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In 2003, Iraq was home to an estimated 1.5 million Christians. Today, 14 years since the United States invaded Iraq, only around 250,000 remain as a result of waves of kidnappings, targeted killings and the 2014 ISIS invasion. Some managed to immigrate to Western countries such as Australia, the United States and various nations in Europe. But a great many remain in limbo in Jordan and Lebanon, waiting to either leave or return.

There are no signs that Iraqis abroad would return any time soon to what everybody believes is the “big unknown.”

“Unless Christians are allowed to govern their region under international protection, they won’t feel safe,” says the Rev. Behnam Benoka, a Syriac Catholic priest who has worked with CNEWA and its partners to provide health care to displaced Iraqis in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Security for Christians in Iraq remains a thorny issue. Units of Christian militias staff checkpoints around Christian towns, but they lack proper training and arms, and ultimately defer to the authority of the Iraqi army, various Shiite militias or Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

The growing tension between Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi central government places Christians between a rock and a hard place. People fear a controversial referendum for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan might make the teetering situation explode.

Today, the Nineveh Plain region is divided into two zones — one under the control of the Kurds and the other, where Qaraqosh lies, under the control of the Iraqi government.

In the Kurdish-held area, about 20 miles north of Mosul lies Tel Eskof, one of the major Assyro-Chaldean towns gradually returning to life. According to its mayor, a third of the original 1,500 families of Tel Eskof are back, in addition to several hundred families who lost their homes in neighboring towns.

In the main shopping district, men gather around the back of a pickup truck filled with watermelons. They haggle with the seller, patting the fruit to pick the best ones. Nearby, signs on a freshly painted store proudly advertise alcoholic beverages. Across the street, a shop repairs bicycles for children eager to reclaim the streets as their playground. In the coffee shops, men smoke water pipes and play cards.

Further down the road, a long line of women and men of all ages queue outside a community center to receive aid packages from local authorities. Each family receives basic groceries such as rice, sugar and oil, as well as blankets and a fan.

Years of displacement from home, livelihood and savings have left many families impoverished. A poor economy has led to a heavy reliance on government jobs, where the monthly pay has significantly decreased in the past few years. These factors combined make it difficult to restart life.

For those who have been displaced multiple times, even the prospect of rebuilding can only elicit a half-hearted, guarded enthusiasm.

“A home is nothing without its people,” says Leila Aziz, a feisty 40-something chemistry teacher and mother of four.

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