Thirteen-year-old Noeh Bidoo is one of tens of thousands of Christians living in the Nineveh Plains (the 1,500-mile stretch of land in northern Iraq settled by a large population of Christians and historically, the birthplace of Christianity) forced to flee their homes when ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) invaded their villages in 2014.
He and his family got out in time before ISIS militants raided the village, giving residents who stayed the “choice” to convert or pay the jizya, the head tax levied against all “People of the Book.” If they refused, they would be killed, raped or enslaved, and their possessions taken.
For almost three years, Noeh’s family lived as displaced people in Erbil, about 50 miles east of their home village of Karamles. There, they stayed with other Karamles refugee families. In 2017 when ISIS was finally defeated, the families learned it was finally safe to return to their ancestral home.
After cobbling together a livelihood in Erbil, thinking about returning and starting a life from nothing proved difficult for many families. Entire systems and structures needed repair—a process that moved slowly as soldiers searched through the wreckage for hidden bombs.
But Noeh and his family made the decision to return. However, coming back after three years of insurgency wouldn’t be easy. ISIS and the war had left their mark.
Coming Home for the First Time in Three Years
Noeh and his family soon realized their family home was now unlivable. Burnt out by Islamic militants, the house was now only charred remnants of the building that had once been their home. Almost everything in it had been looted or destroyed. In Noeh’s village, nearly 100 homes were razed to the ground.
For the first time in three years since ISIS invaded, Noeh went back to his neighborhood and what was once his home. He walked through each room, trying to visualize what the space looked like before ISIS came and the bombs struck. Here, he shares with Open Doors’ on-the-ground ministry partners who were present the day of his return:
“That was our computer,” he says, pointing at the charred pieces of metal sitting in the corner.
He picks up one of his dad’s books; the spine was the only part untouched by the fire. In his bedroom, his bedframe is bowed inward by heat, rubble covering the floor. At one point, his face lights up. He sees prized mementos from his past life—12 marbles, scorched from the fire. But the tiny toys give the teenager hope for a better tomorrow and a new, colorful room covered with posters of the soccer club FC Barcelona and Jesus on the walls—like it once was.
“My dream is to live in Karamles one day,” he says. “I want to be a teacher here and teach children about life. I know there are others from our village who don’t want to return, but I do want to return. This is our land.”
Outside, Noeh climbs a set of stairs leading to the roof. From here, he can see the barren Nineveh Plains stretching out in all directions.
“I am not afraid to live here again,” Noeh says, “because the Holy Spirit makes me strong.”
Coming to America
In the fall of 2017, Noeh and his father, Hathem, traveled to America to share their story and needs with the U.N. and government officials, representing thousands of families who, like the Bidoos, had to evacuate and are now back in their villages working to rebuild their lives.
Noeh and other Iraqi delegates presented Open Doors’ Hope for the Middle East petition to the office of the UN Secretary-General. The petition, signed by 808,172 people from 143 countries, called upon government and U.N. officials to ensure Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria are guaranteed equal citizenship, dignified living conditions and a prominent role in rebuilding society.
On his trip, Noeh met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and other government leaders, each time gifting them with one of his prized, disfigured marbles.
“Help is on the way,” Pence told Noeh and tweeted his experience meeting the young teen:
“Met w/ 12-yr old Noeh from Iraq. ISIS destroyed his home & he fled leaving everything behind. When they returned, their town was burnt to the ground. The plight of Noeh & thousands of others like him is why @POTUS ordered us to directly aid the persecuted. Help is on the way!”
In October, Pence announced that the U.S. State Department will “favor faith-based groups” in future aid distribution.
Back in Karamles
Today, Noeh and his family are back in Karamles, staying with his aunt as they save money to rebuild their home. In May 2017, church leaders in northern Iraq launched an ambitious $262 million plan for the reconstruction of Christian-majority villages devastated by Islamic State forces.
The restoration process continues, with homes that sustained the least amount of damage first on the repair list, followed by those with moderate to severe damage. Noeh’s family home sustained severe damage.
His school has reopened, and he is back in classes with friends, getting back to the normal life of being a teenager. In December 2017, he and his family celebrated their first Christmas back in their hometown.
In many areas throughout the Nineveh Plains, neighborhoods are bustling once again, as more people move back to their homes and return to their businesses. Restaurants and shops are open. Busses are running.
Remarkably, the Body of Christ in the Middle East that has sustained Noeh and his family through so much is coming back to life.