IRBIL, Iraq — Habiba Daud remembers Christmas in Qaraqosh as beautiful. The festivities would start days before with the preparation of traditional food and desserts. Families celebrated around a large Christmas tree.
On Christmas her family and friends gathered to enjoy the food and spend time together, chatting and playing with the children.
This year will be the second Christmas Daud will spend away from her home, against her wishes. In August 2014, Islamic State fighters seized Qaraqosh, a city less than 20 miles southeast of Mosul.
The Islamic State attacks in northern Iraq displaced more than 120,000 Christians, as well as minority Muslims and Yezidis. Today, many of those people live in Irbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In the first weeks the displaced lived in tents and temporary shelters in parks and churches. Today in Ainkawa, a Christian neighborhood of Irbil, there are eight camps where refugees live in plastic trailers locals call “caravans.” Many rent apartments or live with friends and family in others parts of Iraq.
Among the displaced was Sister Diana Momeka, a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. Previously Sister Momeka called Mosul home. When ISIS overran Mosul in June 2014, Sister Momeka and 73 other sisters from the Ninevah Plain fled to Qaraqosh, only to be displaced again in August.
“When you leave your home you leave your own dignity,” Sister Momeka said. “You leave your own tradition, you own customs, your own churches, your own community.”
Today the violence in northern Iraq continues without a clear solution in sight. Many ask themselves if it is possible to celebrate the holidays after losing all their belongings and being forced from their homes and ancestral land.
“It will be like any other day, although we will celebrate it for our child,” Nabela Salim said of Christmas, while holding her 2-year-old son, Marvin.
Salim also fled Islamic State, first from Mosul and later from Qaraqosh. She lives in Ashti 2, a camp for internally displaced Christians in Ainkawa.
The trailers seem designed for up to three people, but it is common to see families of five, seven or even more occupying them.
A 10-minute drive from the camp where Salim lives, about 220 families live on the grounds of a former sports-center-turned-refugee-camp. As a reminder of its former use, an empty pool remains in the middle. At the bottom of the pool discarded 25-liter plastic jugs litter the still water. Residents of the camp use shared bathrooms. The plumbing empties into an open area inside the camp.
Sister Momeka said she believes that while the conditions are difficult, it is possible to celebrate Christmas. While in other parts of the world people are busy with decorations and shopping, their displacement makes Iraqi Christians focus on something else.
“We don’t neglect the fact that no matter what, despite ISIS, despite all the hardships, Jesus is saying I am coming to save you,” Sister Momeka said. “For us, Christmas in the midst of our suffering is about the birth of Jesus in our hearts.”
The church has had a fundamental role in keeping hope among those displaced. After thousands of people arrived in Kurdistan, it was the church that mobilized people and resources to aid those in need. That was when Sister Momeka helped found a medical center for the displaced. It was the first of many projects that included two other medical centers and three schools.
Sister Momeka said the mission of these projects is to offer hope and show Iraqi Christians that although they are displaced, they have not been abandoned, especially during the holidays.
The week before Christmas, Majida Sabali of Qaraqosh sat in a trailer with her children Dima, Fadi and Nafa, next to an artificial three-foot Christmas tree. The tree was loaded with red, blue, gold and silver stars. It also had pieces of cotton over its branches reminiscent of snow. In preparation for Christmas she has made some sweets and bought new clothes for the children.
“I have a strong faith and also a strong faith that I will go back to my hometown, Qaraqosh,” Sabali said.