The roof of the cathedral where ISIS snipers were stationed. Photo by Stefano Melgrati

Iraq: Return to Qaraqosh

The refugees from Erbil re-turn to their homes. But how can they begin again? Today, in this story written in arms and oil, there is "a decisive front" which also passes through the AVSI Tent Campaign.
Liliana Faccioli Pintozzi*

You can see the cross from far off. Planted along the road that connects Erbil, the proud capital of the Kurdish region, to Mosul, where Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi announced the foundation of the so-called "Islamic State" in July 2014. That cross is the first sign that today, three years later, things have changed. A wooden cross, simple but proud. It stands over the entrance to Qaraqosh, the city 33 km from Mosul that was the heart of the Christian community in one of the first Christian lands. A heart that stopped beating for 34 months, occupied by the black Caliphate. Its citizens faced a stark decision: convert to Islam or be killed. Thus, a city of 66,000 inhabitants was emptied out in a matter of a few days; two or three hundred men were all it took to guard it. Fear is more powerful than weapons.

"We never actually saw them. But we knew they had come. We knew what they were doing to the people. They were everywhere; they were our nightmare. That's why we ran." Saddiq Yassur tells us about his last moments in "his" Qaraqosh, sitting on the porch of the house where he sought refuge for all those months, but which he could never call "home." It is a run-down house in Ain-kawa, a suburb on the outskirts of Erbil, the center of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. He speaks to us as he waits for the pickup truck that will soon arrive, which he will fill by the end of the next day. Finally, it's time to go Home.

That which remains. Qaraqosh. The mixed smells of sand, burnt materials, rot and paint, gaso-line, and flesh. The sound of early rebuilding; the lights from the first stores shining between piles of bricks and cement, buildings that are now mere skeletons. The dry streets, lacking running water and electricity.

This is the home to which Saddiq returned, the two-story house he designed and built with his own hands, which he now shows to us with pride. The bedrooms. The bathroom with bright blue tiles. The spacious living room. "They've taken everything." He speaks of it with a sad voice, but his smile speaks of his joy, and his eyes of his steady will: it doesn't matter, we'll rebuild.

They took everything... but not quite. Not the painting of the Madonna and Child, which hangs disfigured in the center of the main wall in the room. Mary's face, Jesus' face, and the faces of the angels have all been destroyed. The image had been painted directly onto the wall, so to deface it they had to tear into the plaster, and it will stay that way forever. "I want to keep it this way so we never forget what happened. We'll paint another image on top of it, but the signs will remain in the bones of my house. I want to remember; we must remember." Remember. Which doesn't mean refusing to forgive.

A book of the Gospels that survived the flames. Photo by Stefano Melgrati

Myriam's forgiveness. It's been three years, but Myriam has not lost the faith that won over the world when she was first placed in front of a video camera for Iraqi television and, after fleeing from Qaraqosh, calmly spoke about her life in the camp for displaced families. "Forgive them, because they don't know what they are doing," she tells me when I ask her if she still thinks that forgiveness, that radical and victorious gesture, is possible. "They don't really know what they did. I'm not saying they're stupid, but what they are doing is stupid."

I met up with Myriam, who is now 13, and has been living in the refugee camp since August 2014. "It's been a wonderful year," she tells me. "I like school a lot, I have a new friend whose name is Carmen, and even though there's not a lot of room and I can't play in the street, I can always play with my sister. I'm very happy because God protects us." You can perceive the faith that her parents passed on to her, and that she continues to cultivate. "God will help us. He has placed his hands upon us, and brought us to Ainkawa. Then he placed his hands over Ainkawa, so Daesh would never come here. And they could have; they could have done all that they did in Qaraqosh."

Education has been key. Academic formation and education about living together peacefully. They need community and they need schools, for every subject and every grade, but especially for the youngest in the camp. One may be able to make up time studying math, but "love" and "respect" are exercises that must be introduced from a young age and practiced everyday.

New generations. "After fleeing from Qaraqosh, many families have been cramped into much smaller houses, apartments built for five people that are now home to 15. Lots of people with very little room, lots of children thrown in together who want to play, while their parents have a lot of problems to think about. It led the kids starting to get aggressive. When they came to us, they would fight over everything, and it was very tense." This is how Ghsoom describes her little students, refugees ages four and five, when they came to preschool in Ozal City, the neighborhood of Ainkawa which took in all the Christian families. Nibras, another teacher, told me a story about Miron. "He had a hard time relating to anyone, even his own family. He wouldn't talk to anyone. He was always alone, and wouldn't let you come near him. In the beginning, he didn't play any of the games. Then, little by little, we gained his trust. Through our gentle gestures, through our words. And for the end-of-the-year performance, he sang and danced with the other kids." Ghsoom and Nibras are just two of the many teachers who work for the House of the Child Jesus. All of them are refugees who chose not to let themselves be crushed by a history written with weapons and petroleum, but rather decided to defend the smallest and the weakest, who are the hope for change in the future.

The preschool's small facility hosted around 130 children throughout the years of the Islamic State's occupation of Qaraqosh, all from families seeking refuge in Erbil: 1,200 families all togeth-er, including 900 Christian families and the rest Muslim or Yazidi. Just a drop in the ocean of the 250,000 refugees and displaced persons currently living in the Kurdish city, but that drop was the ocean in which these children could swim, grow, regain some sense of peace, and learn. "In the beginning, they wanted to behave here at school as they behaved at home," Ghsoom continued. "At the same time, their psychological state was troubling. We teachers responded with love. And we taught them how to be together again, how to live with others."

A few rooms, a small courtyard for a few games. A loud, foul-smelling generator to make up for the frequent lack of electricity. A place with minimal resources that knew how to make a difference thanks to funds from AVSI and direction from the Dominican sisters.

