Coming Home: Christian family returns to ISIS-ravaged village to rebuild

Young Noeh and his family were forced to flee their village in Northern Iraq over three years ago when ISIS invaded and occupied the region. When they finally returned this summer, his family’s home was burned to the ground along with most of his possessions.

“I only found these marbles,” Noeh , 12, said in an interview with Fox News through a translator while clutching a plastic bag with dozens of marbles, many of which were melted or fused together from the heat of the fire that ravaged his family’s home.

“I started collecting them from the ground, one by one. All my toys were destroyed. These were all I could find.” 

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Noeh and his father Haitam (far left) look over the damage in their home village of Karemles.  (Courtesy of Open Doors)

Like many other Christian and Yazidi families, Noeh and the rest of his family are now working to rebuild their lives, after returning in August.

They are happy to be safe, even if uncertain about the future.

'WE KNEW THEY WERE COMING FOR US'

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It was in the summer of 2014 that Noeh and his family – five siblings along with his two parents – were forced to flee their home in the Chaldean-Assyrian-Christian village of Karemles as ISIS militants started advancing towards this small town about 18 miles west of Mosul.

“It was normal summer night,” Noeh said. “I was sleeping and our parents woke us up. They told us we had to go because ISIS was coming.”

“We knew they were coming for us,” he said. 

“We don’t trust the current situation. We don’t know if we are safe from something like this happening again.”

- Haitam

It took Noeh and his family over 24 hours just to travel 40 miles to the town of Erbil, due to the mass exodus of villagers. On a normal day, the trip from their village to the city is only 60 minutes. But for Noeh's family, the journey proved to be perilous.

“It was very difficult,” Noeh’s father Haitam told Fox News, also through a translator. “I was scared for my family.”

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Haitam, Noeh, and the rest of their family returned to Karemles this summer after staying at a refugee camp for three years.  (Courtesy of Open Doors)

“I put them in the car and we left, but everyone else left at the same time. It was a bad situation. Sandstorms made [it] hard to see and breathe.”

Noeh also recalls that difficult journey.

“It was scary. Our own soldiers were shooting over our heads.”

The family, whose last name is being withheld due to safety concerns, eventually made it to Erbil. They originally stayed with a relative to gain their bearings, before moving to a makeshift camp in a building that was only half constructed. They stayed there for 28 days. Then they were moved to a more permanent refugee camp where they stayed for nearly three years in cramped conditions.

“It was difficult in the beginning,” Haitam said, “to go from a house to one small room.”

The father of six said that life at the camp became normal after a while, but that day-to-day life was still rough for his family.

“It was stressful, we never knew anything that was happening in our hometown.” 

'NEVER GIVE UP HOPE'

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 (Courtesy of Open Doors)

Young Noeh , who experienced hardships along with his family, stayed positive during their time at the refugee camps.

“We were only thinking about our hometown being liberated,” he says. “But we were happy at the camp because we were all there together. All of Karemles.”

He says that he and the other children of the camp were taught to stay vigilant.

“They told us to never give up hope. We learned a lot in the camp. In school, they taught us that when we go back home to not touch anything because of bombs that still might be there.”

It has been estimated that a dozen Christian families fled Iraq each day during the ISIS occupation of the northern half of the country. Christians who have managed to escape ISIS have fled to Europe and Lebanon. Others simply wandered the region avoiding U.N.-operated refugee camps for fear that Muslim refugees in the camps would target them. Previous relief efforts provided to the region have helped at least 13-14,000 families remain in the region, but another 6,000 have yet to return.

“I think it is worse than the situation with ISIS,” Father Behnam Benoka, the founder of Mart- Shmoni charitable clinic and the Humanitarian Nineveh Relief Organization near Erbil, told Fox News. “When we returned to the Nineveh Plain, we had faced again the same problems that we had even before ISIS.”

Father Benham says that the region is facing severe economic problems with a lack of work, especially for the young people of the region and that while the region has been clear of ISIS, more needs to be done to keep it secure.

“There is no clear vision for the security of the Nineveh Plain,” he says. “It’s a much-disputed region.” 

TIME TO REBUILD

When Noeh , Haitam and the rest of his family returned to their home in Karemles, they returned to a home that was ravaged by rocket fire and mortars. All that young Noeh found in his old room was a broken bed frame and most of his possessions reduced to dry ash. All that he was able to recover was that set of marbles.

“I remembered how I used to play with my friends,” Noeh said. When he found the set, he recalled, “I got upset I can’t play with them anymore and win their marbles.”

His family is now renting a home a block away as they attempt to rebuild their homes and their way of life.

“We are so happy to return, even though our home is damaged,” Noeh’s father Haitam said. “We are happy the area is now safe, but we just need something permanent.”

He also expressed concerns about how long his homeland will experience relative peace.

“We don’t trust the current situation,” he said. “We don’t know if we are safe from something like this happening again.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych