Christian Refugees from Nineveh

Caught between waiting to return and call for a papal visit

In Karamlesh, as in other towns in the Nineveh Plain, reconstruction work has begun, but return is still far away, which feeds the desire to go back.

In Karamlesh, as in other towns in the Nineveh Plain, reconstruction work has begun, but return is still far away, which feeds the desire to go back.

Erbil
Our identity belongs to “our land” and only when “we’re back in our homes can we say that we’re happy again and at peace.” Meanwhile, “our children take part in camp activities”, which keeps alive the desire to return to Karamlesh, said Naseem Kuder Sulaiman, a 47-year-old engineer who spoke to AsiaNews.

His village in the Nineveh Plain was seized by the Islamic State group in the summer of 2014. As he waits for work to be completed allowing him to return to “my home and my land”, he urges Pope Francis to “visit Iraq” because it “would strengthen the local Church and make us not feel forgotten.”

Naseem is married to 42-year-old Wafaa Quruaqos Toma, a housewife. The couple have four children: Sulaiman, a 15-year-old middle-school student; San, 12, also in middle school; Sizan, 7, attending elementary school, and three-year-old Rahaf, who goes to kindergarten. They fled their home and property on the night of 6 August 2014, as Islamic State (IS) militias moved into the Nineveh Plain after taking over Mosul in June.

After that, they lived for a long time in a structure rented by the Iraqi Church in Erbil and have been able to overcome difficulties and limitations thanks to the work of Fr Paul Thabit Mekko, a 41-year-old Chaldean priest from Mosul, who runs the Eyes of Erbil refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where hundreds of thousands of Christians, Muslims and Yazidis found refuge after the rise of the Islamic State group.

The facility hosts 140 families, about 700 people in all, divided in 46 mini-apartments, plus a hall for holding and handing out aid, a kindergarten, as well as elementary and a secondary school.

After the Iraqi army, backed by Kurdish militias, launched an offensive against the IS, scores of villages in the Nineveh Plain were freed. Now fighting is centred on the western sector of Mosul, where IS forces continue to resist.

In contrast, Karamlesh and many other towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain have started the slow and arduous work of reconstruction, as witnessed by the Palm Sunday Mass in a church devastated by IS militias.

Over the past few weeks, the Chaldean Church has catalogued the damages caused by the Sunni extremist group: 241 homes torched, 95 homes destroyed, and 431 homes looted. After the inventory was finished, Christian leaders began reconstruction, starting with the houses that had suffered the least damage.

However, resources are limited, funds are lacking and material is scarce. That is why no one has been able to return to Karamlesh on a permanent basis, though there is hope that they will do so soon.

“It is hard to wait,” Naseem said. “It is tiring and unnerving. Fleeing was hard and waiting does not help. We all live in one room in a flat we share with another family. As you can imagine, there are pressures on us, big and small.”

Getting back your identity goes through “returning to our homes,” he explained. Afterwards, the issue of coexistence with Muslims will be addressed, although Islamic radicalism has “changed a lot of things and mistrust towards Muslims has increased. Yet, we hope to find good will on their part, a real desire to live without discrimination, without [the] aggressive attitudes” of the past.

For the future, refugees just want to go home, have peace and rebuild infrastructures and services. Today, people live and survive through the help of the Church “without which we would never have done it. The Church has done a great deal at this time,” Naseem said.

For him, “Despite the suffering, or rather because of what we suffered, our faith has become stronger and stronger. That’s what matters to us.” Christians in the West and the world should “act, as in the past, to contribute to this new phase of reconstruction, so that Christians can continue to stay in Iraq.”

What he does wish for is for Pope Francis to visit these lands marred by terrorism and violence. “We Eastern Christians have great esteem for religious leaders. We appeal to the Holy Father: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, for his presence here would have positive effects. We are waiting for you because we are brothers. We shall continue to stay here if you stand with us.” 

– Courtesy of Asia News