NINEVEH PLAIN, SHINGAL, Iraq – The displacement by the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Yezidi people from Mosul, Shingal (Sinjar) and the Nineveh Plain took place between June and August 2014. On 6 August 2014, ISIS attacked the cities and towns of the Christian Nineveh Plain. Tens of thousands of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian residents hurriedly left their lands, homes, and possessions behind and fled for the advancing brutal terrorists. ISIS committed genocide on the Yezidi and Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people in Shingal and Nineveh. In 2017, Northern Iraq, including the Nineveh Plain, was liberated by the Iraqi army, Popular Mobilization units and regional military forces.
After years of displacement many Christian Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian IDP families decided to return to their villages and towns only to find their houses, churches, and monasteries to be damaged, looted, destroyed, and desecrated. Tens of thousands remain in relief camps or shelter houses in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and Baghdad; many of them unfortunately saw themselves forced to decide to move on to a safer and more liberal Western country; others choose for a new life in Ankawa, the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian suburb of Erbil, and decided not to return their ancient heartland of the Nineveh Plain.
For the returnees and their families much was and remains uncertain. In the Nineveh Plain schools, community centers, and businesses had all to be restarted and rebuilt. This had to be done in an unstable and poor Iraq where corruption, clientelism, and nepotism are pervasive and present everywhere. Instability and bad living conditions are aggravated by foreign super- and regional powers meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. In the Nineveh Plain this is visible in the presence and power of Iranian-backed Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Shia Shabaks moving into the majority Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain.
The demographic composition of the ancient heartland in Iraq of Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians is changing quickly. Only half of the 125-150 thousand pre-ISIS Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian population of the Nineveh Plain has returned. The Shiite PMUs and Shabaks execute their new powers by making like difficult for the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians, e.g. by not buying from their shops and boycotting their businesses. All very difficult circumstances for the return of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people. Also, public utility services like electricity and water are in an awfully bad condition; the supply of electricity and water is regularly interrupted for longer periods exacerbating the already bad conditions to re-start shops or small businesses, to create chances for a prosperous livelihood, and to give children a future.
Many big Western aid NGO’s like U.S. government sponsored USAID and Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian relief and aid organizations like Syriac Cross Organization for Relief and Development, SCHlomo, Iraqi Christian Relief, the Shlama Foundation, and the Beth Nahrin Organization for Women work in the fields of material aid, food distribution, education, and reconstruction to rebuild and bring back normal life to the Nineveh Plain. Projects are underway in Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian towns and villages like Alqosh, Karamlesh, Bartella, Baghdede, Batnaya and Yezidi settlements in Shingal (Sinjar) for the original residents to return.
The Beth Nahrin Organization for Women (BNOW) in partnership with The Shai Fund, a U.S. non-profit humanitarian assistance and disaster relief organization, together they were able to help returned Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Yezidi IDP families to (re-)start their own small business. and bring back normal life to Nineveh. Stories of returnees are important to show the difficult circumstances of rebuilding people’s lives but also give hope for others to return. These are the inspiring stories of returnees Gabriel, Celal, Anwar, Kareem, Bassima, and Milhim.
Gabriel was well-known for his honey in Sinjar and all-over North Iraq. When ISIS attacked Sinjar, Gabriel had to flee with his family. He lost everything he had. After the liberation of Sinjar Gabriel wanted to restart producing honey but missed the necessary funds. With help from the aid organizations he was able to restart his business and employ four Yezidi families. Gabriel: “I am thankful and praying every day and I believe this is a gift from my prayers to God. I am grateful to be back in Sinjar, to be able to stay in Iraq, and to have my children here with me.”
After their flight from the Nineveh Plain, Celal‘s family sent him to Europe for a better future. Via Turkey and Greece, traveling on ramshackle boats, Celal arrived in Germany in a refugee camp. But he missed his family and longed for his homeland. After the liberation of the Nineveh Plain Celal decided to go back. He was one of the first to return to Baghdede. Destitute and without any source of income, he lived from day to day. With the help of aid organizations he was able to buy a motorcycle which he now uses as a mobile painting post. Celal: “I never dreamed about getting something like that. It was a surprise, a gift from heaven.”
For the returned IDPs to the Nineveh Plain and Shingal rebuilding medical facilities was particularly important. Before the invasion of ISIS, Anwar was a medical laboratory assistant. With the help of aid organizations and relief initiatives Anwar was able to set up his own small laboratory for clinical pathology so that locals no longer had to travel all the way to Erbil for a simple blood test.
With the help of Beth Nahrin Organization for Women and The Shai Fund, Kareem, a single father of 5 teenagers, seized the opportunity to open a mini supermarket; “I have always worked hard to provide for my family. My wife was sick for 13 years before she died. We have huge debts because of the medication she needed. Because of ISIS I have not been able to earn money for years. Because of this opportunity I can not only support my family, but also work to pay off my debts.”
Basima Matti in here new barbershop in Baghdede. Opened with the help of Beth Nahrin Organization for Women and The Shai Fund.
Yezidi resident and shepherd Milhim with his new herd of sheep.