Videos and photos from Rowaid Hesa’s hometown of Qaraqosh, Iraq, give him no comfort these days in central Massachusetts, where he landed after fleeing Iraq four years ago. The images depict only devastation left by Islamic State militants, who forced all remaining Christians to leave town in a caravan in 2014.
Still, he watches them because they show his family’s plight. Massive hurdles lie ahead as an international campaign begins this summer to return 70,000 Christians to their homes on the Nineveh Plains outside Mosul.
A video streaming on an iPad brings Hesa close to tears. Filmed on Feb. 2, five months after Qaraqosh was liberated from ISIS, the clip shows his uncle, Hani, and brother, Roni, returning to Hani’s ransacked, burned-out home for the first time. They find gaping holes blown through concrete walls, smashed fixtures, dangling wires, shattered ceramic floor tiles, and charred remains. Around town, human waste pools up next to damaged sewer pipes. Rubble lines the streets.
“My brother, he’s saying, How can we fix it? We have to take out everything: floors, walls, ceiling. Everything has to go in the garbage and start new,” said Hesa, a Syriac Catholic, translating from the Syriac language spoken by Iraqi Christians.
For more than two years, 120,000 Christians exiled from the Nineveh Plains have been surviving with humanitarian assistance in and around Erbil, a Kurdish city defended by Peshmerga forces. Another 180,000 have already left Iraq, according to figures from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a New York-based nonprofit agency with Roman Catholic ties and a mission to assist persecuted Christians around the world.
Last fall, Iraqi forces and Nineveh police drove out ISIS from nine towns where followers of Christ have lived since ancient times. Going back is now a possibility. Some might be ghost towns or dotted with squatters, but at least ISIS is gone. Under pressure that included U.S. airpower, Islamic State fighters have retreated to a handful of urban strongholds, including West Mosul (20 miles northwest of Qaraqosh) and Kirkuk.
To make returning feasible, ACN is embarking on its largest project since the aftermath of World War II, when the group brought essential supplies to suffering Germans. The Nineveh Reconstruction Project aims to raise $250 million to rebuild nearly 13,000 Christian homes that were destroyed, burned out, or partially damaged by ISIS. Never before has ACN sought to raise such a sum or focus so many resources on a region where Christians are a minority. The first reconstruction site opened in May.
The Nineveh Reconstruction Project brings together ACN, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church. (Syriac and Chaldean Catholics are under Vatican jurisdiction and follow the Eastern rite.) But the effort is global in scope. Organizers are calling on “every political, religious, and humanitarian organization” to support the effort.
Americans arguably have a particular moral duty to help since the region’s instability traces to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, said Edward Clancy, ACN’s director of outreach.
“It’s time for us to clean up our mess,” Clancy said. “This is similar to what the Marshall Plan did in Europe. … If there’s a stable society in the Nineveh Plain and normalcy returns to Mosul, then Iraq becomes a more stable country. We theoretically don’t have to worry about another ISIS.”
Reconstruction is just beginning, but the need is already becoming urgent. In the Erbil region, displaced Christians have been living temporarily in unfinished buildings with no doors, windows, or flooring, said Hani El-Mahdi, who oversees Catholic Relief Services operations in Iraq.
A four-bedroom space typically accommodates four families, one in each room. Some also live in small apartments with rent paid by a Catholic congregation, but those subsidies will discontinue this fall. For many, returning to charred and pillaged homes could be the only option before the winter.
“Living in camps is not easy, but the church can no longer pay the rent of the families staying outside of camps,” said Bruno Geddo, Iraq representative for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, overseeing 52 camps for more than 3.2 million displaced people in Iraq. “That’s why many families will be hard-pressed to return.”
Like most of the world’s 65 million displaced persons, Christians in Iraq generally hope they can return home, El-Mahdi said. He observed some families returning this spring, and he expects the pace to pick up this summer before schools reopen in the fall.
Displaced Christians might not be ready to return immediately, but they could if reconstruction increases, said Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy for the Center for Migration Studies, a New York think tank. When he visited in March with a Roman Catholic cardinal and an archbishop, he found Christians doing whatever they could to maintain dignity in their current exile.
“They’ve lost what they knew before,” Appleby said. “There was this salon where some of the women would come and get their hair done. I was like, Well, is this a luxury? Their response was that they’re very proud. The salon didn’t charge much, if anything. It was more for some of the women to keep their dignity. Having their hair done was a sign of how they lived before.”
