By Monica Zorita
“Returning home.” “To set foot on our soil again.” “To see the church again that we built ourselves.” “A new beginning.” “Keep going.” “We cannot live our entire lives as displaced persons.” “I do not want to leave my country.” “God is with us.”
These are but a few of the thoughts going through the heads of the Iraqi Christian Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) currently living in Erbil—where they have found shelter for nearly three years. But their homes and hearts are on the Nineveh plains. In the wake of the expulsion of ISIS from their land, they see their return to their native towns getting ever closer to becoming a real possibility. Even though the vast majority of the houses were destroyed or burned down, what is most important to them is that these are their own houses.
The international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is helping to rebuild many of the houses on the Nineveh plains belonging to Christian families. Even though they would have the opportunity, these families do not want to emigrate to other countries. They insist upon staying in Iraq.
Tawfeek Saqat from Qaraqosh is one such a determined faithful. He worked as a farmer before he was forced to flee ISIS. He also ran a small hotel. “I was born in this country. I have spent my entire life here. I do not want to leave,” he told ACN, adding: “My faith in Jesus gives me the strength to continue living here. Everything that I love is in Qaraqosh: my land, my business, my entire life. I am not going to emigrate so that I can live as an employee in Europe or some other place.” In this video, Tawfeek talks about how he and his family were persecuted for many years. The most harrowing time was when he and his four children were kidnapped by terrorists.
The young student Rahma Jacon also experienced great fear. She remembers what a wonderful and peaceful life they led a few years ago. “I often have to cry when I think about how we lived. I would like to return to the Nineveh plains because that is our homeland, our houses, our church,” she told ACN. She explained that they never thought that their stay in Erbil as IDPs would last as long as it did. “Our faith gives us the strength to keep going. When times are difficult, I pray so that I am with God.”
The mother and grandmother Rahel Ishaq Barber pats herself on the shoulder as she proudly recalls how she and her people built 11 churches and chapels in Qaraqosh all by themselves. “I was still a child. We sang as we carried the stones for the churches on our shoulders. Our history is there.” Rahel is currently sharing a room in Erbil with eight other people. “It has not been easy. God has helped us a great deal. We thank Him.”
Since 2014, Aid to the Church in Need has been at the forefront with its emergency relief projects, investing more than 30 million euros in total. This aid money has been used for rent, education, food and funds for the survival of displaced persons and for the local government. The international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has begun rebuilding the first 100 of the almost 13 000 houses that were destroyed by the so-called Islamic State. It is estimated that it will cost more than 250 million dollars to rebuild the Christian houses that the so-called Islamic State damaged during their occupation of the region (669 of them are completely destroyed).