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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

Lost and found

In a long nightmare for Iraq’s Christians, one family’s dream has come true

Lost and found

Christina sits next to her sister at a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq. (Erik de Castro/Reuters/Newscom)

It’s a mother’s worst fear. Your young child disappears. You search high and low, but the child seems always to be just out of reach. It’s the sort of dream you don’t talk about because recounting it somehow might turn the unthinkable into reality.

This has been the waking nightmare of Aida Hana Noah for nearly three years. As ISIS invaded her town of Qaraqosh in August 2014, the 43-year-old mother sent her two sons and older daughter out to escape, but kept 3-year-old Christina with her as she stayed behind to assist her blind husband, Khader Abada. When ISIS hustled the three onto a bus, an ISIS “emir” suddenly snatched Christina from her mother’s lap. At gunpoint he forced a distraught Aida to remain while her toddler was carried away, crying.

Along with about 150,000 Iraqi Christians forced from Nineveh Plain that summer, Aida and her family found refuge in the northern city of Erbil. They have lived in a two-room trailer in Ashti, a camp for Iraq’s displaced run by church officers. There Aida and Khader spent sleepless nights sorting rumors about their daughter: They heard ISIS had put her in the care of a Christian woman also captured and taken to Mosul, then “married” the girl to a fighter, then gave her to a Muslim family.

The family retrieved a shocked and speechless Christina who appeared healthy but at first did not remember them.

Her brother found a photo of Christina on Facebook, posted just after her fifth birthday—proof of life but little more. Christina’s proximity to her family—maybe 30 miles away—was excruciating. “Without her, it’s like part of our heart is missing,” Aida told a friend, vowing she would never leave Iraq as long as her daughter was missing.

Then the also-unthinkable happened—a miracle.

When Iraqi special forces liberated a poor Mosul neighborhood, word reached Khader his daughter was there. The family soon reached the area, retrieving on June 9 a shocked and speechless Christina who appeared healthy but at first did not remember them.

Eight months into the Mosul offensive a small—but menacing—pocket on the western bank of the Tigris River remains in ISIS control. Hundreds of soldiers and residents have died in the fighting. Houses lie crushed. Christina’s neighborhood, situated near a strategic industrial area where ISIS kept its main explosives factories, is among the last to be liberated. What are the odds one small girl could be found alive in such a place?  

“Thanks to God, thanks to Jesus, we are so happy so many people prayed for us,” an overcome Aida told journalist Steven Nabil.

There are thousands of other girls and women perhaps in ISIS captivity, but freedom for Christina is a dose of good news for a people enduring endless bad news. It reminds us of the personal dimension to warfighting, that coalition airstrikes and ground offensives matter to families on the ground we have grown to care about. May family reunifications continue, and may the Iraqi government fight and work to make them possible. Christina’s swift return to her loved ones stands in contrast to the kidnapped from Chibok in Nigeria, young Christian women also traumatized by ISIS-linked militants but kept in government custody upon release. Now there is precedence for forces fighting ISIS to restore families.

This is a moment for highlighting the relentless work of the Christian community on behalf of Iraq’s displaced. Christian advocacy groups like Open Doors followed Christina’s case, reminding the rest of us to pray. Her family lives in a camp supported by church aid, mostly from Catholic groups like Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus. It receives no Iraqi, UN, EU, or U.S. government assistance.  

And there are the persecuted themselves, whose perseverance and joy in their suffering is a daily testimony to me. The narrow lanes of Ashti filled as Christina returned, with drums and horns, singing and dancing in the streets. Handed war and destruction, they choose peace and charity, taking mustard seeds of faith and with them moving mountains.