"It's time to come back." This is the slogan of the NGO "The Return." A blue and white logo represents the paths of the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, with the borders intentionally erased "to send a message of unity, without distinction between various communities, including Christians," explains Dilan. A Chaldean of Franco-Iraqi origin, Dilan is the founder of the project. "I was born here, in Ankawa [a Christian village in the suburbs of Erbil, Editor's note]. We left Iraq with my family when I was a year old. We always kept connections, traveling back regularly after 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. This gave me the desire to come back and settle here at an early age."
His "obsession" earned him numerous reproaches from his colleagues, but Dilan is a man of conviction. "It's not all rosy, but it's our home." With his law degree in hand and after two years of evening Arabic classes, he finalized his return. It was in 2019, at the start of his 30s, driven by an ambition that went beyond his own story, he began "to facilitate the return of Christians and other minorities to Iraq."
"Some people in the community view returning as a failure to integrate in the other country. We want to show that there's no shame in coming back, it's a choice." A "repatriation." The English word, already used by the Armenian community, well summarizes, according to Dilan, their "atypical situation: a return without ever having lived in the country."
Sitting in a traditional café in old Ankawa -- whose owner is also a "returnee," Nicholas nods in agreement. He is part of the "movement." "I was born in Australia, I don't have Iraqi nationality, and I only discovered the region at 18," explains this now forty-something, a doctor in Syriac studies. With a perfect knowledge of Aramaic, a beard almost as long as his hair, Nicholas nevertheless gives the impression of being a child of the country. "I never really felt Australian. I grew up in an Assyrian culture at home. Our families left because of wars, persecutions. We inherit transgenerational traumas and, unless we address our issues here, we will never get over them," he says.
Jennie, Jessy, Melinda, and many others are of the same opinion. The NGO has listed more than 50 returnees, mostly settled in the north of Iraq. A common will to live on the land of their ancestors but with varied profiles, they are divided into three categories: the permanents, the semi-permanents -- "those who make back-and-forth trips before a definitive settlement" --, and the future returnees.
"Coming back to find our loved ones and support the community"
There exists a fourth, more discreet category: families. A step less contending than individual, especially "more likely to be sustainable," says Dilan. Forced into exile in recent years, they attempt the return to a more peaceful Iraq. The cities and villages of the Nineveh Plains, once inhabited mainly by Chaldean, Syrian and Assyrian Christians, had emptied due to the occupation of the Islamic State that was gradually driven out beginning in 2016. Only 45% of the original Christian community has returned to the Nineveh Plains. There were 102,000 Christians living there in 2014. But their number has dwindled to 36,000 and is expected to plummet even further by 2024 due to political instability and lack of security, as well as family and economic reasons.
"We left the country in 2014 because we were persecuted by ISIS, and I was pregnant," says Vana, now a mother of two. "We spent six wonderful years in Canada, but we decided to come back to find our loved ones and support the community." A positive return, this family estimates. The children are enrolled in a Catholic school, and Vana runs a humanitarian aid NGO supported by the Chaldean Church.
Each "repatriation" has its specificity and challenges. Nicholas faces the difficulty of the Iraqi administration to obtain nationality. "For others, it's about finding a source of income, housing, or even learning the local languages, starting with Arabic. Aramaic is not enough to integrate," Dilan points out. Nonetheless it is "to show that this step is possible." A "returnee's guide" is in preparation, and the first testimonials on the NGO's Instagram page are encouraging: "Despite all the difficulties they will face, tell them that, here, they will find 'life'."