Christian children and their families have started to return to their homes in Karamles, Iraq, after the village was liberated and self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) were defeated in nearby Mosul. Among the first to return was 12-year-old Noeh and his sister, Salina, seven.
Noeh's house was completely destroyed by IS militants so the family is staying in his aunt's house. "After the liberation in October we found out that Islamic State had burned our house. I was very sad when I saw it for the first time," says Noeh. The heat was so strong that the structure of the first floor is no longer safe.
Despite everything, the family is pleased to be back home after being forced to live in a refugee camp in Erbil for three years. "It is like living in heaven," said Almas, Noeh's mother. "It is so good to be back on our own soil, in the place where we were born, where our parents and grandparents lived. We're so happy to be back living in Karamles most days of the week. We haven't moved our things yet from the camp in Erbil, but we stay in our village about five out of seven days."
The lack of infrastructure and necessities means living in Karamles is difficult. "It is especially hard because of the lack of electricity. There was a generator for our part of the village, but the generator was stolen," said Almas. "The lack of electricity is the reason that we haven't moved our things yet."
It's currently about 40 degrees centigrade in Karamles. No electricity means that there is no air conditioning or even a fan. They can't keep their food fresh in the refrigerator. The water supply is also limited and poor quality.
Karamles had 797 houses when IS invaded. Of these 464 have been burned from the inside, 97 have been completely destroyed by the bombs and the rest are damaged or vandalised.
Currently, there are only ten families in Karamles, but Noeh's family expects many others to return in the coming weeks because the Iraqi government has ordered schools to reopen in the Nineveh Plain. Teachers are busy preparing for the new school year which should begin in early October.
Church services have also resumed each week with Father Thabet, a local church leader. Houses have started to be repaired - beginning with those that have the least amount of damage. Noeh's father, Hathem, has been hard at work rebuilding walls, making new gates and fixing water tanks. The family owns land where they grow wheat. "I couldn't sow this year because of the unexploded explosives in the fields," said Hathem. "I hope we will be able to harvest next year."
The situation in the nearby town of Qaraqosh is much better. "There they have better electricity, a lot of shops are open and many people have returned," said Almus. "We went there to buy the things we needed. Here in Karamles only one shop has opened its doors, a small shop where we can buy some basic things. But they do not sell vegetables or fruit." Karamles' Father Thabet is optimistic about the future. He said, "I see life is coming back to the village. A shop is open and each Sunday we have mass in the church. Many are planning to move back to Karamles, about 250 families have requested funds to rebuild their house. When school starts, I think more will return."
Open Doors has launched Hope for the Middle East, a seven year campaign uniting the global church to ensure every person in the Middle East, no matter what their faith, has a home, a future and a voice. As part of this, Open Doors is asking people to sign the Hope for the Middle East petition, which will be presented to the UN on 11 December 2017.
Iraq is number 7 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List. Iraq was once home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East; today, the church in Iraq is in danger of disappearing completely. The IS militants have forced thousands of Christians to flee their homes. Even in areas of Iraq that aren't controlled by IS, Sharia is the basis of the law and Muslims are forbidden from leaving Islam.
Noeh, 12 and Salina, 7 with their family in Karamles Iraq
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Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians in over 60 countries for over 60 years. Last year it raised approximately $70 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised over £11 million.
Every year Open Doors publishes the World Watch List - a ranking of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. This is produced using detailed information provided by Open Doors co-workers in more than 60 countries, as well as independent experts. Data is gathered on five spheres of life - private, family, community, national and church life - plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence impacting Christians. Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a point system. Open Doors' research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom. The 2017 World Watch List accounts for the 12 months ending 31 October 2016.