As Iraqi families return to their homes, after being driven out by ISIS over the past couple of years, they return to mass devastation.
Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche of the Syriac Catholic Church in Qaraqosh was the first person to return to the city and begin renovations on his home. His home was covered in fresh paint and religious symbols.
“I was the first to repair my house and move back here. We prepared this home and started celebrating religious ceremonies again to encourage people to return with their families. And when they saw it, they came too.”
Over 18 months ago, the city of Qaraqosh was liberated from the ISIS regime. Although it was reclaimed then, civilians did not start returning until the schools reoponed in October. Archbishop Mouche has been working tirelessly to attract Christians back to their homeland. He wants to resurrect what once was filled with life.
He said it is also hard to reattract citizens, as there are rumors that it is not safe.
“When people say it is dangerous, I reply that there are many restaurants and shops, and people are enjoying life again,” he said.
Over 22,000 people have returned to Qaraqosh since liberation, including around 5,000 families. This is mainly due to the outreach and reconstruction efforts of the archbishop and church members.
The church has established a reconstruction effort that assists civilians in reconstructing their homes, and businesses. For over two years, ISIS had control over the city, where they destroyed homes, looted businesses, and lit the city on fire. Civilians are returning, only to find their homes destroyed.
The archbishop is the overseer of the reconstruction commission. He said that houses take priority over churches, in order to get civilians settled first.
“We want to have civilians here who can bear witness to the development. And I try to create jobs and offer opportunities for recreation too. Opening parks is important for the younger generation.”
Not only is the bishop working to reconstruct homes and churches, but he is also working with local businesses. Qaraqosh is slowly returning to its once lively state as shops in the center open. The civilians can now get their fruit and fresh vegetables, fresh bread, clothes, toys, and bicycles next to teahouses in the center. The city center was recently used for a Palm Sunday ceremony that garnered thousands.
The bishop even opened a shopping mall that sells menswear. Mohanad Yousef runs the small business. He has recently returned to his home from the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia where he fled years ago.
In 2014, Yousef lost over $400,000 when ISIS burnt down his shop.
“Our heritage and our culture are here. We have been in this country longer than anyone else. It would be wrong to leave all that behind.”
“I love this town and this country. Yes, I had a better life there, but my family and friends are here. I have been waiting impatiently for things to improve in Qaraqosh.”
Yousef represents hope for those that are slowly returning to the city. His return and start of a new business show that the bishops drive to bring people back is working. The bishop hopes that more will return, stating that his church family is not happy abroad.
“When I visit our families in Europe, many tell me, ‘We cry when we get up and we cry when we go to bed,'” He said.
The Bishop stated that he has had 15 families from France and 13 from Germany return, still expecting more to come.
Even though many are returning, many still fear the threat of ISIS and other terrorist groups. Despite Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi detailing the battle of ISIS over, there are still small attacks throughout the nation. In March, a Christian doctor, wife, and mother were all murdered in their home in Baghdad.
Events like this have kept many Iraqi’s away, holding out hope for complete peace.
Yousef’s own wife and children still reside in Germany, he plans for them to return at the end of the next school year. “There are rumors going around that the situation is not good. But that’s not true, because it really is so much better now. God willing, my family will join me at the end of the next school year. I phone people and try to actively persuade them. I am more convinced myself now, which helps me to convince others.”
Archbishop Mouche says there is still a lot of work to be done, but there is a large difference between the rebuilding of Qaraqosh and the towns nearby. In the nearby town of Bartella, only 500 families have returned, compared to the 5,000 of Qaraqosh. The town of Bartella is urging Christians not to return due to the threat of danger.
Some of the civilians of Bartella have stated that they want to move to Qaraqosh, but the bishop warns against that.
“They have to go back home. If they don’t, who will rebuild and who will protect them?” The cycle needs to be broke, he states. He is also generously sending different aid organizations their way, “so life will return there too.”
While the town is being rebuilt little by little, they wait for the government to also resume their jobs. Until the government resumes its responsibilities, the church has taken the load.
Arche Bishop states that it is a problem because the town needs more help. “It’s a dilemma. Even abroad, the thought prevails that the church can handle it all easily enough. But the pressure is enormous and we still need a lot of help.”