Iraq's women take the lead rebuilding after IS destruction

Iraq's women take the lead rebuilding after IS destruction
Who will rebuild Iraq? Its women. Female engineers are restoring homes, and restoring hope.
6 min read
26 July, 2017
Saints Banham and Sara Church, an Aramean-Syrian Catholic Church destroyed by IS [Alessio Mamo]
Noor was studying architectural engineering at the University of Mosul when, on her daily commute from her home in Qaraqosh, a man stopped all the buses on the road, flailing his arms and screaming in distress.

It was May 2, 2010, and the subsequent explosion tore through the man who warned the bus drivers to stop, as he saved the lives of so many students on board - future engineers, doctors, architects, teachers, nurses and account managers of Qaraqosh and of all Iraq.

One of Noor's friends died in the attack and many others she knew were injured.

"From that day on, I started to be afraid going to Mosul every day, but I was willing to finish my studies," Noor told The New Arab. "I didn't have any choice but to go to Mosul." She graduated in 2012.

Seven years after that fateful day, on the anniversary of the attack, the people of Qaraqosh finally began reconstruction works in their city and announced the return of the displaced to their city with an official religious celebration.

The attacks have only increased. The criminal Islamic State group proclaimed a "caliphate" built on fear in Mosul in June 2014 and its occupation had spread to the Assyrian-Christian city of Qaraqosh by that August.

Half of Qaraqosh, pre-IS population 50,000, was destroyed.

Churches and monasteries were desecrated, while public buildings, shops and private houses were looted and razed to ashes. Its citizens were displaced throughout Iraq and, by now, much of the rest of the world.

This was once a family's living room. Thousands of homes in Qaraqosh and beyond have been destroyed [Alessio Mamo]

Noor Kasmatti, now 28 years old, has remained unemployed and displaced in Erbil, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, since IS overran her city.

But she refused to give up on her dream of becoming an engineer. No one could have told her in the past several years of pain and violence that the realisation of her dream would coincide with her return to her beloved city - or that her first job as an engineer would be to help rebuild and refurbish the city's homes, devastated by the fury of the extremist group.
[Click to enlarge]

"We are still living as displaced people, but every day a group of engineers coordinated by Ustaz Saba leaves Ainkawa, in Erbil, at 6am, to go to Qaraqosh."

The city was "liberated" by the US-backed Iraqi army in October 2016, at the beginning of the Mosul campaign. "We usually visit ten houses per day to do the work and collect the money needed and to speak with the different landlords," said Noor.

Lina al-Hissen is a 29-year-old engineer, also from Qaraqosh, working with Noor's team. As she walks through the devastated streets of her city, she reflects. "It was August 6, 2014, when [IS] arrived," she said.

"In my neighbourhood, my husband, my little son and I were the last to leave, as we did not have a car. Thanks to some family members, we reached the checkpoint outside the city at 11.30pm - but we had to wait until midday the following day to pass into Kurdistan. IS militants entered few hours later to perform the prayer in the Qaraqosh mosque."

Today, Lina, who also graduated in engineering at the University of Mosul in 2013, has a second child and can also finally work in her specialist field.

Engineers Lina al-Hissen (l) and Noor Kasmatti (c) lead architectural surveys to assess the scale of damage before rebuilding work can begin [Alessio Mamo]

The money for the city's reconstruction comes from charity organizations, including the French SOS Chrétiens d'Orient. Having a full-time job and a salary also encourages engineers, architects and workers to finish projects according to planned deadlines; their hard work repaid by the stability regained in the city.

The work they are doing today was preceded in November by a group of photographers - when, shortly after the liberation, coordinated by a priest, Abuna George, they documented the devastation of every single home in the city to precisely measure the damage that had been done here.

The photos helped secure donations and more structured financial support. More recently, a group of painters and decorators went to Qaraqosh to paint over IS writings and graffiti praising the militant leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and jihad in the name of Allah from the houses and street walls.

Photographers began the work, documenting the damage to help raise funds for Qaraqosh's rebuilding [Alessio Mamo]

The same organization supporting the painters, an Italian NGO named Un Ponte Per… ["A bridge to..."], is helping with the reconstruction of elementary schools for boys and girls.

"The help, support and compensation from the government is still yet to materialise and maybe will not arrive for four or five years," said Haythem, an engineer supervising the UPP works. "But we need to give hope to our people to return - and so the schools have to be ready for September to welcome returning students."

Engineers Noor and Lina were joined by Semah, Sahr and Rose, who all graduated in Mosul, to hear Abuna George speak. 

"First the houses, then the churches," said the priest. "We have four months and we are making our best efforts to come back. But the most necessary thing for our people in order to return... is ceiling fans!"

Click here for Alessio Mamo's full photoessay from Qaraqosh

This part of Iraq can easily reach 45°-50°C each day of the long summer.

Noor and Lina visit the half-destroyed houses to take measurements and survey different details: the electrical system, bathrooms, doors, windows, ceilings, the rooftop - everything necessary to judge the amount of work needed. Each house is given a number to identify it more easily, and all the landlord's information jotted down.

Some homes need a second visit to check over specific damage. Some of the landlords are themselves now refugees far away from Iraq. They all fear they will never be safe again in their region - and this presents the most significant challenge of all for a community thinking about the restoration of their hometown.

While victory has been declared in the battle to retake Mosul's Old City, IS will not be defeated merely because they have little territory under their direct control.

But Iraqi citizens are ready to work and rebuild their future in a bid to stabilise and to reconcile Iraq.

Noor, Lina and all the women of their community continue to play a major role investing their skills, expertise and qualifications to rebuild homes and to rebuild hope.


Marta Bellingreri is a freelance researcher and writer based in Italy. Follow her on Twitter: @MartaDafne

Alessio Mamo is a Sicilian photojournalist focused on social, political and economic issues. Follow him on Twitter: @AlessioMamo