverty with few opportunities to work and no government social security safety net.”
This extreme suffering spurred Barka and some of his brother Knights of Council 10981 to found Hope for Iraqi Christians (HIC) in 2014. Scores of council members then joined the effort to raise awareness and funds for those in need. To date, the nonprofit has donated $2.6 million to families in Iraq, a number of them connected to the large Chaldean community in El Cajon.
“Our brother Knights were very motivated, and the whole council became involved in the preparation of our first event, which raised $615,000,” Barka said. “They continue to support our mission to this day.”
John Kasawa, a member of Council 10981 and founding member of HIC, noted, “Lots of organization goes into ensuring that 100% of the donations go directly into the hands of the most needy.”
HIC currently sends $35,000 per month to assist 390 Iraqi Christian families through its Adopt-a-Family program. Donors are asked to pledge $100 a month to support a particular family. As part of the program, they receive the family’s contact information so they can communicate and see the impact of their donation.
“For most of our families, this is all the monthly income they receive,” Kasawa explained.
HIC has also sent large shipments of shoes, school supplies and other items, and has helped with specific needs.
Recently, a parish priest in Iraq contacted Barka, requesting urgent assistance. The generator providing power for a village of 120 families had stopped working. Barka explained the situation at his council meeting. “In one hour, I had the $16,000 needed to buy a generator,” Barka said. “I sent it with a note that said, ‘From the Knights.’”
For more information, visit hopeforiraqichristians.org.
JIM GRAVES is a freelance journalist based in Newport Beach, Calif.
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