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“We [Iraqi Christians] are like a scattered pearl necklace,” says Hanaa Ibrahim, 53, a mother who spends her free time knitting and gardening. Mrs. Ibrahim’s home is undergoing repairs with the help of the church, so she currently lives with her four sons and husband in the house of a relative who immigrated to Australia.

She attributes part of the problem to an ongoing “psychological warfare” to demoralize Christians, and explains that her children cannot find stable jobs.

Despite that, she hopes she can find a way to stay in Iraq.

“I don’t like to think about leaving,” she explains. “My whole life has been here.”

Strolling through the streets of Qaraqosh evokes the ambivalence of the current situation. Busy restaurants serve grilled meat, while freshly painted homes and active construction sites reflect a people struggling to return to normality. But, on the other hand, abandoned, burned and destroyed homes; unpaved roads; and piles of rubble and tangled wires on the sides of streets are a constant reminder that nothing is truly normal, that the wound is still fresh.

And there is a pervasive feeling among many in the city that those who left will never come back.

Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nathanael Nizar Semaan of Hadiab-Erbil says that roughly half of Qaraqosh’s 45,000 inhabitants have returned.

“The reconstruction and return of our people has been a testimony of heroism,” he says. “But the situation remains shaky.”

Even though damaged homes have been undergoing reconstruction with the support of the church and international organizations, many people remain too discouraged to return until better conditions prevail — such as some guarantee of services, job opportunities and, most importantly, safety. With very little representation in political and administrative institutions, many Christians here say they do not feel they have a place in the country. Yet some also express a deep-seated fear that the demographics could shift dramatically in traditionally Christian towns if departing families start selling their homes to non-Christians, or if the state decides to reconfigure land and administrative sectors.

While Christians in Qaraqosh and other towns of the Nineveh Valley say they prefer to live in tightly knit Christian communities for reasons of safety, the laggard pace of restoring economic ties with the surrounding Muslim community has been crippling the local economy. The church is supporting agricultural projects in the fertile lands around Qaraqosh — such as the growing of grapes, corn and roses — but these activities have yet to generate much income.

In the old market of Qaraqosh, Haitham Habib moves boxes of shoes from a truck into his shop with the help of his two brothers and nephew. The shoe shop was entirely burned during the ISIS occupation. With financial support from his family — and suppliers willing to provide him with merchandise without any cost until he sells it — he was able to reopen the shop. But business has been slow. Previously, many of his customers were Muslims who would come from nearby villages. Not anymore.

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