"Teaching children is like cultivating a tree. If the tree grows tall and straight, it will bear fruit for us." Sr. Ibtinage, who has been the director of the school for a year now, is also very practical. "Without this preschool, the kids would spend the day on the streets, and all they'd learn would be wrong. We are against weapons; we don't even have them for self-defense. Pens and paper are our weapons." A battle would, of course, be a military one, but the war can only be won this way: with education, with a culture, with respect.

Sr. Ibtinage is also from Qaraqosh. She, too, will soon return home: a 65-year-old Catholic nun in a land that has waged war against Christians. "I'm not afraid. Love for our country overcomes every fear. Also, I have to go back. Our presence reassures the people."

This is the sense of community that's slowly being rebuilt. You recognize it in the determination of those who return to a place that's lost everything but its soul. You recognize it in age-old gestures: unchanging and powerful in that they reveal the ordinary life that's possible despite everything. Like having someone for coffee.

A child in Qaraqosh. Photo by Stefano Melgrati

Just as Saddiq invited me for coffee, in the evening in Ozal City on the porch of his "non-home", with his long beard, sunken face, and stained yalabila. Then the next day in Qaraqosh, in "his" living room. On un-finished wooden benches, of course, since everything had been taken. Using the same cups. This time he was smiling, the weariness from the journey canceled out by the joy of his return.

Then there was the coffee with Amir, who's 38 and has a wide smile, even though his house had been ransacked and burned, even though the chicken coops his family owned are all gone, and even though work for him as a craftsman is still scarce and his wife has to have surgery. His wide smile is the sign of the faith of one who has seen the worst come to an end, and who has a desire to start again, beginning with his five children.

Shalad is five years old and she, too, attended the preschool in Ozal City. "She liked it a lot, but even more than her, I liked it," Amir said. "I saw her changing a lot; she learned to write and to sing hymns, they taught her so many things." Amir is young but isn't fooling himself. He knows the road to reconstruction will be long and difficult. He asks everyone to come back, saying,"We Christians are all brothers; I can't live as the only person in the entire city."

"When will you open again?" As he speaks, the youngest member of the family clambers up onto his lap. Elis is three. "It would be an honor if she could be the first one enrolled in the preschool," her mother says, smiling. For Elis, as well as for all the young children like her, it's important that the Ozal City preschool, which is about to close since all the families are returning, re-open in Qaraqosh.

"It is beautiful what AVSI is doing, trying to re-open this preschool. The children are our future. If no one teaches them anything, they will lose every possibility, every hope." Here is the adult wisdom of Myriam, a child who became an adolescent in these years of war.

The building is already in place it is the old preschool run by the Dominican sisters. A large facility, for at least 400 children. Somewhat damaged, but not too severely. On the main level, two classrooms seem to be missing only lights, water, soap, and a coat of paint.

Life together. Still today, there is fear in the air on the streets of Qaraqosh. Not so much of the Islamic State, but of what and who will come after them. The old pact of solidarity between the Christians and Sunnis in the Nineveh Valley has now been broken, after years of political coexistence that satisfied both sides. "It's impossible to trust each other again," everyone seems to repeat in chorus, young and old, priests and workers, intellectuals and farmers. Impossible to trust their neighbors again because ISIS found a certain level of support under the threat of weapons, of course-among the Sunni population. It's irrelevant whether it was for anti-Baghdad, religious, or opportunistic reasons. The support was there, and rebuilding won't be a simple task.

Celebration for the placing of the first stone of the city's reconstruction in the cathedral blackened by fire. Photo by Stefano Melgrati

Rebuilding. Father George Jahola is the de facto mayor of Qaraqosh. Born there, he had relocated to Italy until he chose to go back to the city right after it was liberated in November 2016. Since then, he has spent every hour "mapping out" the destruction and needs. Every single house has been catalogued, noting the damage and the money needed to rebuild. "We need about six million dollars," and that's just for residential structures. The roads, infrastructure, and utilities still need to be created from scratch. "It's a big city; where should we start? It's important that we start right away using programs that have already been tested during other times of war, because the youth are like clay: you can make out of them what you want. The new generation that has lived, or been born, during the war, remembers what it hears from parents or in the family. It speaks about everything, it is their life, and it will take time to start again, to feel secure again, even to unlearn those bad habits learned in these years, as a continuous desire to accumulate even that which they do not need. This is why I insist so much on not handing out provisions, but rather concentrating on education."

With those words echoing in my mind, I left Qaraqosh. Along the road that took me back to Erbil, winding through red stakes marking the presence of landmines and often interrupted by security checkpoints, the car was surrounded by children at each intersection. They're young, just six or seven, and they're selling chewing gum or water, but really they're asking for money. No one thinks of them. Their future is not a priority. If they're Christian, they're at risk of disappearing into everyone's indifference. If they're Muslim, what's to keep them from becoming the henchmen of the next Islamic State?

This is the most decisive front in the war against Daesh. In liberating Qaraqosh and Mosul, the military won a battle, but victory is still far off. The enemy may have a new name and a new flag, and until the abandonment, corruption, exploitation, and ignorance are defeated, they will always know where to go to find fresh blood for their cause.

*correspondent in London for Sky Tg24

AVSI Tents

"La casa dov'è?" ["Where is home?"] is the title of the 2017 Tent Campaign.
AVSI is proposing four projects, which will be sustained by initiatives all over Italy.

Syria. Two hospitals in Damascus and one in Aleppo.

Iraq. The preschool which we heard about in this article, for children of displaced families who are returning to Qaraqosh.

Uganda. Professional formation courses in the Lamwo refugee camp, and courses for teachers and scholarships for students in the slums of Kireka in Kampala.

Italy. The activities of Portofranco, which helps Italian and foreign students in their studies and in orientation to the world of school.