Those hopeful to return to their villages soon include Hesa’s father, Sami, who lives in a temporary, church-funded rental unit and lacks $60,000 for necessary repairs to his Qaraqosh home. But Rowaid Hesa wants to see more protections in place before his parents and other relatives return.
Neither the Iraqi army nor Nineveh police can be trusted to protect Christians, Rowaid Hesa said, and the Christian militia is too small to be effective. He does not trust Muslim neighbors who turned on them and sided with ISIS.
“They burned our history,” Hesa said, pointing to a photo of a priest holding a small number of salvaged Syriac history books. “How can you trust them after that?”
Hesa said the only effective peacekeepers would be U.S. troops or the United Nations. But neither has announced any plans to provide local security. Geddo said it’s not an option for the U.N. Hesa would sooner send his father $600 a month for rent than have him return to Qaraqosh soon.
Reconstruction organizers hope other factors can motivate Christians to return en masse. Donors have pledged $2 million to rebuild the first 105 homes, Clancy said. Once that work is done, the priority will shift to rebuilding 296 church structures, including worship spaces, schools, convents, and rectories that were destroyed, burned, or partially damaged. (At the burned-out Church of the Virgin Mary in Qaraqosh, crosses were torn off the spire. “Islamic State will stay forever,” a painted slogan says.) Home reconstruction will resume after church infrastructure is in place.
“For the Iraqi Christians, the presence of the church is very important, as shown by what happened when ISIS came in,” Clancy said. “Any [church] group that they might be part of, that’s who took them in and took care of them all this time in Erbil. So they understand that the church is the bedrock upon which they build their families and their communities.”
Returning home will mean confronting a traumatic recent past. ISIS used threats, vandalism, and gratuitous violence to rid the region of Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims in a bid to establish a caliphate with severe Islamist codes. Hesa fled with his family after receiving a note under the door with an ultimatum: leave within 24 hours or die.
Now that ISIS is gone from these villages, restoring a Christian presence in northern Iraq is a priority, and not just for Christians with roots in towns such as Teleskuf, Batnaya, and Bartella. Relief workers say coexistence with a Christian minority helps preserve the interfaith character of Iraq. It reinforces both an ethic of tolerance and a cultural richness.
If Christians vanish, the country will lose more than the traditional wine produced locally.
“It is these minorities who guarantee an injection of diversity in society,” Geddo said. “If it is just between Sunni and Shia, it will be an enormous loss for the country. … It is an unqualified bonus if the minorities can be persuaded to return and to trust again their neighbors, by of course trusting the security forces who will protect them.”
Christians have a lot to lose or return to, depending on which path they take. In towns like Qaraqosh, they once enjoyed relatively high standards of living, including utilities, maintained roads, and neighborhoods where “there are many newly built and large houses,” Geddo said.
Since Christians’ exile in 2014, however, personal resources have been drained, and families have relied largely on outside charity from Roman Catholics and Syriac Orthodox abroad. Sustaining the 120,000 displaced Christians around Erbil since 2014 has cost about $31 million, Clancy said, including $13.5 million from Aid to the Church in Need.
Nineveh Reconstruction brings ecumenism to a new level in the region. Seldom do Orthodox and Catholic churches join forces in the region to champion a common cause, observers say, but they are doing so on a giant scale in a bid to reclaim their homelands.
Rallying assistance specifically for Christians can be a difficult sell in the United States, which usually directs its humanitarian support based on need and not religion. But Hesa and relief workers explained that in Iraq, help is distributed along religious lines. Religious institutions serve as channels for aid and make sure their adherents receive what they need. Iraqi Christians therefore look to fellow Christians, both at home and abroad, for support.
Reconstruction will likely take years, but organizers say it is important to begin, even before all security and infrastructure issues are settled. If several years were to pass, the window of opportunity for reintegration would likely close, observers said. CRS is among those encouraging Christians to go back as soon as this summer, as long as they feel safe enough to do so voluntarily.
“Iraqi Christians are typically people with the means, the dignity, and the human capital to go back and reinhabit their communities,” El-Mahdi said. “For many people, if the right conditions exist in their houses, they will return.”
Jeffrey MacDonaldMarshall Plan for Iraq