See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland (Isaiah 43:19).
After three years of Islamic State occupation and devastation in the wake of the ISIS war, our local partners are sharing stories of continued hope for the Nineveh Plains and the believers who were forced to flee when militants issued their ultimatum: “Convert, leave or die.” For more than two years, occupying Islamic jihadists tried to erase any evidence of Christianity from the city–burning churches, destroying crosses, toppling bell towers.
But as the Lord told His people through the prophet Isaiah, God is doing a “new thing” in Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city. Shops and restaurants are open, children go to school, busloads full of students head to Mosul daily for their studies at Mosul University, and increasing numbers of Christians are returning to the Assyrian city more commonly known as Baghdeda. Below, we learn how God is using the hands and feet of the Body of Christ to restore the city, and then we meet some of its returning families.
Father George walks toward a colorful paper, where a map of the city is divided into several sectors. He leads what is called the Church Supreme Board for Reconstruction of Baghdeda, which is coordinating the efforts to restore homes. The board is partly supported by our local partner organization,
“It’s going well,” Father George says. “We’re now ready for the last part you have financed.”
He points at sector D where most houses are financed by our organization–in the town with the largest Christian population in the Nineveh Plain before the rise of Islamic State in 2014.
“With your support, we were able to restore 286 houses in Qaraqosh. That means 286 families have returned to their homes. By the end of 2017, we finished 1,054 of the 2,658 of houses that are on our list to be repaired.”
In other places in the Nineveh Plain, our local partners have helped support the restoration of another 392 houses for a current total of almost 700 rebuilt homes–and new hope for almost 700 families.
A Clear View of the City
Father George and his team have worked hard to get a clear picture of the situation of all the houses in the town since all maps disappeared during the Islamic State occupation. “We first drew maps of the town, then we used satellite images, and an architect made the plan of our town.” On the wall of his office hangs a huge picture of the last satellite image of the town some months before IS captured Qaraqosh (see large photo at the top).
“We divided the town into 10 districts, each starting with a letter followed by a number. After that, a team of experts visited the houses to assess the damage and make a strong estimate of the money needed to restore the house.”
They did this in about two months. “We chose to restore houses close to the church in the center. The main thought is that we need to recreate the sense of community. We start here because there are services and shops nearby. The part your organization is funding is right here,” he shows us on a map.
‘Qaraqosh needs to become beautiful again’
As with everywhere in the Nineveh Plain, the committee in Qaraqosh also works first with the houses that are easiest to repair. In general, the costs are under $5,000–category C houses. Category B homes were partly burned or have more costly damage; and category A (completely destroyed), will be only done when the easiest category is done and when enough funding is available. It’s a good strategy. In just a few months, thousands of residents are now back in the town because their houses could easily be repaired.
“The people are happy,” he says. “…They prefer to be here, to be back home.” Not only internally displaced people returned to Qaraqosh. “We also saw refugees returning from France, Jordan, Lebanon and even Australia. I will personally work to convince more of those who left the country to come back.”
The priest is ambitious. “Qaraqosh needs to become beautiful again. We need to remove all destroyed and burned houses that might remain empty. The people who live here shouldn’t be constantly confronted with these memories of the Islamic State. We also need to think of the farmers who lost their farms, their materials. We need to get them started. Also, the public activities should start, and some still need space for that.”
‘We Have a Good Life Now’
We go with Father George to visit two families whose houses were restored with your support–not far from his office. The streets are terrible. Deep holes are filled with rainwater, there is a lot of mud, and the pavement is broken from the restoration of the sewage system. Father George knocks hard on the gate and Khalisa, an Iraqi woman, opens it. Around us, many houses are vacant. The neighborhood is beginning to look normal again. At some houses, clothes hang outside to dry, a man is washing his car, two teenagers pass by on a bicycle, and a woman waves when a child gets into a car.
Khalisa and her husband, Wissam, returned to Qaraqosh in August 2017. Wissam came back to the city earlier to see about his shop where he sells paint and locks for doors. The couple has two boys and two girls, and a new grandson whose mother, a young, married woman, plays on the Qaraqosh volleyball team, national champions and third in the whole Gulf region.
“It’s not our own house,” says Khalisa, sitting with her grandson on her lap. She explains that it’s her father-in-law’s home. “Our own house was completely burned. We all live here together now. This house was damaged when a nearby bomb exploded. The windows were all broken, the ceilings, the electricity and the water tubes destroyed. All our furniture was stolen or damaged. We thank you for your help. We are now able to return to our house.”
Khalisa is a teacher at a primary school. “We still have a problem at school due to a lack of teachers,” she says, explaining that some left the country while others retired. Her husband has his shop, and in a situation where significant and constant home restoration is taking place, a paint shop has no lack of customers.
“We have a good life now,” Wissam says with a smile. “We no longer need to ask for help.” He is the only one of his brothers and sisters back in Qaraqosh. “My six brothers all live abroad now. They left the country because of Islamic State. I think they will stay there. My two sisters live in Erbil (about an hour away).”
Are Khalisa and Wissam fully happy with their city right now? “No, the streets, they are terrible, very bad. They need to be fixed. And also the electricity is not available every moment of the day.”
Father George fully agrees with Khalisa about the streets. “That should be resolved,” he says. “This could even cause people to leave the city again.” He also adds another, more worrisome concern: “I am afraid that we will have an economic freeze in the Christian areas. In the past, people from Mosul would come to Baghdeda to buy their things because they were afraid of kidnappings in Mosul. Baghdeda was a safe place, and Mosul was not. When the reconstruction is finished, I’m worried about all these shops. Will they have enough income from only our town’s residents? I do hope there will be investments in the agriculture sector and industry here. Investments are needed.”
‘What helped us through everything was our faith’
After a short walk across the muddy street, Father George knocks at the gate of another family.
“We have been back for two months and three days,” says Musa, an aged retired teacher. He and his wife, Ishba, must be over 70 years old. They spent three years displaced by the ISIS war. They live with their son Omran and his wife Ban with their children in the spacious house. In the kitchen, the family prepares lunch. One woman puts a plate full of chicken legs in the oven.
“With your help, we were able to repair all the windows and door, and we could do some other repairs on the house,” Musa says. “We are very happy to be back here. We’re in our own house again. This is our land, this is what we’ve inherited. The destruction was terrible, nothing was left in the house and everything was stolen. Windows and doors were broken, but we were able to repair everything.”
On the family bookshelf are only Christian books, partly distributed to them by our partner organization during their displacement.
“What helped us was our faith, Musa says, looking back at all that God pulled them through and now the restorative work God is doing in the Iraqi city. “We can’t live without our faith, we’re very strong in the church.”
The large photo at the top shows Father George in front of the satellite map of Qaraqosh–a tool they’re using to rebuild and restore the city.