When German teenager Christina learned that a three-year-old girl with the same name from Qaraqosh, Iraq, had been abducted by Islamic State militants in August 2014, she started praying. A few months ago she heard the news of Christina’s release and decided to write a letter to the little girl, who has now started school.
The older Christina, who is now 15, says: “I was so very happy to hear [she] was home again with her family! When I told my parents, we simply sat down and thanked Jesus for this … wonderful answer to prayer!”
She then decided to contact her and her letter was recently delivered to ‘little’ Christina, who is studying at the Al-Beshara School run by Dominican nuns in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil.
Christina, then a toddler, was snatched from her mother’s arms on 22 August 2014 by IS militants during a ‘medical check-up’ in the north-eastern town of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq. After almost three years in captivity she was reunited with her parents in June this year.
Surprisingly, the three-year ordeal has not left any visible marks on Christina. She looks healthy and active, although shy in the company of strangers. Her parents and brother say she is very talkative but grows quiet when guests appear.
“She speaks Arabic well as she was with a Muslim family in Mosul but the last months she started to understand some of the Syriac language we speak at home,” her parents say.
Although she was in shock when she first returned home, within two weeks she was comfortable again being with her parents, four siblings and sister-in-law.
On her previous two birthdays, her family hadn’t known whether she was even alive, but in July they celebrated her sixth birthday together.
A hope misplaced
When hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities fled the northern region of Iraq, Christina’s family stayed behind because her father, Khader, is blind. Other Christians too old or frail to flee also stayed, hoping for a measure of mercy from the invaders – a hope which was misplaced.
In 2015 the Abada family fled to the Ashti refugee camp, near Erbil, where they lived in one of the 1,000 portable shelters.
A little while after her abduction, Christina was spotted in a mosque in Mosul, crying and calling for her mother. She was taken in by the family of the man who found her, and has spent the last few years in Mosul, which is approximately 40km from Qaraqosh.
When they had just been reunited, her mother Ayda said that she believed her daughter “must have been in the house of a family who took good care of her. She was even wearing gold earrings, so it must have been a wealthy family”.
Ayda said the hosts initially named Christina “Zainab” as they didn’t know where she came from or her real name. “Later, [the man] heard about her story and knew that her father used to work at the court. After some months, contact by phone was made between him and my oldest son… [Christina] started to cry when she heard her brother’s voice,” Ayda remembers.
After Christina was returned to her family the police raided the house in Mosul because there was suspicion the man was an IS member and had bought the child as a slave. “But he told them that she was only three years old – very young, and that he found her not bought her,” Ayda says.
Since her return the man has been in touch with her family to obtain a letter to avoid being charged with the toddler’s abduction, and although she appears to have been treated well and Christina remembers him, she has made clear she does not want to return to the family or speak with him.
The Abadas have moved from the refugee camp to a house in Ankawa, Erbil, in an area where another four internally displaced families live, but they are eager to return to Qaraqosh now it has been liberated from IS. Christina’s father, Khader, says his brothers have already returned “but my house there is damaged. I would love to reconstruct it but it’s totally damaged with other ones next to it”.
Ayda adds: “Four other families returned … in this week and today another one is returning to Qaraqosh.” Many Christians have gone back to the Nineveh Plains and they also want to go, in the hope that Christina will also remember the house and the happy times she had there.