Two years after ISIS, Iraqi Christians fight for their homeland

text and photographs by Raed Rafei

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The tangy smell of dried lime saturates the cramped living room. Issam Matti, 43, is brewing the fruit into an herbal tea known as noomi basra chai. To sweeten the popular Iraqi beverage, he adds a spoonful of homemade wildflower honey produced by bees he keeps in the mountains outside of the city of Dohuk.

Dohuk, in the Iraqi autonomous region of Kurdistan, with its nearby suburbs and villages, remains a refuge for thousands of Iraqi Christians displaced from their homes by ISIS five years ago.

“I lost everything, but gained my family,” says Mr. Matti of his displacement. On this typically hot August afternoon, he passes the tea to his guests, two clerics from the Church of the East. The memories are written on his exhausted face: a destroyed home, a ruined business, a past that can never be reclaimed. His face brightens momentarily; he hears the joyful voices of his two boys playing outside and the squeaking sounds of their bicycles filtering through the thin walls of his two-room caravan home.

Mr. Matti’s story is all too common among Iraqi Christians — a story of relentless instability and recurrent displacements in the past five years. For years, Mr. Matti, a graduate of a vocational college, had lived in Sinjar in a small Christian community on the border with Syria. He made a comfortable living distributing water to the town, running a print and copy center and producing honey. But when the regional violence became local, he hastily left with his then-pregnant wife, Aline, and their two boys, Aram and Oline.

“After our church was blown up, we were in a state of constant anguish,” he says. “We wanted to live among our people.”

For a while they moved between temporary homes with relatives in a village near Mosul, a major city home to centuries-old churches and monasteries. But soon after, ISIS invaded Mosul and the entire Nineveh Valley in August 2014, displacing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis. Fleeing north, the family was forced to stay in a tent in a makeshift refugee camp near Dohuk.

Finally, they were able to relocate to a caravan tucked behind a group of new apartment buildings on a hill overlooking the city. Containing eight apartments each, the four structures were built by the church to accommodate some of the many internally displaced people sheltering in Dohuk.

Today, Mr. Matti relies on a meager income from the small amount of honey he produces yearly and sells to relatives, a few odd jobs and support from the church.

Despite the routing of ISIS two years ago, and a relatively stable security situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, many displaced Christians are wary of returning to their homes. For some, their homes have been destroyed outright; for others, there exists no guarantee of employment or services; others still are held back by a lingering sense of mistrust toward their Muslim neighbors.

“The future is lost,” says the Rev. Afram Philipos, who helped provide medical services during the years of displacement in Dohuk. “We used to preach the importance for Christians to remain in their ancestral lands. But now we simply nod our heads in silence when people express their wish to leave Iraq.”

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