(l-r) Huda, Louy and Sharbel(Photo: Open Doors International)
Louy and his extended family had to flee from Bartella to Erbil, Iraq, in 2014, when so-called Islamic State (IS) took over much of the Nineveh Plain, where their town is located. Their return, although much anticipated, was not easy.
“The first time I saw the house I had to cry. We all had to cry,” Louy’s mother-in-law said.
Louy and his wife, Huda, had left Bartella with their son, Sharbel, and respective parents, leaving behind their home and most of their possessions.
At first, they stayed in a tent at a church compound in Erbil. Later, they rented somewhere to live, but it was not home.
“In the beginning we expected to stay for only two or three days, but the days became weeks and, we knew that it would be much longer,” says Louy. “But we always believed that one day we would return.”
When they did, their house was almost unrecognisable. IS had even painted their slogans on the walls. But, though the state of the house in Bartella might have made them cry, they were still able to see a silver lining.
“We were lucky,” says Louy. “Our house was looted, it was a big mess, doors were stolen, windows broken – but they didn’t burn the house down and it wasn’t bombed.”
Louy’s house is one of the 1,274 houses in the Nineveh Plain that Open Doors’ local partners have been able to fully restore. Three hundred of these are in Bartella.
His son Sharbel, 12, was very young when the family fled Bartella, but remembers its liberation with joy: “We were very happy. We love our village very much. We were so thankful for that day.”
Bartella is recovering from the trauma it experienced after being overrun by IS. Louy works at the heart of the mixed community of Christians and Muslims as a local primary school teacher. He recognises the privilege and responsibility of the position.
“When I teach these children, the most important thing for me to talk to them about is peace. Even if they study hard, if they don’t know the meaning of peace and love they will get no benefit from their education,” he says.
Thousands of Christians have been able to come home from the exile caused by IS. There are still security issues though, and Bartella needs to rebuild and be restored.
“It would be terrible to see the region without Christians. Iraq without Christians? That would be impossible. That means that you won’t feel love anymore,” Louy says.
Iraq is number 13 on the Open Doors World Watch List, a ranking of 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.
Islamic extremism is still a problem in Iraq. Although the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) have lost territory in Iraq, their ideology remains. Many of the militants have simply blended back into the general population.
Three years ago, Open Doors launched the global Hope for the Middle East campaign, to draw international attention to the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Since then, with the help of Open Doors’ local church partners, over 1,000 families who were forced to flee their homes by IS have been able to return to the Nineveh Plain and have begun to rebuild their lives and communities. Many houses, schools and churches destroyed by IS have already been renovated or rebuilt.