By Paul Natinsky
Despite the turmoil of Islamic State involvement in northern Iraq, Chaldeans in the Nineveh Plains region are making a go of rebuilding their communities. Displaced in 2014 by ISIS fighters, residents of this northern Iraqi region fled further north and east to neighboring areas Erbil and Dohuk. They began returning when American airstrikes and local soldiers pushed ISIS out. Widespread property damage, a shattered economy and shortage of electricity greeted residents upon their return.
“The land is not yet fully reclaimed as the Kurds, Arabs and Shebaks are participating in indisputable ‘land grabbing’ all throughout the Nineveh Plains,” said Ranna Abro, a spokeswoman for the Shlama Foundation, a non-governmental nonprofit organization that serves the needs Nineveh plains and surrounding areas.
“For example,” she said, “a large number of our homes in the town of Telkeppe are illegally occupied by thousands of Sunnis who lived under ISIS in Mosul claiming their homes in Mosul were damaged in the fighting. We are told by the local priest that they will leave within three days’ notice if the homeowner shows their deed in person. Nonetheless, they are strangers to the town and the displaced members of the town are not comfortable with unknown neighbors.”
Additionally, while violence in the area is much reduced with ISIS forced out, Kurdish, Iraqi and Shia militias are competing with the Iraqi military’s Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) for control of villages in the region. The NPUs shield the Chaldean population as residents return home to rebuild their villages, said Abro.
“Our entire community was essentially homeless for a couple years,” she said. “There are images of piles of people sleeping on the grass outdoors and inside churches using each other’s’ shoulders as pillows until tents finally arrived. We still remember when IKEA donated [more than] 200,000 mattresses at a time when aid was scarce. Those families used those mattresses for years as they slept on the hard ground and still use them. Many people lived in abandoned buildings, schools, banquet halls, shopping malls, anywhere they could find shelter. Temperatures were over 100 degrees in the summer and uncomfortably cold as the seasons changed. Mass migrations occurred for those who still had their documents and the funds.”
Safe, reliable electricity is among the top items for residents on a list of basic needs. Streetlights provide added safety, while hospitals, schools and businesses require consistent power to function.
The Shlama Foundation has partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development to bring solar power and jobs to Nineveh Plains Region. USAID is a U.S. foreign assistance program that provides humanitarian and economic assistance to more than 80 countries worldwide.
The Iraqi government provides only 12 hours of electricity a day, forcing residents to supplement by employing noisy, polluting diesel generators that produce electricity at a cost of 10 times what the government charges, said Faiz Yono, engineering consultant on the project. Yono envisioned solar power as a boost to reestablishing destroyed communities. During a March visit, he conducted assessments for the viability of the project and ultimately secured a grant.
The solar power project will help end long and unpredictable power outages; provide 100 homes with clean, inexpensive energy; provide irrigation using solar pumps for 30 farms to help increase crop yields; and create solar-powered LED streetlights.
Rivaling the project’s wide array of direct community benefits is its main mission to educate unemployed engineers in the region, creating a corps of solar energy experts and boosting employment in the region.
“Our people in the Nineveh Plains need all kind of training on how to start and sustain a business; how to finance a venture; how to become independent business people,” said Yono. “The Chaldean Assyrian Syriac professionals in America should volunteer their time to help train, mentor and coach the Nineveh Plains professionals.”
“The economy took a hard hit after ISIS due to the severe population decreases, physically destroyed businesses, drainage of funds while living displaced and the general Iraqi economy due to war,” added Abro. “People who returned simply need jobs now to pay their basic living expenses; to fix things that are broken; and to be able to get married and take care of their families. The Chaldean Assyrian Syriac people are brave and resilient. We definitely hold the belief that teaching one to fish is better than feeding them for one day. Oftentimes, they are teaching us. People shouldn’t doubt their intelligence and ability to recover.”
While the political geography of norther Iraq remains complex and shifting, its denizens are returning—often without regard to United States government warnings about the region’s instability. They come with the hope of rebuilding their once vibrant communities.