Hind Jijji recently returned to her hometown of Qaraqosh in northern Iraq after Islamic State, or IS fighters were forced from the town.
She and her family fled the area in 2014 just two hours before IS fighters captured Qaraqosh. They feared that IS would target them as religious minorities. So they fled to Iraqi Kurdistan without taking any of their belongings.
Before IS forces attacked Qaraqosh, Hind Jijji was a student at the College of Medicine in Mosul. She planned to become a doctor.
Jijji told VOA she was shocked at how much damage had been done to the town. The home in which she grew up was destroyed.
"I can't describe how I really feel. All of these pieces that have been thrown and destroyed carry beautiful memories," she said. "These are things that Mom and Dad worked very hard to build.
Jijji told VOA that when IS forces fled, they took everything they could and destroyed what was left. "In every room, there were shattered parts of furniture, broken plates, and torn clothes, making it hard to walk through the house," she said. "It was so messy because IS fighters were planning to burn the house but for some reason they didn't."
Jijji said the IS fighters burned hundreds of other homes that belonged to Christians. They also damaged a tall religious center, the church of St. Mary al-Tahira.
"IS graffitti has been smeared on its walls. The nave is scorched black by fire and the altar has been vandalized," Jijji said. St. Mary al-Tahira was once the largest church in Iraq. About 3,000 people went to religious services there every Sunday. The church is an important place for Iraqi Christians. Hundreds of people returned to the town to repair the building in late 2016.
But for many Christians in Iraqi towns, life will never be the way it once was. It will be difficult to re-establish the Christian community in Qaraqosh and the rest of Iraq because most Christians who fled refuse to return. They have decided to move overseas.
The fleeing of many Christians has raised questions about the future of Christianity in Iraq. Muslims and Christians have lived as neighbors in the area for centuries.
“I don’t want to live in this place again. I don’t want to ever live next to people who chose to stay under IS rule,” Hind Jijji told VOA.
She and her family are trying to leave the country and join other Iraqis in Europe. For Jijji, moving to the West is not only an attempt to find safety, but a chance to live a better life.
"Two of my friends who moved to France are now preparing to study medicine. And my high school friends, Maryana, has become a great photographer there," she said. Like Jijji, Maryana Habash also left Qaraqosh with her family when IS fighters attacked. The situation was so complicated that night that I didn't even know where some of my family members were," Habash told VOA. "I couldn't think about anything but how to find a safe place for my two little sisters."
She and her family were given political asylum in France in early 2016. She now lives in Reims, France and has begun school.
Like Jijji, Habash says Qaraqosh is part of her past now. "I might want to travel there at some point in the future, but I will never live there again. The values of human rights are nonexistent in Iraq," Habash said.
Habash says eight other families from Qaraqosh live in Reims and more are coming.
Mass Christian immigration from Iraq is harming the efforts of those who want to establish a self-governing area for Christians in northern Iraq.
Romeo Hakari leads the Bait-al-Nahrain Assyrian Christian political party. He says “continued mass migration of our people to the West is the greatest danger to our existence as a religious minority in Iraq.”
The Iraqi government does not know how many Christians live in the country. But it is estimated that more than 1.5 million Christians lived there before 2003.
The Iraqi Christian Relief Council is a non-profit group that supports Christian minorities in Iraq. It says the violence that followed the American-led invasion and the targeting of religious minorities by militants have forced about 80 percent of the Christian population to leave the country.
Hakari partly blames the West for mass Christian immigration from Iraq. He says western officials appealed to Iraqi Christians to live in Europe and other places. "European embassies in Iraq, especially the french and German embassies, have facilitated the migration of our people," Hakari said.
Western countries have agreed to accept Iraqi Christians and Yazidis because of the attacks by IS on these groups. This year, a State Department official told VOA that the U.S government and Canada were working to permanently resettle hundreds of Yazidis and Christians from Iraq.
Hakari told VOA that Iraqi Christian leaders meet often with the American and European officials in an effort to reduce support for such programs. But for many Christians like Hind Jijji, it is not possible to return.
“With time we have realized that it doesn’t matter where we live and what system is in place. What really matters is the people around us.”
I'm John Russell.
VOA Correspondent Deborah Block reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section, or visit our Facebook page.
church - n. a place where Christians meet for religious services or classes