On the Streets Near Ancient Babylon, Christians Long to Return Home
For the first time since ISIS invaded, Noeh is back home. He sits on the corner of his charred bedframe, trying to remember what his room used to look like, kicking away the burned rubble lining the floor.
“This is my bedroom, this is where I slept,” Noeh says, pointing to the mess around him. “These were my toys, all of them are now burned. Now I have nothing.”
Noeh trods through the deserted streets and strewn wreckage of Karamles, a city 30 kilometers away from Mosul. The city was liberated from Islamic extremists six months ago, but the damage was already done. The city’s visage is a post-apocalyptic wasteland: a deserted shopping street, a door standing on its own because the house it served has been destroyed. Broken windows framed with black burning spots. There is no one living here. It still isn’t safe.
Noeh slowly works his way toward his former school. It is the first time he has been back since he had to flee from IS. This is a familiar place for him, but his steps are doubtful, his eyes dark, the colorful walls haunting echoes of happier times now gone. Where Noeh once learned and played with his friends there are now weeds breaking through the concrete.
In the corner of the schoolyard, Noeh stops in front of an open door. He stares inside at his old classroom. The white, wooden desks are still there, the chairs behind them waiting for students who aren’t there to sit in them.
“I can’t go inside any further,” the boy says. “ISIS has been here and they might have hidden bombs.”
In the 5th Century BC a man named Nehemiah living in the Persian Empire was grieved over the destruction of his home, Jerusalem. Nehemiah believed he was called by God to go back to Jerusalem and help it rebuild.
Father Thabet lives 2500 years after Nehemiah, but both in mission and proximity, Thabet shares a close bond with the prophet. He lives less than 500 kilometers from Babylon, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire where Nehemiah once lived. And Father Thabet too feels called by God to go rebuild the city.
“It is our mission to live here in this place as Christians, the place of the root of Christianity,” Father Thabet says. “Without faith, I do not have a reason to stay here. But I have faith, so I am here.”
Much like for those rebuilding the city of Jerusalem though, the mission is dangerous. The bombs of Mosul thunder in the distance, a reminder that the invaders who destroyed their city aren’t far away. For those who feel called to rebuild Karamles, fear is constant.
“Yes, of course, [this fear] is normal” Father Thabet says. “But the situation for Christians in Iraq has always been unstable. I think safety is increasing and it will only increase more when people will start living here again. All I can do is trust in God.”
One thing is clear after visiting Karamles: the villagers are proud to be part of it. They can close their eyes and dream of what it will like one day. Standing in his room, Noeh is already dreaming of the time his own house will be rebuilt. “I want my bedroom to be colorful—red, blue and green with pictures of FC Barcelona and Jesus on the wall.”
Noeh’s family is one of 250 who have signed up to return. Father Thabet is visibly happy about it. “The church encourages the people, but the people also encourage the church leaders to restore the houses.” The villagers have to have patience, a lot of patience, but one day they will live here like before. That’s what Father Thabet is convinced of. “And when the first people start returning, even more will be encouraged to follow.”
In the meantime, the streets ring with the sounds of patient, determined hope: hammers and drills … and songs.
Noeh and his family always sing. They sing in their church at the refugee camp. They sing in their home. And here in the city the sing a psalm they have written themselves. A psalm befitting refugees, longing for God to bring them home.
And today the deserted streets of Karamles echo with their words:
“We will go back no matter what we lost.
In the air of winter we get cold, but if we leave our town our hearts are burning.
The sound of church bells still in our ears.”
Nehemiah would be proud.
Join us and stand alongside our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria as they rebuild their homes, churches and communities!