The dark stains of smoke, soot, and ash line the walls of 13-year-old Noeh’s house. As he walks through each room he tries to visualize what they looked like before ISIS burned it out.
“That was our computer,” Noeh says, as he points at charred pieces of metal sitting in the corner. He picks up one of his dad’s books, the spine of the book is the only part untouched by the fire. Noeh lets it fall to the ground and dust and ash float toward the ceiling. That there is still a ceiling at all is, in a way, a blessing. In the village of Karamles where Noeh lives, nearly 100 houses were razed to the ground.
This is the plight of Christians all over Iraq who fled the advance of ISIS in 2014. Earlier this year, they were told it was safe to return, but many of the families came back to destroyed homes and businesses.
“I hope that people will start living here again soon,” says Father Thabet, a priest in the village. Thabet is passionate about making Karamles a home from his people once again, and excitedly points out signs of progress. The return center, a place designated for villagers to stay during the repair of their house, now has a generator, the first source of electricity in the village. Throughout the village, repairs are going on. Broken windows are being replaced, locks being placed on doors. “We start with the houses with the least amount of damage,” Thabet explains. “Our budget is limited and the government is not helping us.”
Many Christians are unsure whether they want to rebuild. The lack of government assistance signals how isolated their Christian faith really is in Iraq, and while ISIS may be gone, there is always the fear of another terrorist group in the region. But some, like Noeh and his family, are determined to rebuild. Noeh climbs a set of stairs in his house that lead to the roof. From here, he can see the barren Nineveh Plain stretching out in all directions.
“I am not afraid to live here again,” Noeh says, “because the Holy Spirit makes me strong.”
For almost three years now Noeh’s family have lived as displaced people in the city of Erbil, 40 miles east. When Islamic State came in 2014, they had to run for their lives. There they stayed with other Karamles refugees, receiving food, trauma training, church events as well as some income generating projects through Open Doors’ partners in the area. After cobbling together a livelihood in Erbil, it is difficult for many to return to Karamles and yet again start a life from scratch. Entire systems and structures need to be repaired, a process that moves slowly as soldiers search through the wreckage for hidden bombs.
But the work does continue, slowly, patiently, filling the streets with the sounds of hammers, drills and singing. Noeh’s father wrote a song about the people of Karamles that fits well with the Hebrew psalms of old, proclaiming, “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.”
Signs of hope lay in the ruins, waiting to be discovered. As Noeh surveys his charred room—a bedframe bowed inward by heat, rubble covering the floor—his face lights up in recognition. He sees one of his marbles lying on the floor. Noeh searches through his room for more, ultimately finding more than a dozen of them. These small moments fuel the vision of a future when, Noeh says, his room will have posters of the soccer club FC Barcelona and Jesus. It’ll be a colorful room, just like it once was.
Noeh’s second-floor room window is nothing but wood beams and broken glass right now, but between the beams, Noeh can peer out over the Nineveh Plain and think about the future.
“My dream is to live in Karamles one day. I want to be a teacher here, and teach children about life. I know there are others from our village who don’t want to return, but I do want to return. This is our land.”