“I don’t care about the situation and what people think might happen,” says Linda Abid Younis, who lives in Telskof, a town north of Mosul in Iraq. “I bought everything you need for Christmas—new clothes for my children, sweets and things to eat!”

For years, Iraq has suffered from conflict and upheaval. More than five million people were forced from their homes after ISIS took over swathes of the country in 2014. Although half of them have now returned and victory has been declared over ISIS, many people still feel the future is uncertain. This is the first Christmas 44-year-old Linda and thousands of other Iraqi Christians will be celebrating at home since fleeing ISIS.

Linda Abid Younis lights a candle as her family prepares to celebrate their first Christmas at home since their town in northern Iraq was retaken from ISIS.
Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

“I have a young daughter who is 10 years old and who is very into Christmas,” says Linda. For the three years that the family were away, celebrating Christmas just wasn’t the same. Now they are back home Linda is determined to make it a perfect day. “Our tree was broken, but I cleaned it and fixed it, and bought all the decorations … I will hang lights all over for Christmas.”

It is great to be home for the holidays.

Most of all, Linda and her extended family and friends from the neighbourhood, together again for the first time since 2014, are thrilled to have a little of the peace and plenty that the season evokes. “On Christmas Day we bake a chicken, we have all our relatives come over, people pass by and send their good wishes for the year ahead, and there are lots of sweets.” On New Year’s Day, she will bake a three-layer cake covered in pistachio nuts, a traditional custard dessert of coconut and jelly, and an ice-cream cake. “It is great to be home for the holidays.”

Sweet treats are an important part of the holidays for Linda's family. On New Year’s Day, Linda will bake a three-layer cake covered in pistachio nuts.
Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

Life was not so wonderful

Before ISIS came, Linda, the mother of six children, ran a successful “couture shop” in Telskof. She rented dresses and accessories for weddings and special occasions, investing the family savings into the business and selling her gold jewellery to expand. Then the family was forced flee to Erbil, a city in northern Iraq. Linda’s oldest son found a job at the local airport; her daughters missed out on some schooling.

“I couldn’t work when I was displaced,” says Linda. “My business was based in Telskof.” She was determined to return home as soon as she could. “My husband was saying that we should wait a big longer because the situation was still a bit unstable, but I said ‘No, I have to go back right now!’ In April, there were already 250 families that had returned, so when I heard that I decided immediately it was time.”

Being home is the best feeling in the world.

Fortunately, the family’s home was intact. “The house was very disorganised—the power and water weren’t working,” Linda recalls. “The windows and doors were broken. I had to work and work cleaning the house for a whole month before it was ready for us really to live in. It was a really bad feeling when we left our house for three years to come back and see it so broken.”

Everything in her shop had been destroyed. “I put a lot of money into the business three days before I left Telskof,” Linda says. “When I came back, the business was ruined. All the dresses had been slashed with knives—I couldn’t fix them. I lost a lot of money. It was very hard, and sad.”

An early gift from the IRC

To support families like Linda’s to get back on their feet the International Rescue Committee is providing business training and grants. “When I first heard about the IRC, they told me that I might not be eligible for the business grant, but I said I just wanted to come to the training, I just wanted to learn from you,” says Linda. 

Through nine training sessions participants learn vital business skills from accounting to negotiation, helping them not only to find their niche within their community but also to make their business profitable. After the training participants have the chance to apply for a grant to invest in their business.

“I went to the training, and after the grant evaluation, the IRC called me, and I was so surprised,” Linda says. “I wasn’t expecting to receive the money—but I was the first one that they called.”

Linda and her 16-year-old daughter at the couture shop in Telskof where Linda rents dresses and accessories for weddings and special occasions.
Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC

Linda used the grant to buy new dresses and accessories. “The amount of money isn’t huge,” she adds, “but if you have nothing, when you receive this money it feels like you have everything.”

Slowly, life is returning to Telskof. People are cautious, but the new year is a time for weddings and parties. “In the middle of January, there are school holidays, and lots of people make celebrations,” says Linda.

“Being home is the best feeling in the world,” she says. “As a woman being home and working and having an income—this is life.”